The road to owning a boutique was a long and winding one—literally—for Loriann Smoak, the founder of Condor in Nolita. The Carmel, California native came to New York on her own at just 14 years old to work in the fashion closet for Mirabella magazine, and returned for a series of summer gigs before enrolling in FIT and eventually graduating from The New School.
Afterwards, "I took a break from New York—went back to the West Coast and then took some time off to figure out what's next, and decided I wanted to open up a store." In terms of her design aesthetic, Smoak was strongly influenced by the role of nature in fashion, "but nature in a way that's just this much more chic presentation, versus the more granola look, you know what I mean? That sounds really cliché, but in terms of nature prints, done in a way that's very cosmopolitan."
From those ideas, and a 20-country traveling stint "to look for unique merchandise," came Condor. Read on to learn why she named her store after a mythical bird and why she decided to get a store bunny named Merlin.
What made you decide that opening a store would be the right path for you?
I felt like it would be a good learning experience. To be honest, I've worked for other designers and trade shows, and with the schlep of it all, it felt a little more glamorous to have my own shop. In retrospect, I'm not sure I would have made the same decision, because it is a lot of work, but I enjoy it.
Why did you choose the name Condor?
A condor is a bird, and it's found primarily in South America and West California, which is where I'm from. They are almost mythical in their nature—they're huge and kind of ancient, and it's a very rare bird. I feel connected to the way they're revered, especially in South America. The whole idea of nature and cosmopolitan, and ancient and modern, the dichotomy and all of its myriad forms throughout creation has always been how I've experienced the world, and it permeates into the store and what I do.
Did you specifically hunt for a location in this neighborhood?
I was really specific. In fact, in my business plan, I wrote that my store would be on Elizabeth Street, not knowing that my store would end up on Elizabeth Street. I felt that I would get people from the West Village here, and those from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side as well.
I've seen Elizabeth Street go through a lot of changes and vacancies, and at the time I was able to find a space, it needed a lot of work but it seemed like a size that was workable at the time. I love being on Elizabeth Street—I've got some really good neighbors right now.
What sort of work did you put into this space?
That was tricky. I knew I was going to have a fair amount of apparel, and that occupies a lot of space. I wanted a white box—that way, the merchandise could really stand out. So each season [the store] would look completely different because the merchandise would dictate how the space feels.
I wanted a table in the center, so people could touch things. We have a lot of different categories of merchandise here. Apparel and jewelry are our strongest categories, and shoes I love, but don't have a lot of space to store them.
And under the table is Merlin, the resident store bunny. Why did you decide to get a pet?
I always liked the idea of having a shop bunny. A bunny seemed appropriate because it's surprisingly relatively low maintenance—he doesn't bite people, he's quiet, and for the most part, people don't have allergies to bunnies like they do dogs and cats. I think it brings a lightness to the store and environment that we've created here—it just keeps things not so serious and relaxed, enjoyable and inviting.
When buying pieces for the store, what's the design ethos that you follow?
It's really important that the merchandise we offer is of good quality. When I was thinking about opening my own store, I looked into my own closet and thought about which pieces were of high quality to me and why. So quality is a major part, but also [looking for] timeless, season-less pieces—that guides my buy, always. Can this be worn year-round? How is this going to integrate into somebody's wardrobe? Can you dress it up and down? I want to always have a selection that really works for the client, so that they know they can always come back to find pieces that will exist in their wardrobe for a long time.
What are some of your favorite items in store right now?
Laveer is a new jacket brand. It's a New York-based company with great blazers—I like the ones with neon piping. Markoo is a new brand from Vancouver, and I really like what they're doing with their chic basics that are still special pieces, like this leather sweatshirt. And these Pendelton marina wool scarves I really like—they feel amazing,
I tend to buy accessories that are a bit more bold and eccentric versus in the apparel. I think people buy that way now, and it's easy to pick up a neon accessory, like these Eugenia Kim beanies and neck warmers. I really like this because when I have my hair up in a ponytail, I can still wear it.
Oh, I have to point out these Titania coats and capes that she's made this season. She's local, and it's all made in New York. The fabric is actually made from NYPD wool, from the original NYPD uniforms, and they're quite stunning.
A lot of your favorites are from New York-based designers—do you specifically look local?
Yes. It's important for me to support the garment industry in New York, and I think there is something to be said about the quality of the merchandise. It's nice to support local designers and have a selection that's a bit different than the more major retailers.
How do you go about finding these designers?
I do most of my buy here in New York, but also in Paris and a little bit in LA as well. But I don't go to major trade shows. Instead, I focus on showrooms and trade shows that are a little more cutting edge.
Who's your typical client?
We do have tourists, but I'd say the core is New York natives. I do aim to have something for all ages, and I've seen a range of women in their 20s, but also women into their 60s and beyond that have really responded to the store. I have clients that are much older that come from uptown because they happened to have discovered the store maybe while passing by on their way to dinner, and they continue to come back.
What about your price point—what are your customers willing to spend?
It's a contemporary price point. We have things for a couple of dollars, and our high price point is about $1,500, but the majority of the prices lie between $100 and $500 for everything.
Let's talk about the future of the store. What other products would you like to carry?
I'd love to have more space to expand into some more categories. I'd love to do more apothecary stuff, and at some point it would be nice to have some of our own product. If I had more space I would like to expand the accessories offering and then go into men's accessories and more gift items.
Men's accessories, but not men's apparel?
It's challenging to answer that question. If I remain in this space, which is very small, it'd be difficult to do men's and women's in a store with only one fitting room. But now we have our website, so that feels really great because with the web I can expand to all those categories.
When did you start e-commerce?
The e-commerce just started this fall. Primarily, the traffic is from the states, but we're also getting traffic from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. I've noticed the product we offer seems to resonate with a lot of international clients as well, so I'm hoping to expand our reach to new customers that may have never been to the store in New York.
If you did have a bigger space, would you consider moving elsewhere?
It's crossed my mind, but I don't know where. I like this neighborhood because I like the feeling of accessibility. I live in South Williamsburg, and I really like that area as well, so doing something in Williamsburg is not out of the question. I keep my eyes open for space, but there's nothing on the table at the moment. We'll see what happens and hopefully we'll be able to expand into larger space at some point.
How else do you plan to expand?
Expanding is always on my mind—expanding into men's, or doing our own product line, I'm always thinking about those things and keeping my eyes open. I'd love to do something in California as well—that's home for me, so we'll see. I have a lot of visions for the store in the future and how it can grow, but for the moment our focus is here in New York—maybe Brooklyn next.
Okay, time for the lightning round: 8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Cats or dogs—or bunnies?
Favorite vacation destination?
Maybe Tulum, Mexico, or just going home to California.
Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?
The Butcher's Daughter.
Favorite happy hour spot?
Marlow & Sons.
Rap or country?
Scandal or Homeland?