How Boutique Chain Bird Became a Brooklyn Success

Brooklyn's coolest shop hits a major milestone.
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Brooklyn's coolest shop hits a major milestone.
Jen Mankins owner of Bird

Bird ownerJen Mankins

When I moved to Carroll Gardens in 2006, I'm not embarrassed to admit that Bird, the shop on the corner of Butler and Smith Streets in neighboring Cobble Hill, was a big draw. I figured, if this place -- filled with Rachel Comey dresses, Isabel Marant blouses and clogs, lots of clogs -- existed, then the rest of the neighborhood had to be pretty good, too. I was right. 

Turns out, I'm not the only person to walk into a Bird -- of which there are now three -- and think, "Well, if this is here, then maybe I could live here." The store's longtime owner, Jen Mankins, is undoubtedly responsible for multiple Manhattanites migrating across the river.  Mankins, who bought the first Bird on Park Slope's Seventh Avenue in 2004 from its original owners, opened the Cobble Hill outpost in 2006 and Williamsburg in 2010. And 15 years after that Park Slope shop opened its doors, Mankins is celebrating with limited-edition pieces designed especially for Bird by some of its longtime designers, including Tsumori Chisato, Maria Cornejo, Rachel Comey and the semi-retired Jayne Mayle.

I visited Mankins at Bird's Williamsburg location this week to get a brief history of the store, but also to hear what she's learned over years about what shoppers want, and what she plans to give them next.

You bought Bird in 2004 from its original owners. How did that go down? 

Belle [Benson] and Marla [Walker] were these two cool Brooklyn ladies. They opened the store in the spring of ’99 -- April ’99 -- on Seventh Avenue [in Park Slope], and that was basically the same month that I moved to Brooklyn. It was one of the first stores that I went to. It was always just cute and easy and fun, and I loved it. Belle coincidentally was one of the high school best friends of my college best friend. One day, I was waiting in my car for alternate side parking and reading WWD in paper format, when they still had ads in the back. There was an ad that said something like, BROOKLYN INDIE BOUTIQUE FOR SALE. CALL THIS NUMBER.  I assumed it was Bird, so I got my cell phone out, called and said, "Hi this is Jen Mankins. I want to buy the store." 

I found out that Belle had fallen in love with this guy from England and wanted to move to London, and Marla had just had her second baby. They decided that they wanted to sell it. And I was like, ‘awesome.’

Were you already looking to open a store? 

Well, I had been a buyer [at Barneys New York and Steven Alan]. But at that point I was a partner at a design company called Charlotte Corday. It was mostly knitwear, some cut-and-sew ready-to-wear, selling to all my favorite stores. It was a fun brand. But it made me realize I wanted to be back on the retail/buying side of things. For a while in my naïveté, I thought I could do both. Tried that for a couple of seasons, and realized that a) I was not a super woman, I could not really do both properly, and b) It gave my partners a minute to step back and think, “Is this what we really want to do?”  And now one of them is a writer and one is a businessman in Dubai. 

Why buy another store, why not start from scratch? 

They had done a lot of work – it had been four and a half years. It was up and running. They had inventory, they had designers, they had a staff, they already had a great reputation and loyal customers in the neighborhood. So I really saw it as a springboard for all of the ideas I had. It was a great jumping-off point. I didn’t have to redo all, didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. It’s funny, I’ve been looking back and compiling a list of everyone who has ever worked at Bird, and today I was working on a list of every designer I’ve ever carried, because I have all of my orders from Spring 2004 and on. Even just looking at orders from 2004 to 2006, just the growth we were able to have in that short amount of time was due to the fact that I came in and really could just start implementing my vision and the changes that I wanted to see from the very beginning.

What did you want to accomplish early on? 

I loved working and living in Brooklyn. I had lived in Manhattan once during college for three months. Afterward, I was like, "Never again." In Brooklyn, you have sky, you have trees, and a little tiny bit more peace and quiet. It really was one of those things where I didn’t want to go to Manhattan to shop. I thought that my neighbors and my friends could support and be interested in and appreciate designer fashion on the caliber that was sort of, at that point, only happening in Manhattan. 

Was it hard to convince designers? Or did you have a good enough relationships? 

You know, yes and no. I already had a lot of good relationships so people were mostly like, "Yeah whatever you’re doing wherever, we’re psyched about it." [But] some people, even to this day, will say, "Oh, we sell to someone in New York already," and it will be uptown. There are 4 million people that live in Brooklyn! So there’s still a little bit of that, but I definitely don’t encounter that as much as I used to. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky; people were pretty open to the idea from the beginning. 

When you look at those old lists, how many of those designers are still in business? 

A lot of them! I was selling Diane von Furstenberg, Splendid tees, Citizens of Humanity. Businesses that are huge now. I bought [Phillip Lim-designed] Development before he started 3.1 Phillip Lim. To see that from the first collection to what it is today is pretty incredible."

In 2006, you opened up in Carroll Gardens. And then in Williamsburg in 2010. Every store is different. How have you figured that part of it out? 

I think having a real sense of -- and connection to -- the customers is always the most important thing. I have amazing employees that understand the customers. I’ve lived in Brooklyn a long time and try to put myself in the shoes of the people living in the different neighborhoods. What do they do for work? Do they have kids? How do they spend their social time? I feel like that’s the starting point, and then kind of going from there. I have the same vision for all the stores, so I’d say the majority of what we carry is going to be very similar, we just sort of tweak it based on the neighborhood. Park Slope is going to be a little more mature and a little more classic. It’s not conservative but it’s a little less trend-driven than Williamsburg, which is a younger customer who’s really fashion-forward and is able to experiment and express themselves through their fashion in crazy ways, which is really fun. I’d say Cobble Hill is somewhere in the middle. 

Let's talk about the anniversary collaborations. 

I’ve had been thinking, "Who are the most important people that have been really meaningful to my business over the years?" And Jane and Maria and Rachel, Tsumori, they all just sort of popped up . I just called them all and asked, "Would you want to do something?" And they all said yes and it was a really fun process of looking at styles and looking at fabrics. Rachel Comey pulled out this book with swatches of every fabric she’s ever used – three hours later I was still sitting there looking at swatches. Everyone else had gone back to work.

After the celebration, what's next for Bird? I know there's been some talk in the press about a Manhattan boutique....

People jumped on that really quick! I have a bazillion ideas, and I just take them as they come. We’re making some sundresses for the summer with a previous employee of mine who is now a designer. 

And they’re going to be Bird-branded? 

Yes, so it’s this fabric I literally bought 10 years ago in India that's been sitting in my basement for a decade. Everyone is shipping fur coats in June whenI just want a cotton dress. I thought, "Why don’t we just make some? I’ll go see if I still have that fabric." That’s in the works for the summer. Maybe more stores, maybe more clothes, maybe a book – guide books, travel books. Mostly, that one's just a good excuse to travel around, talk to people and take pictures. 

Click through the gallery to glimpse the Birdaversary collaborations, and then head over to Shopbird.com to shop the whole collection.