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Independent Retailers and Designers on Carving Their Own Path

With all the emphasis the fashion industry places on market research and social media, there are still a number of small retail stores that maintain a very simple formula for success: just sell those things you love.

A panel discussion titled, “The Independent Mindset” at the New York Capsule Show in February, presented three such store owners who built strong followings on their own terms: Lauren Sherman, editor-at-large at Fashionista, moderated the talk with Steven Alan, the designer and owner of his eponymous label and stores; Jill Wenger, the owner of Seattle-based Totokaelo; and Jennifer Mankins, the owner of Bird in Brooklyn.

The speakers emphasized that owning an independent retail store means trusting in your tastes and instincts. Wenger explained that in Seattle, Nordstrom holds the market. She knew when she was opening that Nordstrom could provide many times the number of options at more competitive pricing, so she had to begin with the question of how to set her brand apart.

Yet, the upside of being an independent store, Mankins said, is the chance to take risks. After looking at hundreds of clothing lines, Mankins finds that the things that stand out to her are often pretty radical. These items may not necessarily have 80 percent sell-through, but since she holds so much of the control within her business, she doesn’t feel the same pressure to achieve those numbers. “I think that’s the best thing about being an independent business. You are more flexible, and you can take more risks.”

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As the owners cultivate a strong personal aesthetic in their stores, they find those consistent brands that deliver every season. These brands know their strengths, and each season they release reiterations of what worked well the season before. At Bird, Mankins explained that Black Crane had most recently become that brand for her store: thoughtful, well executed, beautiful, and appealing to a wide range of people. Wenger asserted that the successful brand can be nailed down to a formula, “narrow focus, strong competitive price point, and watching what works.”

When it comes to marketing, ecommerce has become a larger part of all the stores’ business. For Totokaelo, their online business accounts for more than 50 percent of their revenue. “It’s more than running another store, it’s an absolutely second business,” Wenger said. Yet, at the same time, there must be some continuity, as their online and physical presences need to tell the same story. She said, “It all comes back to this visual representation of what you stand for, your values, and what your brand means to somebody.”

This aspect of matching the online to the physical presence makes the online store the more difficult one for Mankins. She said, “In my store, I milled all of this old wood and everybody walks in, and they comment on how it smells, and there was this whole entire other sensory experience that I hadn’t planned for.” She continued, “How do you translate this vision, this idea, this experience two-dimensionally on a computer screen?”

Online business has also helped the storeowners strategize where to put new physical locations. Steven Alan said the opening of new locations has now become mostly internal because his team knows that those places where they ship the most online orders has a solid customer base. With the store’s word-of-mouth business, they don’t have to open on the main streets in high-rent areas, and he now has 25 stores open.

For Mankins, where she puts her stores is partially about the customer and the demand, but it also comes back to the personal, “Do I want to be there? There’s going to be time and energy and effort that I have to personally spend,” she said. “I think trusting yourself is a big thing that I have learned to do in all aspects of the business.”