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The Next Generation of Specialty Retail Takes Root in Brooklyn

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

A new class of creative-minded shop owners are reviving the art of physical retail.

Exterior facade of Outline Brooklyn, a multi-brand specialty retailer.
Exterior facade of Outline Brooklyn, a multi-brand retailer on Atlantic Avenue. Illustration by Tim Le @l_e.tim

Somewhere in the middle of the ecommerce gold rush, the venture capitalization of fashion and the pandemic that changed it all, the art of brick-and-mortar retailing lost its way. For years, specialty retailers like Barney’s, Dover Street Market, Totokaelo, Opening Ceremony and 10 Corso Como fed New York City creatives’ hunger for discovery, their walls filled with avant-garde clothing and the promise of the thrill of finding a beautiful, well-made garment.

The majority of these Manhattan fashion temples have fallen, with Dover Street Market counted among the few still standing. Save for If, Kith and CHCM, multi-brand boutiques have largely dispersed from SoHo to TriBeCa (180 the Store, La Garçonne) and the Meatpacking District (two : minds, t.a.). There will be newcomers – ESSX opened a month ago in the Lower East Side – in Manhattan, though a strip of thriving boutiques on Atlantic Avenue suggests that Brooklyn could be the cradle for New York’s next agora.

Outline opened at 365 Atlantic Avenue last year with a brand assortment that now includes Dries Van Noten, The Row, Maison Margiela, Jil Sander, Pleats Please Issey Miyake, Lemaire, Auralee, Our Legacy and Molly Goddard. Such a lineup would take even the best fashion buyers years of relationship-building, and Margaret Austin, one of Outline’s three co-founders, did just that.

Austin was a buyer for Urban Outfitters, Opening Ceremony and Totokaelo before opening Outline with friends Julia Edelman and Hannah Rieke. Austin and Edelman met as children at ballet camp, while Austin and Rieke met as twenty-somethings in New York City. Rieke is the former manager of Matt Jackson Studio, a fashion photography set design studio; Edelman is Brooklyn Grange’s former assistant farm manager.

Outline was always imagined by its co-founders as an indoor-outdoor concept. Before Rieke transformed it, the space was “a wreck,” she said. Now, it’s serene and bright, with comfortable seating, skylights and big, French doors that lead to an outdoor garden. There, Edelman grows herbs and florals for Outline’s subscription floral and events services.

Austin is Outline’s lead buyer, a role that requires “figuring out what I like and what makes sense for the neighborhood,” she said.

“Having grown up in Brooklyn Heights, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what that is,” Austin said. “Thankfully, my personal style aligns with that of other people who live here.”

Outline Brooklyn's floral station
Outline Brooklyn's floral station. Illustration by Tim Le @l_e.tim

The brand mix has attracted locals who used to frequent the Boerum Hill Barney’s; Bird, which closed is 2021; and Butter by Eva Dayton, the owner of luxury consignment boutique Consignment Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue. Dayton was an early pioneer of specialty retail that catered to Brooklyn creatives.

Opened in 1999, Butter sold Rick Owens, Maison Margiela and other “dark fashion” brands, Dayton said, that were avant-garde and not widely distributed in the U.S. at that time. Additionally, Atlantic Avenue had yet to become the bustling commercial center it is now.

“There was maybe a yoga studio, maybe a restaurant or two. It was all vintage furniture,” Dayton said.

Being a local business owner since the turn of the millennium means that Dayton has weathered many storms – 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and COVID-19 among them.

“I just kept pivoting and pivoting and thinking of new ideas,” she said. “I didn’t have any investors and I still don't. I’m doing it on my own.”

The key to longevity, she said, is for small business owners to be present in their stores.

“I've never not worked in my store, and I think that’s what makes small business in general,” Dayton said. “You have to be working in your stores to know what’s happening out there and see what the client really wants.”

Years after the race to win ecommerce, and a pandemic that forced widespread store closures, the pendulum is swinging back to physical retail. Some digitally native brands, whose online sales have reached a plateau due to ever-increasing customer acquisition costs, are finding brick-and-mortar to be a viable marketing strategy. Pure-play ecommerce has the advantage of collecting client data, but in-person retailing is optimal for clienteling, an asset that might be harder to quantify in data points but is crucial for small businesses’ survival. And few are more equipped to share product knowledge with clients than the shop owners themselves.

During a visit to Outline in early July, Austin, Rieke and Edelman all assisted customers in between answering questions for this interview. In its first year, Outline has built a base of regulars, some of whom used to frequent Bird, who “come in every week just to say hi,” Rieke said. The idea that you can shop high-end brands and speak directly to the shop’s co-founders is attractive to locals.

“It's one thing to shop at online retailers, but to see these brands in person is always exciting, and for it to be in Brooklyn is really exciting,” said Justin Dean, a fashion buyer and resident of Cobble Hill. “They're really passionate about the brands. It's a mom-and-pop feel with, truly, the best brands in the world.”

Outline Brooklyn was always imagined by its co-founders as an indoor-outdoor concept. Illustration by Tim Le @l_e.tim

Elsewhere on Atlantic Avenue is Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co., where performance brands like Gramicci, The North Face and Keen are merchandised with hard-to-come-by Japanese brands like Kapital and Snow Peak. Salter House sells dresses, kitchenware and linens. Jao Social Club sells linen workwear and H+ Hannoh Wessel, which also has a shop in Paris, makes luxury, everyday wear.

The intimacy and perspective of specialty retail creates a bond between shoppers and shop owners that is hard to mimic purely online. Wholesale partnerships with specialty retailers also benefits large fashion houses, who gain valuable insights about retailing to a particular neighborhood through boutique-style clienteling.

Jaron Ross, a fashion buyer who lives in Dumbo, said that specialty shop owners are often in it for “the art” of retailing.

“It feels more personal. There’s more discovery in a small, well-curated store,” Ross said. “You’re put in a different sort of frame.”

This fall, Outline will launch an ecommerce platform, a strategic move to attract a wider customer base. The platform is a work in progress; currently, the only items available for purchase on the website are floral subscriptions and gift cards.

New York City shoppers wanting to try on brands like Lemaire or Auralee in-person travel from Manhattan to Outline just to do so. “You can’t buy most of the brands we have anywhere in the city,” Rieke said.

Integral to the shop’s success, the buy is impressive.

“These brands are hard to find, these brands don’t open up accounts easily,” Dean said. “Any store that has that mix, I already know that these are people who are really smart, they love good product and they have great taste.”

The Brooklyn customer “wants to look chic on a daily basis,” Ross said. “People prefer to be more sophisticated and understated. The daily lifestyle and the psychographics of living in this city, and specifically Brooklyn, is driven more by the arts and sciences versus commercialism.”

At Outline, the buy takes all of this into account. Over the past year, Austin has been fine-tuning a brand matrix that appeals to a Brooklyn shopper with ample disposable income. She is still experimenting with what exactly that looks like, she said, and her own perspective on fashion informs the rest.

“I really believe that well-made clothing is expensive, so it should be something that you can wear every day,” Austin said. “Practical clothing is important. We have [clothing] that is well-made and will last you a lifetime, things that are really special, but still wearable every day and functional. I’m a no-frills dresser.”

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