When New York native Claire Distenfeld hit 25, like most young 20-somethings, she had something of a quarterlife crisis. "I had a few months of 'What am I going to do with my life?' moments" she told me. Unlike most 20-somethings, the answer for Distenfeld was an incredibly ambitious undertaking: to launch a luxury retail space in New York to rival Colette in Paris or Corso Como in Milan.
Last night, fashion's elite gathered to celebrate the opening of Distenfeld's boutique, FiveStory, which is not five stories, but two and a half floors of a gorgeous townhouse on East 68th St (number 18, if you're in the neighborhood). The boutique, which Claire opened with the help of her father, Fred, displays a meticulously curated and unexpected selection of women's and men's apparel, accessories, jewelry, shoes, kids and home wares displayed just-so in a space designed by Ryan Korbon. The floors are black and white marble and the staircases are lined with wrought iron balustrade. Read: This store is fancy. Thankfully, the upscale setting and location doesn't necessarily mean that what's for sale there is prohibitively pricey. There is contemporary clothing too, priced between $200 and $600.
We caught up with Claire to ask her how a 26 year old managed to pull this whole thing off.
Fashionista: So how did this all come about? Why did you decide to open FiveStory? I decided to do it, mostly because of a personal frustration that New York didn't have a retail experience anymore. It was getting very strategic, cold, where you see something on a blog, or you see something in a magazine, and you go somewhere, you buy it, and then you leave. There was no middle ground, and I just wanted that excitement and that splendor that New York should deliver. So that was the beginning, and then I turned into a monster, and was like "If I'm going to take on a responsibility to close a gap in New York retail, then you gotta go big or go home." Now I have this responsibility on my hands to really do something right, and here we are, almost done.
How did you find the space and why here? I grew up on the Upper East Side, 10 blocks away, and it's funny because when I made that decision to do the store, I closed my eyes, and was like "I know where it's gonna be, I know what it's gonna look like, I know what's going to be inside of it." I guess I was subconsciously building it in my head, because I was like "Oh! I'm going to have a townhouse in this ten block radius." And I remember my broker going "Look, honey, you're never going to find that."
So how did you find it? I mean, when I found it, it wasn't available. It was actually for sale as a residential building, and I said "All I need is two floors," and the owner said "I'm not offering that!" So basically, if you call someone enough, and you're persistent enough, some people will give in because they don't want to deal with you anymore. And we were persistent, and we really worked hard for this space, and it's definitely exceeding my expectations.
So how do you find what you like and to stock? It's an eclectic mix of designers--many of whom I don't recognize right away. I find that I'm very lucky, because I see something and either I like it or I don't like it--I'm very definitive. I also have an eye and an ear open at all times. During this cocktail party alone, I've probably written down seventeen names, after people have said "Oh, you should see this or this." I devote hours and hours of research a week to get either knee-deep in the internet, or just walking around looking or talking. I think that is the most fun...I could do it forever. My mother always says "There's never a shortage of nice things in the world," and it's true. There's so many good designers out there that need an outlet.
Who are you most excited about stocking? Vika Gazinskaya, obviously, she's amazing... Heimstone is a French brand that I love, there's another designer Roberta Furlanetto who did all the couture for Christian Lacroix, and no one knows that she's one of 20 people in the world that can manipulate fabric in a way that nobody else can [Ed. note, Furlanetto's stuff was seriously amazing].
You're young and this is such a huge thing to take on. Did you come up against people who doubted you because of your age? I've been working on this for two years, and I'd say for a year, to a year and a half of that was the most frustrating time, because you have a vision, and you know you're going to do it, but nobody believes you. Because you have no credibility, you're young, and they think "Oh, it's a nice story, but it's not going to happen." And until you have something substantial to show, you really just have to hustle. It really shows what you're made of and if you're really, really passionate about what you're doing. Because if you're not passionate about it, you're going to crumble within a few months. But you know, you push along, and if you believe in it enough, you can make other people believe in it. All you need is one big designer or person to believe in it, and then you're golden-- everything else just follows.
What was that one person or one thing that made 'everything else just follow' for you? It was finalizing the space, and designing it to a T with all the detail work. The details are insane in this space, and showing it to someone who doesn't really know how legitimate you are...even if they didn't want to sell to us, they were just astounded with what we wanted to do with the space. So, I think that was the moment. The moment was wowing people with your vision, and saying "Oh, this fantasy's going to be real. You can be apart of it, or you won't, but just so you know, it's going to be awesome."
Click through for more images of the store and the fashion folks who came out to celebrate its opening. Photos: BFA