Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
New York City is known for its independent boutiques just as much as its behemoth department stores, but over the past year or so, several of Manhattan's high-end smaller shops have set themselves apart from the rest of the pack—rivaling major retailers in terms of both the selection of merchandise and the quality of the customer experience.
Department stores have everything, but shoppers want more than that. What used to be the main attraction (an endless assortment of options) has now become the reason why some are looking elsewhere for personalized collections tailored to them. Claire Distenfeld, the founder of the buzzy, luxe Upper East Side boutique Fivestory, adds, "Department stores always compartmentalize, and it's a lack of conversation. Boutiques have the ability to create really fun juxtapositions."
Otte's store on Third Avenue. Photo by William Chan
That conversation naturally extends to social media, with Instagram specifically playing a huge role in the growth of a store's popularity. "Before, it was all about the editors, newspapers and magazines. Now it's all about the Tweeting and Instagram for people to know about us," says Kay Lee of Otte.
Smaller stores are also at an advantage when it comes to connecting to customers through social media—and more often than not, it's the boutique owner that's heading a store's Instagram account, rather than a designated employee on the PR end. Questions and inquiries are not ignored.
Fivestory. Photo by Brian Harkin
"From the get-go I was so naïve, and the only way I knew was to just be myself," Distenfeld explains. "Because I exposed myself so much, I felt really connected to all of my followers. They were reacting to me and not some media team. Even now, I would say I still respond to about 85% to 90% of the comments I get."
On the physical sales floor, smaller stores have the ability to edit their displays any which way they feel sensible. "It's all about the edit," says Owen owner Phillip Salem. "I see 500 black dresses and 300 skirts. I see so many pieces, but I really pay attention to what the client is asking for, and I make the edit for them."
Owen in Meatpacking. Photo by William Chan
Independent retailers have also long been able to take risks where department stores can't, by choosing to carry any brand they feel matches their shop's personality, something that's been particularly evident at Dagny & Barstow on Bowery. For store owners Meredith Blank and Emily Titelman, taking a gamble on a designer's first collection is totally worth it when they begin to see the brand grow into something incredible.
"We have had a number of lines that we were the first store in the U.S. to carry that are now at Barneys and Opening Ceremony. That's a nice compliment because it means that we must be doing something right," says Titelman, of labels like Reese Hudson and Sophie Hulme. As for Distenfeld, it's all about the gut feeling. "When things hit us the right way, we go for it. It's just gut."
American Two Shot. Photo by William Chan
At American Two Shot in Soho, nothing enters the shop that friends and co-owners Olivia Wolfe and Stephanie Krasnoff don't absolutely love. "We want everything we bring in to be our favorite thing in the store. Everything has to be that thing that you really, really want, so if we don't love it, it just doesn't make its way through our doors," says Wolfe.
If there's one thing smallers have that most department stores don't, it's intimacy. The owners of most of these boutiques are in their stores practically every single day—the American Two Shot duo made a decision to be there seven days a week for the first year the shop was open. The same goes for Dagny + Barstow—stop in some time and say hello. —Claudia Saide