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Kai Avent-deLeon reclines in a sunken leather chair, wearing a standard gray T-shirt knotted at the waist and a slitted white skirt from the Ukrainian brand Bevza. Her easy outfit (which, make no mistake, triggers an instant jolt of "why didn't I think of that?") is the perfect mix of high-meets-low, classic-meets-contemporary — Avent-deLeon's infectious ethos, summarized.
Bedford-Stuyvesant is the New York enclave you know from Biggie lyrics, a place Jay Z, Lil' Kim and Mike Tyson all boast about being raised. On sight, Sincerely Tommy could easily be slammed as gentrification of another outer borough neighborhood, but there's a pleasant twist here: Avent-deLeon is a lifelong resident of the area, and the shop — all poured concrete and slick glass facades — operates within a building her grandmother owns. "She came here from Grenada in the '80s and worked really hard," Avent-deLeon explains from her store's living room-like entry. "She bought a building in Bed-Stuy and kept doing it, until she was able to retire and live off of them," Avent-deLeon continues. "She plays a huge role in my entrepreneurial spirit."
"I definitely feel a responsibility to show people from [Bed-Stuy] the importance of investing," she says. "I was given that responsibility, investing in this neighborhood, by my mother and and my grandmother." Sincerely Tommy sells clothes and accessories, many of which are knock-out pieces ("I tried the basics thing to an extent, but that’s not what we’re about"), and also houses a coffee shop and a rotating selection of art. "It’s an experience when you come in here, even if you don’t buy anything," Avent-deLeon explains. "There are different areas of conversation, whether it’s the art, or the clothing, or why the coffee concept is here."
"I’m not naive — as the only retail store in an up-and-coming neighborhood, not everyone will spend $700 on a dress," she says. The café-as-hangout lets anyone with two bucks for a coffee participate in Sincerely Tommy's atmosphere. Despite the sleekness of the white neon store sign and the color-coordinated racks of clothing, the space feels warm thanks to an exposed brick wall, potted plants, and inviting staff. On a sleepy Friday afternoon, a chalkboard sign out front welcomes those between spin cycles at the laundromat next door: "WiFi + laundry day + lattes + comfy chairs."
Flipping through the rainbow-ordered clothing racks — either killing time with an iced coffee or with the intent to find a mindblowing party dress — further illuminates Avent-deLeon's retail savvy. Silhouettes demand careful pause, fabric combinations give true newness, and labels like Arthur Arbesser and Renli Su offer an element of discovery. "These are pieces you’ll add to an existing wardrobe and you’ll have forever," explains Avent-deLeon. "They're enhancement pieces." As for her personal style, "I feel like myself in a good pair of high-waisted, slightly flared jeans with a nice, comfy white tee tucked in," she says, adding a cool girl twist: "With a leather jacket and mules."
We sat down with the smiley store owner to get the full picture of her route from neighborhood kid to successful entrepreneur. Avent-deLeon tells us her trajectory, from middle-school drama classes to a career at Chanel and finally, her own shop.
When you were growing up, were you aware New York City a fashion capital?
No, but I think it was because I had other interests at the time. Fashion wasn’t something that ruled my world at a very young age; it was something I respected, and I always looked at it as an art form, but I was actually studying drama for about eight years. I started when I was 10, went to a performing arts high school, and took classes at the New York Film Academy.
Were there any roles that you played where you particularly loved that character’s style, loved being in that character’s uniform?
I did a lot of Shakespeare plays and "The Tempest" was really fun because we wore the garb from that era. It’s rare that you see that, the old silhouettes, everything really structured for the body, the fabrics.
The program that I was in actually allowed us to put on our own productions, and we got to pick out what we actually wanted each character to wear. That’s where my desire to style and pick out my own looks came from, too.
In high school I got my first job, which was at a boutique called Addy and Ferro in Fort Greene. It was the pioneer in that neighborhood — this was Fort Greene ten years ago and there was nothing else that cool there.
They carried Tracy Reese and Ella Moss — kind of high-end lines, but not ones you’d be that familiar with. I fell in love with the place, which was also really invovled in the community. They carried some local designers, and the designers would hang out there. It was this hub for artists and to be at that age and see people that were so involved in their craft and they were having conversations about it, I think that’s when it clicked, like "Oh, I want to own a clothing store."
I started taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the summers, they have a high school program. I was learning everything from the technical aspect, like how to design accessories, and pattern-making. I went to LIM College, which is a business-focused fashion school.
Was there anyone you grew up around that really impacted your style?
Definitely my mom and my grandmother, but also my father. He showed me a lot of old movies at a young age, a lot of Woody Allen movies. I remember these female characters embracing a more masculine style; loose, classic silhouettes. I really admired that, it showed a sign of strength.
Being in New York everyone kind of has their own thing. They take risks, and they’re very confident. I always wanted to stand out, to be a bit different.
What else influences your look, outside of fashion itself?
Traveling, for sure. I love noticing how each environment brings out something different in me and what I may put on.
I fell in love with nudes in Morocco. A lot of the architecture of their old buildings is painted and the colors start to fade; they all have this very settled look. I saw so many colors in a new way there.
When it comes to shopping for your own wardrobe, what do you splurge on and what do you save on?
I usually don’t spend a lot of money on bags. I’ll buy a good staple bag, an investment, and have it for years.
I’m just now getting into fine jewelry, so if it’s something really special I like to invest in it. I'll also spend on shoes. Growing up, I would just get any old shoe, like cheap flats from Zara, and my feet would get really messed up.
I think as you get older you don’t shop as much, and you look for more investment pieces that will last longer. It’s just about quality over quantity.
What's your most treasured clothing item?
A T-shirt my dad gave me when I was really young. It has an image of Earth with animals around it and it says, ‘we were here first.’ I don’t think I’ll ever give it up, even though it doesn't fit me anymore.
Between college and Sincerely Tommy, what happened?
I stayed at Andy and Farro for about three years and left as basically a men’s buyer. (I started as an intern in sales, and I was really their only employee because they were so small.) Once I left, I did consulting for another boutique with their buying for a few years, and then I went to Chanel and did operations. That perfected my operational awareness.
What was it like to jump from casual, pick-up-do-everything boutique to a corporate, high-fashion environment?
It was insane. Chanel is super-corporate, super-detailed, structured. It was good because it gave me this new experience of having to run a larger company and fall in line with what’s had already been put in place. I really enjoyed the experience and gained a lot from it, but it just wasn’t for me. There’s not a lot of self-expression there.
What was the Chanel dress code?
We had to wear a uniform, basically, and everything had to be Chanel. The discount is amazing, but you have to be in head-to-toe Chanel. At one point, kind of towards the end of my time there, they asked me to start straightening my hair, which I usually wear curly and big.
I really thought that as a manager who had hired people and trained people, that part would be easier. It’s definitely different being an owner versus a manager, as staffing goes. As an owner, you have a different sense of responsibility than you would as a manager. It's that idea that there’s always something that needs to be done and nobody should ever be still.
I’m always looking for hires who have that same mindset, like how can we help the store, how can we promote, how can we interact with customers. There are just so many components, that once I took on this role, I was just like, ‘Oh, now I know why I had that crazy boss. Now I know why they were so crazy.’
When you’re buying for your store, who/what’s going through your mind?
I usually think of myself and girls like myself, in the sense that these are artists in every sense of the word, whether they’re in fashion, or music, or painters. They are looking for something to stand out. So that’s what I like to buy.
There are some customers I think about, too, just because I admire their style. Lucy Chadwick, an art dealer who runs Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, picks out the best pieces always and I like to see how she wears them.
We get a couple of celebrities that come in, too. I like when they come without help from a stylist.
What about when it comes to price point, do you try to stagger or do you have a certain range?
I try to make sure there’s a good mix. We offer our own in-house selections that are under $200, but I don’t want to hold myself back from carrying really special pieces because of price point. There’s always that customer: we have girls that will come in and spend $1,500 on a jacket because it’s a one-of-a-kind piece.
What do you see as the growth trajectory for the store and yourself? What do the next five to ten years look like?
I want to grow e-commerce. Most of our customers from our website are international, so I would love to grow that, and hopefully have a second store abroad at some point.
How do your international customers find out about Sincerely Tommy?
I think it’s honestly Instagram. There are so many people who have found out about us just through Instagram.
So, what do you see for yourself?
I would love to do more community work. There’s a deficiency when it comes to young women of color, being a role model and being accessible to girls who may want to do something like this, or who may just want to be inspired and need some sort of guidance. That’s really important to me.
Also maybe consulting, helping other businesses or businesspeople who want to do something in this realm.
8 AM or 8 PM?
Coffee or tea, and how do you take it?
Tea, with a little bit of honey.
Liquor, wine, or beer?
Red or white?
TV show that you absolutely cannot miss every week?
Dream travel destination?
15,000 places but right now Cuba.
Best place you’ve traveled so far?
'60s, '70s, or '80s?
Song you’re stuck on right now?
D’Angelo, "Send it On."