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Matt Bernson's Tribeca Shop Still Booming After a Year in the Biz

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Welcome to Shoe Week: a five-day celebration of all things footwear, from the best new arrivals to our favorite places to shop for heels, flats, and everything in between.


Image via Matt Bernson/Facebook

Almost one year ago today, Matt Berson opened his very first standalone boutique in Tribeca at 20 Harrison Street. Prior to that, his practical-yet-stylish signature sandals and boots were only available at places like Bergdorf Goodman and indie Brooklyn boutiques—which of course, wasn't a bad start at all.

Now, after roughly 365 days in business, Matt and his team have accomplished one of the most important tasks all retailers face at some point in their careers: finding out who their customer is, and what they really want to buy. We took a page from our sister site Eater's One Year In column to find out how things have changed since the shop first debuted. Fortunately, we learned that his dog Abraham is stil a frequent fixture in the store.

How would you describe your first year in business?

Matt: It's been shockingly phenomenal. I went into it with somewhat tempered expectations, just because I thought it was such a huge undertaking and I've never done a retail store—we'd strictly been designing shoes for wholesale. So I came at it with little experience and I thought it was going to take some time to get the formula right. And my expectations were really blown away.

We're a destination store, and there's almost no foot traffic, so most of the people that come here have to really set a course. I thought it would take some time to get solid, consistent foot traffic and regular customers, but people definitely put it on their radar and we've been very pleasantly busy. That's been really exciting.

If you're a destination store in New York and you're doing really well, that's when you know you've made it.

Matt: It was very pleasantly reassuring, just to know that people are coming specifically to see us. They're coming from all over—from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn—and we do have a very strong neighborhood clientele. We have great roots here.

How have you seen your customer change in the past year?

Matt: When we were dealing with bigger retailers, we'd say, "Our girl is bohemian, "Our girl is" this or that, fill in the blank. But now we've finally been able to put faces and real people to it. We have real names for things. When we say "Jennifer loves these type of shoes," we know who that is specifically, with a last name, and they're friends of ours now more than just abstractions.

I think that's been a hugely informative part of the whole store. Putting real people to it, and knowing what they don't like, and what kind of things annoy them about retail, what things resonate, what things don't—what do they need to have a good experience when they're shopping?

And we've found out that it's a huge range of people. It's literally mothers and daughters shopping together, and they're both finding things. That's been a cool thing to find out: that we're not just young, and we're not just skewing older. It's transcended age, and it's more about life and personal style.

Have you found that your design process has changed, now that you know your customer better?

Matt: It's definitely influenced it. From the beginning I've always designed for other people, obviously. I design women's shoes, so I've never had to insert myself into the equation [laughs]. I always wanted to make our shoes appeal to a certain type of person. We have a clear wall of our collection in the store, and it stretches from the door to our sales counter, and we know that it's all going to be sitting side by side. So when we were designing, we were very clearly saying, alright—we have this covered, we know we want to repeat these colorways, and we all wanted it to sit very cohesively.

Previously we'd slice and dice it a lot more. A retailer would maybe buy eight styles, and it was very segmented and maybe a little choppy. But now it's become much more cohesive, and a little riskier as well as far as the new styles we're attempting. We don't have to bounce it off of any other retailer's sounding board. We don't have to wait for retailers to say they like something. We can test out ideas within our store, and not really be beholded to other entities.

We can say that we want to try a pump, but maybe retailers don't buy pumps from us currently but we'd like to try our version of one. We can experiment in that way, which has been freeing.

I was just about to say that probably feels extremely freeing.

Matt: Yea, and we know that we may not be able to sell thousands of that style per se, but we know that there's going to be people that are searching them out or have asked us for them. And it may only be in the hundreds, but it could be something that we still want to do, and it doesn't have to be because we're going to make tons of money off of it. We want to be able to have a range and try new things.

Has the neighborhood changed a ton, in your opinion?

Matt: [Laughs], I mean...it's been crazy. I was born on Jane Street in the West Village. I didn't really live in New York City as a kid, but my parents have lived here for 12+ years, and I've lived here for about seven or eight. It went from very quiet residential with a few restaurants that closed down at 11pm, to a huge range of all sorts of nightlife and amazing restaurants and retail.

I think it's still a very independent spirit though. There are some big names that have moved in here, but I still think that the majority of what's going on here is one person opening their singular restaurant, or singular boutique, and it's kind of kept that spirit that I think is going strong in the East Village but is definitely lost in Soho or uptown. This pocket of the city still feels like it has an independent voice, which is great to be a part of.

I mean, Steven Alan just opened a Home Store around the corner, and I still think of him as independent, even though he has tons of stores. But I think it's a good example of someone who was clearly well ahead of his time by opening a store down here. That kind of thinking has stayed very true to the neighborhood.

What are your plans for your second year?

There are a few things going on. We started introducing jewelry and other items into the mix. We started with a ring or a bracelet, and they all did really well. So we're making that a much more formalized part of the design initiative that we're doing. And we're adding a ton of different product ranges, like belts, and we're going much bigger into handbags and stuff like that. Again, the learning process of the store has definitely triggered a focus on that.

We're also looking at other locations in other cities to open. Probably not the same scale of the store that we have here; we have the luxury of having our offices within the store space. We're probably going to open similar-feeling locations. We already have a spot in LA that we're looking to sign on shortly—we saw there was a definitely a way that this could work where we don't have to go and open a store in Melrose necessarily, or somewhere very high-rent. We knew we'd be able to find a cool, architecturally interesting space a little off the beaten path, and that we'd be able to have success there.

So we're looking in Culver City, and then San Francisco and Chicago. But those will probably be in the next two to four years for the other locations, but LA within the next one to two.

Well let us know, because we have Racked sites in all those cities.

Matt: Wherever there's a Racked we're opening a store! [Laughs.] We know that we want to open in cities where there's enough of a shopping scene going on. It's always good to start in the cities where there are enough voracious fashion lovers.

Okay, last question—how is Abraham, your adorable dog, doing? Is he still in the store everyday?

Matt: The dog is still here, he's sitting right next to me because I have a salad on my desk. He comes everyday that I'm here. We had a baby recently, but the baby does not come to the store. The dog comes to work, the baby stays home.
· All Matt Bernson Coverage [Racked NY]
· All Shoe Week 2013 Coverage [Racked NY]

Matt Bernson

20 Harrison Street, New York, NY 10013

Matt Bernson

20 Harrison Street New York NY