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Dagny + Barstow's Owners on Bringing Fashion to the Bowery

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

Photos by William Chan

Below Houston, the Bowery is mostly anonymous restaurant supply stores, wholesale chair shops, and places where you can buy neon signs that blink the word, "pizza." A small storefront with a wood sandwichboard sign informs, "fashion and art on the Bowery" and a pair of mannequins—likely sporting four or more prints between them—affirms that, in fact, there's clothing inside.

Dagny + Barstow is the high-end boutique on the unlikely row, offering up hard to find international designers in the space of Lenny Kravitz's shuttered nightclub. Co-owners Emily Titelman and Meredith Blank—who recently hosted her Upper East Side high school's class reunion in the store—sat down with us to talk about the Meatpacking District pop up necessitated by construction woes, silk floral bombers outselling denim, and what it means to be the first face on this rapidly evolving retail row.

What made you want to own a store?

Emily: I had retail experience in college. Meredith and I went to college together, and when we studied abroad we discovered so many fun stores and lines in London and kind of had the dream ever since then.

Meredith: I definitely wanted to have a store since high school. The idea of having your own creative space is very enticing.

Why did you choose Bowery?

Emily: The Bowery's awesome. It's such a unique cultural destination for arts, fashion—so much has happened down here. Also, it wasn't oversaturated. We're the only store right now south of Houston. We looked at spaces in Nolita—Soho's too expensive—[but in] Nolita there's so many stores you never really know what's what on those streets. We felt we could stand out more here.

There's obviously now a spark of retail on the Bowery—both Intermix and Patagonia are opening stores soon. What do you see in the next five years as the best-case scenario for the Bowery and the worst-case scenario for the Bowery?

Meredith: It's so funny because it's in the news a lot right now, because Martin Scorsese just wrote a letter to the city plannings committee. There's this huge push right now to perserve everything on the Bowery, but there's also such a push to develop. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. There's so much history here and it would be a shame to lose a lot of that, but at the same time it is so exciting to see all of the new things coming in.

When we signed our lease, we had the Nike concept store next to us. It was so fringe, but still this major national brand. It's so funny to go from that closing to now having an Anthropologie opening on the other side of us. It's crazy! We didn't expect the changes to happen so fast.

Emily: The best case scenario for me would be to see more stores like ours and galleries go in and not so many major brands. We have a neighbor upstairs, Fred, he's lived here for like 40 years and he comes down and shows us his art. We see Terry Richardson walk by every day. The artists in the neighborhood make it interesting, so we wouldn't want them to have to leave [due to development]. It can seem hypocritical that we're in here as a new store, but we love what it is now and would hate to see it drastically change.

Meredith: Like Soho! If I owned a giant loft that I bought in Soho in 1985 or something, I would want to kill myself right now.

Tell me about opening the store. You had a pop up first. What was the timeline with that?

Emily: We had signed our lease and always planned on opening in this space. In trying to do minor construction we encountered some issues with the building because it's so old. We were sitting on merchandise, we had done all of our buying, planning to open here in September 2011 and then when we couldn't open we didn't want to just be sitting on so much fall merchandise, so we did the pop up for six months.

Meredith: We basically had two weeks to get into our space on Gansevoort, and opened an hour before Fashion's Night Out. We were literally learning how to use our point of sale system as people were walking in. And the air conditioner broke. It was a really wonderful night though.

What was it like doing the first buy, having no idea who would actually be your customer?

Meredith: Well, we did our first buy assuming that [the Bowery] would be our customer, so it was an interesting experience to then be transported over to Meatpacking.

Emily: We had an idea of what we liked and what we thought the customer here would like.

Meredith: And what we thought was missing on the marketplace.

Emily: We really just hit our stride this season, now that we've been open a year here. We know what works and what doesn't.

Meredith: We always give this example, but we have these $1,500 Swash silk reversible bomber jackets that are just incredibly special pieces, they're so one-of-a-kind, and we'll sell those better than denim sometimes, because people know to come to us for something special. But there's no way we would have ever known that going in.

When you picture your typical customer, who do you see?

Emily: The girls that shop here are neighborhood girls in their twenties and thirties.

Meredith: They're definitely people who love fashion. It's definitely somebody who takes that extra bit of thought.

Emily: When someone's walking down the street, we can tell if they're going to walk into the store based on what they're wearing.

What's your favorite item in the store right now?

Emily: Probably these Devastee pants that I'm wearing. We're the only store in the U.S. to carry this line; they're from Paris.

Meredith: Maybe this Sophie Hulme floral bra top.

Are you in the store every day?

Meredith: Yeah. We're closed on Mondays, but, yeah.

How do you see e-commerce fitting in with the modern brick-and-mortar store?

Meredith: It's particularly fantastic for us because we bring in lines that no one else in the U.S. has. Before we had e-commerce, we were just getting phone calls from people who would buy six pieces of Roseanna or something like that over the phone.

Emily: If people know our store for having really unique, special pieces and we can make that an online desitination, that would be great.

And what about the house line you have planned—what hole are you trying to fill?

Emily: I think we would start it by filling in the pieces we would want in our wardrobe that we didn't see at a buying appointment and grow it from there.

Meredith: I was designing before this, so that was always part of the plan. For us, the e-commerce is more immediate than the house line. And more of a burden. We got our e-commerce up just to get it up, and now we're working to improve it. It's a whole other business.

Emily: If we had thirty sales a day—and I can't even imagine how many sales Shopbop does in a day—that's three hours of packing, and boxing, and labeling in itself. From making it look pretty, getting the merchandise shot, writing product descriptions, weighing items—it's a lot.

Is there a "holy grail" item you haven't been able to stock that you'd love to have?

Meredith: Sometimes we go back and forth about whether we want to carry more mainstream lines, but we've had all this success so far without having to do that. We'll be on, like, Shopbop or be in Barneys and we'll see stuff we wish we could have in here, but we know it wouldn't be true to what our store is about.

Meredith: I'd say footwear, but we're bringing in shoes next season which is really exciting. So, maybe more lingerie.

Let's talk about pricing. What's your thought on the general price point of the store?

Emily: We like to have a big mix. Because there are people who have been here for 40 years and don't want to spend $800 on a dress, we like to have something for them, but people do come in and buy $1,500 bomber jacekts. This season, we brought in a few lower priced lines that are filling a big hole for us. Now we're both proud of the fact that we have a ton of really wearable dresses for under $300. Prices start at $75 to $80 for a T-shirt or a tank top. But we're not afraid to buy something really unique, beause you pay for something that's special and different.

Meredith: Like Swash has such a cult following it's crazy.

Emily: This Devestee stuff, too. It's on the higher end of what we carry but the prints are so crazy and special and we're the only shop in the U.S. to carry it, so there are people who pay for it.

What's your advice for anyone who wants to break into retail?

Emily: Know that it's a ton of work.

Meredith: This is purely financial advice: Do your entire budget, figure out how much money you'd need for the project, and on top of all of that, put six months of rent away. You want to make sure you have enough time [in your space].

Emily: One of the biggest compliments to us is people who say how friendly and warm it is in here. Make your store like that, beacuse it encourages people to come in and hang out. I know I certainly don't want to shop in stores that feel sterile and the people are cold.

Meredith: Make sure you're working in the store long enough to know who your customers are. It's been incredibly essential for us to see what people pick up, what they try on.

Okay, time for the lightening round! Whoever answers first gets it in print.

Uptown or downtown?

Emily: Downtown

Tumblr or Pinterest?

MB: Pinterest

'60s, '70s, or '80s?

Both: 70s!

Mustard or mayo?

Both: Mustard!
Meredith: Ohmygod, mustard.

Mad Men or Game of Thrones?

Meredith: Mad Men.

Jay-Z or Kanye?

Emily: Jay-Z.

Beach or mountains?

Both: Beach.

Go-to neighborhood lunch spot?

Meredith: Tacombi. I've been ordering there a lot since they got on Seamless.

Go to post-work watering hole?

Emily: Tom & Jerry's.