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Shop Like It's 1999: Four Iconic Boutiques That Just Turned 15

Kirna Zabete. All photos by <a href="http://peladopelado.com/">Driely S.</a>
Kirna Zabete. All photos by Driely S.

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What was going on in 1999 that made is such a good time to open a store in New York City? This year, Bird, Kirna Zabete, Otte, and A. Cheng are all celebrating their fifteenth anniversary. At a time when a lot of retailers are struggling to keep up with rising rents—from the indie stores to the bonafide institutions—these four retailers are thriving.

Both Bird and Otte have multiple locations, and Kirna Zabete and A. Cheng are still holding it down with a single outpost—proving that sometimes less is more, and sometimes it's best to cover all your neighborhood bases.

We caught up with all of the owners recently to reminisce about what it was like launching their own store in the late 90s, how the city's retail landscape and fashion scene has changed since then, and what it takes to stay in business at a time when the H&Ms, J.Crews, Zaras, and Duane Reades of the world are fighting for every street corner.


↑ Beth Buccini and Sarah Easley, Kirna Zabete

Why do you think you've been able to stay so successful for so long?

We have thrived all these years because we never lost sight of our original mission. We edit the runways to offer the best designers of today and tomorrow. For each piece we select for the store we ask, who is wearing this and where is she going? There is a diverse range! It is fun to use mini-muses and stay inspired.

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

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.

How do you think fashion in general has changed over the past 15 years?

If fashion were not constantly changing, there would be no need for stores like Kirna Zabete. Fashion is change. In the last 15 years, the pace has quickened and the options have increased. And of course, the social media phenomenon. Often before we have exited a runway show in Paris top clients have emailed us which looks they want.

If fashion were not constantly changing, there would be no need for stores like Kirna Zabete. Fashion is change.

Early memories: For our opening week, we were trying to make a great impression and striving to keep the store neat at all times. Beth was micromanaging the cleaning staff. "You missed a spot!" etc. And they quit and walked out! So we put on sweatpants and got out the mops and cleaned the store ourselves. Mops in hand, we heard a tapping on the door of the (not-yet-open) store. It was Donna Karan! Beth had to give her a store tour holding a mop and wearing sweats.


Jen Mankins pictured with Maria Cornejo (left), Jane Mayle, and Rachel Comey at the store's 15th anniversary party

↑ Jen Mankins of Bird

How have you adapted to the major retail changes that have hit New York over the last 15 years?

I think the best way to stay successful is to focus on your brand, your ideas, your business. I think it is important to consider and understand what other people are doing, but if that's how you spend the majority of your time then you will always be playing catch up. Most of my customers love the creative, independent, unique designers I carry and you just don't get that same experience shopping at fast-fashion department stores.

What would you say to someone who wants to open a store right now?

I would say be prepared to work all the time, hire at least one very smart and talented person every year, be confident in your vision and don't expect instant success. There are a lot of Cinderella stories in the media, but more often than not, that isn't the path to success.

↑ Alice Cheng of A.Cheng

Do you remember your opening day? The store was so small, I felt like I just had the door open to my room. When you start small, the fail isn't so big. Back in 1999, it wasn't as much of a financial investment. I didn't have a child yet, and I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment. It was pretty low-stress. You get hooked on the energy of watching people loving what they see. It sucks you in.

How have you seen retail change over the past 15 years?

The big name stores are also thinking small in an effort to seem less big box and more boutique, in the hopes of creating more of an illusion that they are offering something special and "handpicked."

It's changed in a positive way for consumers because now, there are more frequent crossover trends in all price points, so that makes it reachable regardless of where you can shop at. All the big stores are offering more selection in more categories; stores that were traditionally known for work clothes are now offering casual clothes, etc.

The big name stores are also thinking small in an effort to seem less big box and more boutique, in the hopes of creating more of an illusion that they are offering something special and "handpicked."

Why do you think you've been able to stay so successful for so long?

We constantly evaluate what our brand is and who shops with us, if we ourselves covet the things we pick, if the space feels fresh, and if the mix of merchandise still feel exciting.

Fond memories: When we first opened there was no Anthropologie. There was no H&M on every corner, no Madewell, no Topshop. It was nothing like it is now. People were hungry for a wearable label that wasn't Banana Republic or J. Crew. And we really hit that niche.


Kay Lee with models in her fall 2014 collection

↑ Kay Lee of Otte

How have you seen retail change over the past 15 years?

Retail has evolved a lot since I first started. I opened my first shop in Williamsburg in 1999, and it was just me doing buying, merchandising, taking care of my customers...We started retailing online in 2008, which helped us discover another facet of our customer base. I've also always tailored each store to its neighborhood so that it's easy for my customers to find what they're looking for.

Why do you think you've been able to stay so successful for so long?

I think it's really important to pay attention to what is working for you and what isn't. Working in my stores and getting to know my customers first hand has played a big part in Otte's success. I've been able to listen to my customers and learn what they're looking for when they shop with us and fill that need.

From this I started the Otte New York line, a collection of timeless silhouettes that fit into the foundations of a woman's wardrobe. My buying approach is also different than other stores. I don't buy based on trends or the same styles from a designer's collection that other stores might be buying. I look for pieces I know my customers will like.
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]

Bird

220 Smith Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 388-1655 Visit Website

Kirna Zabete

477 Broome Street, New York, NY 10012 212-941-9656 Visit Website