Dagny + Barstow, located at 264 Bowery, is one of those stores you pop into and, before you know it, you’ve spent an hour perusing their wares. Between the inspiring edit of offbeat local and international designers, the resident French Bulldog mix named Howie, and super friendly owners Meredith Blank and Emily Titelman, the serene boutique is an excellent place to spend an afternoon. And that’s exactly what Blank and Titelman were going for when they opened their doors in 2010.
While studying abroad in London, the college friends got the idea to one day start their own boutique. They were tired of seeing so many of the same labels on girls and in stores, and being in Europe opened their eyes to a world of quirky-cool designers. After graduating, the psychology majors headed to New York where Titelman worked in PR and Blank studied design, but it wasn’t long before they decided to take a gamble and make their fantasy of owning their own store a reality.
Lack of experience didn’t stop Titelman and Blank, who created Dagny + Barstow from the ground up, learning everything along the way. First up was securing their spot on the Bowery, which formerly housed Lenny Kravitz’s nightclub. Despite being moments away from boutique-heavy Nolita, it feels like an oasis on the industrial block. Location isn’t the only thing that separates them from the pack: From the start they’ve focused on scouting little-known, hard-to-find labels. The girls keep the racks stocked with on-the-rise New York designers, like Dusen Dusen and Timo Weiland, as well as offbeat international names, like Emma Mulholland and Swash London.
With newly launched e-commerce and a Dagny + Barstow collection in the pipeline, Titleman and Blank show no signs of slowing down. I spent a relaxing afternoon with the girls, and when they weren’t chatting to customers, they told me how hard work, friendship and a woman named Princess all helped them along the way.
How did two psychology majors come up with the idea to open a store together?
Emily Titleman: We were abroad in London, and we had more free time than we could imagine. We ended up wandering around and going to so many awesome boutiques, and even the department stores were so cool because they had so much variety. I think we both realized how much is out there that’s not in the US at all. When we got back to Philly girls would show up at parties wearing the exact same dress.
Meredith Blank: The shopping scene in Philly was just so small. Online shopping is so pervasive now, but it wasn’t then. Now it’s probably gotten better, but back then to be in this small bubble and then go to London and see how much is really out there was eye-opening.
E: More recently, a lot of places like Intermix and even Barneys, the offering is kind of the same group of designers that you see everywhere else and that you can also find online. There’s nothing really special out there.
What were you doing after graduating before opening the store?
E: I was working in PR and marketing–not with fashion brands so much but a bit.
M: I worked with two different designers, both of which went out of business. It was quite a traumatic thing watching these businesses collapse, and I didn’t want to go through that again. We initially said we would wait a lot longer to open the store, but we just felt like the time was right. We both just wanted career changes.
E: For years every time one of us was miserable, we’d call each other and be like when are we doing the store? When is it going to happen?
Were you nervous you weren’t experienced enough? How did you prepare?
M: We came to this realization that real world experience only gets you so far. Sometimes as an entrepreneur you just have to make those mistakes. We tried to be as prepared as possible and did so much research. We talked to so many people.
E: We took a small business course through NYU and took a program at FIT as well.
M: At FIT we met this wonderful woman named Princess [Jenkins], who has a really famous boutique up in Harlem and is in the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street. She was awesome. She helped us a lot. That class really made our dream feel like it was a reality.
E: It was the most basic things, not even related to clothing. It was like learning that we have to schedule garbage pickup.
M: Unless you’re talking to someone who owns a store, you never know some of the things that go into it.
E: After going through all that, we both still really wanted to move forward.
How did you decide on location?
E: We knew we wanted to be downtown. We had some areas in mind. We wanted to be in a location that wasn’t over saturated. We love Nolita, but we looked at a space on Mott St, and it just felt like there was too much going on.
M: We may only be a block away, but The Bowery really is like its own entity. We can really stand out here. There is no other women’s clothing retail store on our block. It just really felt right.
E: We knew anywhere downtown would be a challenge, especially with the way brand distribution works. We were really encouraged to find more new stuff that isn’t stocked in the area.
How did you start picking up labels in the beginning?
E: It was such a challenge because nobody knew who we were. We hadn’t even finished our logo, so we were handing out homemade business cards. We really had to convince people to sell to us.
M: Kaelen was one of the first, and Dusen Dusen. Things slowly fell into place. A lot of the international brands we carry were just starting off too, so they were really excited to have an American store, and we were excited to have them.
Was it hard to know what direction to take?
E: We applied to a business plan competition through the New York public library, and we thought if we won money that was great, but really it was a chance to just really focus and understand what we were doing. We needed that, and used it to get our lease and it was one of the first things we showed to anyone we were working with professionally.
M: It was probably so over-the-top compared to most. Being Penn Grads we are crazy overachievers. We had diagrams and charts.
What was the identity you wanted the store to have?
E: From the get-go we wanted it to be a really comfortable place and very welcoming to every person who comes in.
M: We are really proud of that. People come in and sit down and hang out. We know some of our customers so well now, and we are so happy that we were able to achieve that.
E: Customer service is a big part of it too. Even now when we get an online order within New York, we’ll happily just drop it off the same day and don’t charge for it.
So what was the store like when you first opened your doors?
M: We started off with a pop up store actually because there were tons of problems with this location. It’s a very old building, and we inherited a lot of problems!
E: We had done a complete buy for Fall 2011 and we had all the merchandise, but three weeks out we realized there was no way. On Fashion’s Night Out we opened our doors on Gansevoort Street in Meatpacking because we found a great deal on a space for six months, so we got time to fix up this space. We were literally learning how to use our POS system while people were coming in to booze on FNO, and our air conditioning broke. It was wild.
M: People in that neighborhood ended up really welcoming us, because it’s so commercial there so they welcomed a small boutique. And we got a lot of good press, which helped us when we finally opened here.
E: It was hard; we manned the pop up and managed construction over here.
Did you have much help?
M: The thing with Emily and I is that we do everything ourselves. That’s why we are so proud of ourselves. We have to be smart about what we are capable of and what we aren’t.
How has the store evolved since you opened?
E: We realized buying for this coming fall that we really hit stride with knowing our customer and who she is and what she wants to wear. We know what people come here for.
M: It’s also been cool to evolve with our designers, some of whom have become incredibly famous at this point. At the beginning we had to explain who everyone was, and now some of our lines are in Barneys. Labels like Sophie Hulme, Thierry Lasry, Roseanna…they’re all doing amazing.
M: Someone said to us, ‘who you are your first season is not who you are going to be as a store.’ We knew it would take a while to work out the kinks.
You recently launched e-commerce, how does that fit in?
M: It fits in with the concept of the store quite well because we have so many difficult to find designers.
E: Before we launched we would get phone calls from people all over the country looking for a specific designer that we only we carried in America, so we would end up sending it to these girls in California and all over. So now, it just makes sense to do it properly.
Some people call you a concept store, do you think you are?
M: We aren’t so avant-garde or anything really. We’re pretty straightforward.
E: I mean we sell some art and have events, so maybe that means we are. We recently hosted a charity event; we’ve had gallery openings, trunk shows, press events, launch parties. We’ve had a few nail art parties.
M: It’s really fun actually, and it brings lots of new people to the store. Because the space was a nightclub, we find that it really lends itself to events.
Tell me about plans to start your own line.
E: We wanted to get the store up and running and to launch e-commerce, and once that’s running really smoothly our own line is the next step.
M: It’ll be about filling in the stuff that’s missing when we’re buying for a season. That’s going to be so nice. At this point we know our customer so well and what she is looking for, and so many designers don’t have that practical knowledge. We know exactly who we are designing for.
Where else do you girls shop?
M: I hate shopping now! I only like online shopping.
E: I do a lot of vintage, and since we don’t carry shoes I’ll go shoe shopping. We wear everything from the store really.
Where did the name come from?
E: We didn’t want anything too girly, and we just wanted something neutral.
M: Emily, with her PR background, really wanted it to be its own entity and be one-of-a-kind.
E: There are literary references, but it doesn’t really mean anything.
How has it been working together and being close friends?
M: It’s been an evolution. Not many people can spend every day together for two years and make it through. It’s so nice to have two perspectives.
E: I don’t know how anyone does it alone.
M: Even just practical things. We have such different bodies, so in buying appointments we’re drawn to different things. We never would have thought how helpful that would be.
E: Also, we’ve had a lot of crazy personal things happen, and it’s just always so nice to have each other’s back. Things will always get done.