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Kirna Zabete's Founders: The Posh and Sporty Spice of NYC Retail

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Photos by Driely S.

The idea for Kirna Zabete—one of New York City's OG luxury multi-brand boutiques—began as most great ideas do: over lunches at Burger Heaven. Back in 1999 (yes, KZ turns 15 this year!) best friends Beth Buccini (then the fashion editor of New York Magazine) and Sarah Easley (a former luxury wholesale fashion pro who lent her eye to Dior, Lacroix, and Ines de la Fressange) came up with the concept of a store that would, as Beth puts it, "sell the most important designers of today and tomorrow."

And, not surprisingly, the shop was an immediate success. "Polly Mellen came our first day," Sarah said. Their popularity was partly due to the fact that the Kirna Zabete ladies are kind of like designer psychics—plucking pieces from obscure labels they know will be fashion week headliners in a matter of months. (KZ was one of the first boutiques to stock Rick Owens, Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquiere, and Thakoon.)

Last summer, after outgrowing their original storefront, Buccini and Easley moved to 477 Broome Street, an airy space, done up in Dr. Seuss stripes and giant plexiglass chandeliers. But no matter how much their business expands, people just can't seem to pronounce Kirna Zabete (a mashup up their college nicknames). "Is Racked the one who did the best video ever of us? How to pronounce Kirna Zabete?" Sarah said. "Everyone was so bold! They were like, "Oh yeah! Karina Za-bah-tay!"

Read on to find out what's at the top of the BFFs' spring wish lists, which one is Posh Spice and which one is Sporty Spice, their thoughts on normcore, and what they wore on opening day. (Hint: Glitter kittens were involved.)

You guys have been friends since college! Did Kirna Zabete develop over University of Virginia dorm room talks, or did that come later?

Sarah: No, we talked about boys.

Beth: And living in Paris together, which we did our junior year of college. We moved to New York together as soon as we graduated. We both were in a great position where we had bosses who gave us lots of responsibility. So Sarah and I learned a ton about the business of fashion and the fashion of fashion at a very early age. Then we started hatching a plan over Burger Heaven lunches in Midtown.

What was your style like in college?

Sarah: I don't think you'd be impressed, although we did tie for best dressed in our dorm.

Your dorm gave out a best dressed award?

Sarah: Yes they did! There was an awards ceremony at the rotunda, which is this big Jeffersonian thing. But the competition was not stiff, I want to say. In college, in Charlottesville at this time, you wore sports clothes. Pearls and Patagonia and sorority sweatshirts during the day.

Beth: Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Sarah: And then you got really dressed up for the social events, of which there were many. Horse races and tailgating and formals at fraternities.

Beth: Literally, we were going to football games in Laura Ashley dresses with boots, and flasks in the boots.

Sarah: The dates, not us!

Beth: The boys had the flasks in the boots.

Do you remember Kirna Zabete's opening day?

Sarah: I remember it like it was yesterday. Polly Mellen came our first day.

Beth: I don't remember that.

Sarah: That's because I was on the sales floor. She was at Allure at the time, and I was so flattered that she came. I remember what we did in sales, too. We thought it was tons, but we can do that in an hour now.

Beth: We had Italian tourists come in, and I remember speaking to them in Italian because they didn't speak any English. And right after that we had French tourists come in, and I remember speaking to them in French because they didn't speak English. And I remember thinking, "Wow! These things I studied in college really paid off!"

What did you wear on your first day?

Sarah: I wore a taupe cashmere Clements Ribeiro sweater with a glitter kitty and full, brown Martine Sitbon trousers, of course I remember that.

A glitter kitty sweater sounds very 2014.

Sarah: Yes, after a long time dormant! Now it's struck and I'm waiting for my child to wear it.

Beth: I wore a full denim Eley Kishimoto skirt and black flip-flops with pom poms.

How has the New York retail landscape changed in the past 15 years?

Sarah: When we opened in 1999, there were almost no luxury multi-brand stores. There were contemporary multi-brand stores, there were department stores, and there were single-brand luxury stores. That landscape has changed since then. There's more in that space, generally. And the luxury shopper, which is a limited, very privileged group, has a lot more options. They can shop online, and they can shop anywhere in the world.

What are you really excited about for spring?

Beth: Valentino. I thought the Valentino runway collection was absolutely exceptional—one of the best fashion shows I've ever seen. And it was so inspiring, and made me remember why I love fashion as much as I do. It was transformative. I'm super excited about that whole collection. It's in our windows right now.

Sarah: We have some really good moods that Beth and I are excited about. The Valentino is so feminine and ladylike and gorgeous, and then another mood—because we're multi-mood—is R13, which is a new label for us that we're doing really well with. And also Baja East, which we're doing really well with. Those are more runaround, cool-girl, errand clothes, while still being luxury. It's the finest Japanese denim, cashmere.

What is your favorite piece in the store right now?

Beth: The Valentino dresses are astonishingly beautiful. I'm obsessed with them.

Sarah: Oh the pressure of one item! I love the white distressed R13 leather jacket. I would just like to know whoever buys it. It doesn't even need to be me.

Beth: It's so Sloane in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Sarah: It's so clean and cool.

How has your store changed since you moved into this new space?

Sarah: Everything has changed, We have more designers, more employees, more sales, more press, more clients. Everything is just six floors up, as far as an elevated, expanded business. Image-wise, volume-wise, and work-wise.

What do you look for when you're hiring sales associate?

Sarah: Instinct.

Beth: Yes. You're either born with it or you're not. People can learn somewhat.

Sarah: We try to have six languages spoken at Kirna Zabete. We do French, English, Italian, German, Spanish, and Russian. And different clients respond to different vibe. Some people want mellow, some people want girly. We have every different kind of vibe, sometimes coexisting in one person.

How would you describe your personal styles?

Beth: The real joke is that she's Sporty Spice and I'm Posh Spice. To date ourselves. But, the thing that's funny is I think we both think we have very different personal styles, but at the end of the day we go for the exact same thing. Which is just years of friendship.

Sarah: And living a similar life. Our life is filled with contrasts, we have children and things at the school with them, and then we're at a Paris runway show. We also like to simplify and just wear one thing throughout the day. Neither of us are fussy. We look for solutions, but we dress by our mood. Beth is more accessory-heavy than I am.

Beth: Ironically. Said today with your Shourouk necklace.

Sarah: I've never seen Beth without earrings and an armful of bracelets. I do tend to be a little more minimal with accessories and she's a little bit girlier. A little bit more print, a little bit more color, and I'm more tomboy tailored.

Is there ever any push and pull when you're doing your buying?

Beth: Very early on we had dinner with another retailer. They're more conservative than us, and I asked them that same question, and they said, "Well, you know, are we going to get single-breasted or double-breasted in a jacket?" and Sarah and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because that's something we never discuss. However, we have a big buying office now. It's not just the two of us, there are six of us. And it's lots and lots of deep discussion all the time.

Sarah: And data to support it. As much as we're like, "We love the collection! Our mood! Our whimsy!" we have 15 years of data. We know what works, and what doesn't work. There's no "but I like it!" It's either going to work, we have someone for it, we've got the data to support it—or not.

Beth: We have a very important rule for everyone in the buying office, which is never say "I told you so."

Sarah: That's just a good rule for life, too.

What does work pretty consistently for you?

Sarah: It's more about designers. We know what designers do really well for us. We leave it to the talented designers to perform for us, and we buy more or less of it based on how we feel about it. We don't look at it and say, "Oh, our customers love white blouses." They love Proenza Schouler. If Proenza Schouler does a white blouse, it's probably going to be great.

How would you describe the mood in fashion right now?

Beth: The thing that's so interesting about this spring is that Sarah and I have loved color and print forever, and that's something we've always said. We're girls from the South who grew up with a lot of color and a lot of print and it's something we've always cared deeply about. Well, this is the season for us! There's more color and print than I've ever seen in my 20 years in fashion this season alone. There's also a sporty-casual vibe, which I think works particularly well for a spring-summer season, when people want the fun but they also want something casual.

Sarah: Activewear as loungewear, to streetwear.

Beth: Right.

Sarah: Another theme is there's just this endless supply of fun, fashion-y flats. We love to wear flats, but we still want to look cool and chic and interesting. Whether it's a Birkenstock from Giambattista Valli in leopard or a pink jelly Valentino, we have got some fun flats.

Is this the luxury version of normcore?

Beth: We debated whether or not we should go for the real Birkenstock, but we decided no. We'll take Céline and Giambattista Valli and Givenchy.

Is there a piece of business advice that's stuck with you?

Sarah: One thing that we've both agreed on is when you're starting a business, see how many hats you can wear. You should know how to do as many jobs at your company as possible. You'll be a better manager if you know what the salespeople do, or what the online person does. Then you hire the rest—maybe it's an accountant or a lawyer.

Beth: Very early on, when we were trying to find the space for the store and we were 26 years old, and we were struggling to get everything lined up before we went to Europe to buy, I was particularly stressed out and I called my dad, and he said, "Beth, everybody is faking it. Just act like you know what you're doing." I was like, "Oh, really? Great! That makes me feel so much better!"

Your Target collab was so fun! Do you have any more collaborations in the works?

We are working on a fun project that we can't talk about yet.

Ok, time for the lightning round!

8am or 8pm?

Sarah: 8am
Beth: It used to be 8pm but now it's 8am because I have four kids.

Beer or wine?

Sarah: Wine
Beth: Red wine

Whiskey or tequila?

Sarah: Tequila
Beth: Whiskey

Beach or mountains?

Sarah: Beach
Beth: Beach

Cats or dogs?

Sarah: Dogs
Beth: Dogs

Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?

Sarah: Little Prince. It's a French bistro with a nod to healthy.
Beth: I'm a diehard Balthazar girl. But I'm dying to hit Laduree.

Favorite happy hour spot?

Sarah: We're doing long division, we've got kids. Crosby is cute.
Beth: The Mercer or The Cupping Room.

Rap or country?

Both: Rap

Beyonce or Rihanna?

Both: Rihanna
· Kirna Zabete[Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]