Jen Mankins is the owner and curator of Bird, a small chain of New York boutiques that stocks fashion-forward, independent designers such as Isabel Marant, Rag & Bone and Rachel Comey. The reigning “queen of Brooklyn retail” made her foray into fashion as an assistant buyer at Barneys New York, and further proved her eye for style as the head buyer at Steven Alan. In 2003, Mankins purchased the original Bird store in South Park Slope and subsequently opened two more locations in Cobble Hill and South Williamsburg. Bird was named Best Women’s Boutique in New York City by New York Magazine and Top Visionary Boutique in the United States by Lucky Magazine.
When you bought the pre-existing Bird shop back in 2003, what type of clothing did it stock?
When I first bought Bird, the shop focused primarily on independent designers and domestic contemporary collections. Designers included Built by Wendy, Ella Moss, Velvet and Diane Von Furstenberg.
Did you continue with similar designers, or start all over again? What were some of the original brands you stocked?
I took my time to learn about my customers and get a sense of which collections were working and which would fit in with the new brands I wanted to start stocking. I slowly introduced more fashion-forward collections and started importing more European collections from Paris and Scandinavia. I also expanded the range of accessories including jewelry, bags and shoes. But I still carry some of the original designers like the jeweler Melissa Joy Manning, who has been working with Bird for over 12 years.
The Brooklyn community has changed tremendously over the past 10 years. How has it impacted your business?
Bird has been able to grow and evolve alongside the changing. It is precisely the growth and evolution of Brooklyn as a cultural hub, travel destination and strong community of creative local entrepreneurs that has allowed Bird to thrive. Bird is a driving part of that change, but also exists because of it.
How often are you on the floor interacting with customers? Do you prefer to remain behind the scenes?
I love being on the floor and love nothing more than helping customers find something beautiful and special. I am still thrilled when someone discovers a new brand or a new style that they love in Bird. But running the business and doing the buying takes up the majority of my time and keeps me behind the scenes on most days.
What is the most challenging part of running three separate locations?
Communication and inventory management. If in the past I felt like I could be in two places at the same time, I have learned that I definitely can’t be in three places at the same time! I am constantly on the go, running around between the shops and all my buying appointments, and it is a constant challenge to make sure I get enough face-time, or at least enough phone-time, with my team. I also place different orders for each store for each designer, so making sure the right mix of designers and merchandise is at the right store at the right time takes a lot of juggling.
Any plans to launch an in-house brand? Is there already one?
A few years ago, we had a small capsule collection called Green Bird, which was a collection of knit sweaters and accessories that I produced locally out of organic and sustainable yarns. I would love to expand on that idea, but lately I have been focusing on our exclusive designer collaborations.
Julie Gilhart mentioned in a recent New York Times article that you stood out as having a “passion for fashion,” when you worked together at Barneys. What do you think she was referring to?
I am very strong-minded and I have a sharp eye for what I love and what I think will be trendsetting. I have always been quick to spot a trend, or a new designer that I feel strongly about and not afraid to take a chance buying a new collection. Even when I was just starting out as a buyer, and learning the ropes so to speak, I always had a vision of what I wanted to be creating and shaping in the store.
Did you ever think there would be a Barneys in Brooklyn?
Of course! I knew it was just a matter of time before the big box stores caught on to the shifting demographics of NYC. For over a decade, Brooklyn has been booming, so of course they want to try and tap into that movement. I am more surprised that it has taken other retailers like Whole Foods and Apple to get with the program. I know J. Crew has been scouting Brooklyn for years and the whole buying team from Intermix was just in my store last week. In the end though, Brooklyn is still very much a small town, each neighborhood an insular community of people who often live and work and eat and shop within a few square blocks. It is not the hustle and bustle of Manhattan (precisely why I love it), so I’m not sure the retail equation makes sense for some of these bigger stores.
What do you think sets Bird apart from other influential New York stores such as Opening Ceremony, Fivestory or Kirna Zabete?
I love color and print and pattern. I love preppy and I love punk. I have a very wide range of styles and designers that I work with and manage to bring them all together for a big fashion mash-up. My customers know they are always going to find something crazy and cool and something easy and fun. Bird is a warm, friendly, inclusive environment that is both aspirational and accessible. I always try to bring a real-life sensibility to everything I buy which I think defines how my Brooklyn customers dress. We are always running to the subway, hopping on our bikes, going to the Brooklyn flea and the farmers market, chasing after our kids, so the clothes I buy have to work with the lives my customers live.
When you look back to 2003, what surprises you most about what you’ve accomplished? What are you most proud of?
The process is so slow and gradual that sometimes it is hard to tell what has even happened. But when I do stop and I look around I see three beautiful stores, filled with the most beautiful clothes from around the world and I see I am surrounded by my incredible, amazing super-star team that has helped me build an entire community of loyal customers and friends, and it all feels a bit like a dream. I am so lucky and grateful to have the best job in the world!