Jennifer Mankins

Owner, Bird

I was going to be a doctor: public health, women’s health, maybe epidemiology. After graduating with a degree in modern culture and media from Brown University (where pre-med is not a major), I moved to Austin, Texas, to study for the MCATs and play drums in a rock band with my sister. I had my heart set on attending University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, but in the meantime I was effectively a struggling musician. I needed a day job and decided to apply for a sales position at my favorite local boutique, By George.

I had always been interested in clothes and style as a form of communicating and expressing my identity. Growing up with three older sisters and lots of hand-me-downs was formative to my sense of personal style and my willingness to experiment. I was never too concerned about trends or prevailing ideas of what was and was not acceptable for a young girl to wear.

For many years, my favorite shoes were soccer cleats and I wore them everywhere, even on my first day of school. I remember once trying to copy the popular preppy look when I moved to a new school in a new town, and it was a total disaster. It just wasn’t me. Maybe because my personal style had always been a bit offbeat, it had never occurred to me before to work in fashion.

I had been shopping at By George for a few years, having discovered it while visiting my family on vacations from college. I loved the assortment of independent designers, the personal, friendly service and the clear point of view of owner Katy Culmo that always shone through in the selection. The store was located right on the main drag of UT’s campus and it was always busy with cute, young, fashionable shoppers.

I came to sales very naturally, finding it easy and fun to talk to customers and help them find styles that worked for them. I loved the energy and the pace of the shop. Each day was a new adventure, and unpacking every box of newly delivered merchandise felt like Christmas. I was hooked from day one. Katy was and remains hugely inspiring. Her friendly Texan charm and straight-shooting sensibility, her honesty, and her humor were completely refreshing in a business that is so often regarded as snobbish and elitist. It was a total eye-opener. It was the first time I experienced fashion as approachable and tangible. Luckily, I was very good at it straight off the bat-it just clicked.

I remember calling my parents and saying, "Yeah, you know that whole medical school thing? Well, that’s not going to happen..." I decided then and there that I wanted to pursue a career in fashion, or rather, make a life and livelihood out of retail. Of course at the time, I didn’t realize that would mean all the things it means to me now, nor that that decision was putting me on a course for the path that I have taken, but it was my eureka moment.

I still frequently talk to Katy and her husband Matt when I need a refreshing (i.e. real) perspective on this crazy business. The best part of owning and building an independent retail business in general, and in fashion in particular, is that I am able to continue experimenting, exploring, and discovering. My job is always evolving, and never, ever boring.

  • Page 26 of 30