How did Jen Mankins become the owner of Brooklyn's coolest indie boutique? By answering an ad in the back of Women's Wear Daily. Seriously. Since that fateful day in 2004, Jen has grown Bird to the height of fashion boutique exaltation, becoming the one-stop-shop for hip New Yorkers on the hunt for anything from an MM6 shirtdress, to Maiyet culottes, or even a wide selection of clogs. A combination of positivity, passion, and yoga keep Jen going, even when she's up to neck in work (which is basically all the time). Here's what she had to say to us about her career and goals for the future.
TIA: Hi Jen, what are you working on right now?
Oh my gosh, we are in a crazy development and expansion phase right now and I am working on about 10 big projects. We are busy designing and building a new office, designing and producing a range of Bird summer dresses to launch next month, planning upcoming art shows, redesigning and relaunching our E-commerce, even looking into opening more stores!
TIA: That sounds so exciting! What does a typical day on the job look like?
I wake up and, first things first, make coffee on an old Italian stove top percolator. I try to get in a bit of exercise and meditation before the craziness of the day gets going. I usually start the work day with a meeting with my team to talk about weekly sales and upcoming projects and events. I read and answer A LOT of email. I might have a digital marketing meeting with the web team, check out the new arrivals in the shop, work on budgets, go over reorders and transfers, or work on my schedule which is always packed and always in flux. I try to have lunch meetings with different people in fashion so we can catch up on whatever it is we are working on and might need help with. But sometimes I just have lunch at my desk. Many afternoons I head into the city to go to showrooms to look at the designer collections and have buying meetings. There are lots of buying meetings, especially during February and September. That's almost what I will do all day everyday during those busy market times. Sometimes newer designers and often jewelry designers will bring their collections to the store for me to review in person. Sometimes my friends or good clients will stop in and I will spend time with them helping them shop. That's my favorite part of my job.
TIA: How do you handle all of the craziness?
I try to get a reasonable and consistent amount of sleep, 6-8 hours a night, but that comes and goes with the busy seasons. I also always try to get a lot of exercise, almost everyday if I can, and have recently started a meditation practice which I love. I feel it is absolutely helping with my stress and anxiety and helping me stay calm and focused during the day.
TIA: Bird has grown so much since you came on board. What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome in the beginning to get you where the business is today?
The business has grown tremendously over the past 12 years. I have gone from one small shop with a few employees, to three stores, an E-commerce shop and 26 employees, and ten times the sales we had back in 2003. It's crazy, but it has been pretty organic. We didn't get to where we are today overnight. I think the biggest challenge for me has been figuring out how and what to delegate. I am, by nature, a major micro-manager and like to know about every single thing happening in the company. But the truth is, that I have an incredible team working with me, many who have been with me for many years, and they know the business inside and out and they can really just run the areas of the company that they oversee. That has been huge and really helped get us to a place where we can keep growing and moving forward.
TIA: What is your favourite part about the job?
I am obsessed with clothes, I just am. I love the product, love finding new designers and collections that are gorgeous and exciting. I also love being surrounded by incredible people, whether they are my customers or the designers or all the people that work with me here at Bird, who also love fashion and have their own take on it and their own crazy individual sense of style. So to be able to bring the product that I love to my stores and share it with the people that I love, is really the best thing in the world.
TIA: That is so crucial. Speaking of essentials, what three things should a fashion buyer never be without?
Curiosity, a camera and a calculator.
TIA: How do you see the industry evolving in the next, say, 10 years?
I think we will continue to see the growth of mobile technology as a major channel for people to shop and an increasingly important way to communicate with customers. But I think simultaneously we will see a return to smaller, more intimate shopping experiences. I think the explosion of fast fashion and the infinite supply that is the internet, will create a niche luxury market segment that will be all about personal, customer service and personal shopping. There's just too much of everything out there and people are going to want more help than ever in editing and curating their wardrobes.
TIA: Where do you see Bird at that time? Or yourself?
I would like to have a few more stores, maybe LA, maybe San Francisco, Manhattan, Paris. I see the E-commerce part of my business continuing to grow and reach people everywhere, but I would still like to have a few more places where those customers can have a personal in-store IRL shopping experience. I would also like to continue to develop exclusive products for Bird, whether through collaborations with artists and designers or making our own collections. We have done lots of designer collaborations and we are starting with our own dresses this summer, but think it could be as varied as writing and publishing travel books. I would love to spend more time on the west coast and in Europe, specifically in places near the ocean, but I can't ever really imagine not living in Brooklyn.
TIA: Turning the clock back now, have you had any mentors who have helped you out along the way?
I have been very lucky to know and work with a lot of incredible people over the years. Steven Alan, Mickey Drexler, Dorthea (Dot) Roberts from Echo. And recently I have helped form a group of creative, design-focused businesswomen in NYC that meet once a month, building a network and platform for us to work together to help all of us grow and succeed.
TIA: What has been your proudest achievement?
My proudest achievement so far is creating a business where I can employee so many talented people and all the work we do supports so many incredibly talented designers and serves the amazing communities where we work. But, specifically, I think the highlight so far was last spring when we had our 15th anniversary celebration. So many amazing people came out to celebrate with us and sent sweet notes and thoughtful cards saying what Bird has meant to them over the years. It was just a great time to stop and reflect on all that has been built and shared, and I will even start crying now if I think about all the love that I felt. Then last week, when I was waiting in line outside of Barclay's Arena to see Stevie Wonder, a woman driving by gave me a shout-out on the street, "I love Bird!" which was funny and amazing. It was a very proud moment.
TIA: That's hilarious! Good for you! Obviously your store has touched a lot of people, what skills do you think it takes to be successful as a buyer?
I think you have to love product, love design, love people, be curious, be good at math, be organized and be willing to take a chance on what you love, but be willing to admit when you are wrong.
TIA: All great points. What can an aspiring young buyer actively do to prepare for their career?
Work in retail! Seriously, I think absolutely everyone that works in fashion should start by working in a store, because in the end, all the work that any of us do, whether we are buyers or writers or designers, ends with a happy customer buying and taking home and wearing the clothes. So working directly with customers is invaluable.