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2017 is not a year for opening stores. In fact, it’s a year for closing them. Staying afloat is hard, and the solutions are far from one-size-fits-all. While chains like American Apparel and The Limited shutter, department stores are spreading out, opening smaller, tighter satellite locations and beefing up the frequency of new products as a way to combat the fatigue of their flagships.
And then there are stores like Bird. Founder Jen Mankins, who the New York Times credited with defining the Brooklyn aesthetic back in 2012, opened her first store more than 10 years ago. One grew to two and then three; this year, the total count hit five, thanks to a new location in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn and a brand new spot in LA’s Culver City — the very first outside of New York.
Bird was one of the first retail stores in New York City to merge up-and-coming indie designers with high-end brands in a way that felt natural and seamless. To say that Mankins finessed this aesthetic at just the right time is an understatement; she created the blueprint for what a Brooklyn boutique could look like. Bird offers luxury retail in a chill setting and an actually cool selection of clothes and accessories that spans a wide price range: You can buy $20 lip balm, or a bag that costs 30 times as much.
That there are options, and a lot of them, is a really key part of Bird’s success. There are so many independent boutiques where the list of designers is small and the range of prices even smaller. Unless you have an entire day to kill, hitting up every indie shop in Brooklyn to find one perfect dress or bag can be a daunting task, which is an advantage the department stores will always have over tiny mom-and-pops.
Before opening Bird, Mankins worked in the buying departments of Barneys and Steven Alan (coincidentally, the latter just announced that it’s switching up its business model to focus on the house label and filter out its own selection of third-party brands). Learning how to fill a store that had ample shopping space was something she learned on the job, but also something she prefers as a shopper. “I really loved both of those things so much, but I’m not a department store shopper. I definitely feel like I’m an independent retail shopper, but sometimes, you don’t want to go to all these cool little stores and still have to go to a department store after.”
Bird is that sweet spot. Though considerably smaller than any department store, its shops are by no means tiny boutiques, and the racks and shelves are full and robust. It's also a place where discovery and convenience meet; you can buy the pair of Maryam Nassir Zadeh shoes that everyone else has because you want them, too, or pants that are weirder than what you’d find at your local Nordstrom.
The decision to take that model to LA was a pretty easy one. Over the past few years, the city has finally found itself in the middle of a retail moment, with WWD writing in 2015, “No longer fashion’s stepchild, the City of Angels is now center stage for designers, retailers, and manufacturers,” and Business of Fashion calling it “a growing fashion force with impact beyond its Hollywood star power.”
When asked what prompted her to hop on board, Mankins explained that first, waves of people she knew from New York were heading to Los Angeles either full- or part-time: “There was a period of time where probably every week, someone I knew said they were moving to Los Angeles.”
Second, she was tempted with the perfect space. The LA outpost of Bird is a part of Platform, a new shopping and dining destination in Culver City that wouldn’t be out of place in New York. There's an Aesop and a Sweetgreen, a Poketo and a SoulCycle, a TenOverTen and a Blue Bottle Coffee. Though the Bird boutique is a stone’s throw from other likeminded brands, it’s not being swallowed whole — the store is technically the building next to the development, with a brick facade and giant palm tree right at the front door. “I went to see it and I thought: ‘Okay, it looks like Bird. It feels like Bird,’” Mankins says.
“It’s really central to everything in Los Angeles,” she adds, “but [the area] reminded me of when I’ve gone into other open-end neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were sort of on the verge of developing, and I could really be a part of determining what the nature of that neighborhood was going to be.”
Mankins says her focus is still on providing “a beautiful, welcoming, friendly space and having gorgeous products,” which extends to both new locations. She adds, ”All of my associates are super knowledgable and they’re obsessed with clothes, and they want to be able to tell the stories of how these things were made. It’s kind of old-fashioned, but I think that’s how I’m able to keep doing it and why people still really respond to shopping here and feel like it’s a personal experience.”
But in 2017, is that enough? Can educated sales associates and good products keep the lights on? It’s certainly not a solution for everyone, but as far as Bird’s concerned, it seems to be working out quite well.