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c.2012 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — This is probably the understatement of the year, but the time when the phrase "Brooklyn look" at best conjured Tony Manero's white pantsuit is long past. For one thing, the look is decidedly feminine. For another, it's more about day-to-day coping and nesting than peacocklike display.
''It's glamour but it's less perfect and polished than what you might find in Manhattan," said Mary Alice Stephenson, a stylist and fashion commentator who has lived in the borough of Brooklyn for some 20 years, describing one of the most identifiable styles that has developed among the brownstone bourgeoisie there.
''It's gold lame, but it's cut into a classic shirtdress," she added by example. "You're still wearing gold lame while you're taking your kid around on his scooter, but you can roll up the sleeves and the hem isn't too short. It's not precious. She really nailed that."
The "she" Stephenson was referring to is Jennifer Mankins, 36, the owner of Bird, a mini-chain of boutiques that has over the past five years or so set a kind of gold lame standard for local dressing: a style oasis in the land of organic kale chips, strollers and bicycle helmets.
In the past few years, Mankins has distinguished herself from her Manhattan counterparts by stocking approachable pieces from independent designers like Isabel Marant, Rag & Bone and Rachel Comey. Comey credited Mankins, now a close friend, with her own recent retail surge.
''I've gotten stores in Denver and London because they know I sell to Bird," Comey said. "Jen has a ton of energy. Because she's always active, she keeps things interesting."
Mankins was indeed bustling with energy on a brisk November afternoon during a visit to her South Williamsburg neighborhood flagship (she also has stores in the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Park Slope), which was designed by Ole Sondreson and also houses the company's corporate office. Barefaced, with sunlight reflecting off the lenses of her hot pink-framed eyeglasses, she could have passed for an art student at Brown University, her alma mater. A very well-dressed art student.
She was wearing a printed brown smock dress by Comey, whose brand she said is a best-seller at Bird; an Acne silk cargo shirt in a clashing light olive pattern; and a large necklace by Melissa Joy Manning, a Berkeley, Calif., jewelry designer whose line she carries. It was decorated with petrified wood and a "quartz-y stone," she said.
''I love oversize things and Japanese style and muumuus," Mankins said with a chuckle. "One of my friends was like, 'Thank God you're already married, Jennifer'" (to Niklas Arnegren, whom she met at Brown and who is now the director of cultural affairs and public programs at the consulate general of Sweden).
Referential rather than racy, this style of dress is in keeping with Mankins' theory that the current Brooklyn aesthetic, if it exists, has a certain intellectualism to it.
''If people are going to define 'sexy' it's going to be in a way that's a little more subversive," she said. "It's about being interesting as opposed to being really sexy, with the really high heels and really tight dresses."
Indeed, only two styles in the store's shoe collection had a truly high heel.
''I have a lot of moms who are customers, with kids — there's a lot of running around," Mankins said.
Mankins was perhaps an unlikely candidate to become the queen of Brooklyn retail. She grew up the youngest of four girls in Texarkana (named for Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana) in the northeast corner of Texas.
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''It's very small-town USA," she said.
She spent much of her time outdoors on her family's 10-acre property.
''Piney and very green," she said. "My mom wasn't particularly into fashion and neither were my sisters. It wasn't really a focal point."
Her mother was a math professor at Texarkana College and at Texas A&M in Texarkana and her father was an engineer before going into the car business. At Brown, Mankins studied epidemiology, planning to become a doctor. After graduating in 1997, she moved to Austin, Texas, where her older sisters were living, to study for the medical-school admissions exam. She took a job as a saleswoman at By George, a popular boutique there.
''It's still one of my favorite stores," Mankins said, calling its founders, Katy and Matthew Culmo, her "fashion heroes."
Her "aha" moment wasn't particularly profound.
''I woke up one day and literally called my parents," she said. "'You know what? Med school is not for me. Fashion is for me. This is what I'm going to do.'"
Mankins applied to be an assistant buyer at Barneys New York, where she worked for Julie Gilhart and Judy Collinson. She described the position as "hard-core," with "a steep learning curve."
''There's a lot of young people in the office and she was definitely one who stood out in terms of her passion for fashion," Gilhart, now an independent fashion consultant, said in a phone interview. "She was hungry for exposure, and she had a great style."
Gilhart, a native of Dallas, added: "It takes a lot of courage to come from Texas to New York and work in the fashion business. You're not coming from anything that has much to do with what you're doing in New York. It gives you a different sensibility toward things, in a way. It forces you to investigate."
Mankins, who calls herself "a shoot, aim, ready kind of girl," was certainly up for new adventures. After a year at Barneys, she jumped to Steven Alan as the head buyer. After another year, she left to partner with friends on a contemporary clothing line, Charlotte Corday. It closed a few years later.
''It was really, really hard to make it work financially," Mankins said, pointing out, "The greatest designers in the world can struggle, go bankrupt."
She had never been wild about Manhattan, having spent a summer there during college and "sort of hated it," said Mankins, who lives in Ditmas Park. "In Brooklyn there is sky and trees and you can get a little away from the manic pace."
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When she heard that the owners of a boutique called Bird in South Park Slope were looking to sell in 2003, she decided to go for it, Annie Oakley-style. She didn't give much thought to the financial commitment of owning the store.
''My dad raced cars on the side and my mom was a barrel racer, so I do think I have a bit of that spirit," Mankins said.
Whether Brooklyn was ready for a fashion-forward boutique "was never a question."
''It's like the people who years ago started building hotels here," she said. "Like 'duh, there are no hotels here' and there's a lot going on — tastemakers had been moving in. Now there's like 50 opening, and it's still underserved."
The Park Slope store opened in 2004 and was an immediate success. A couple years later she added a larger space on busy Smith Street in Cobble Hill, which Stephenson has frequented since it opened.
''Bird was one of the first to bring fashion that wasn't dumbed down to Brooklyn," Stephenson said. "It was fashion-forward and cool and relevant to what was happening in the industry. What it did was prove to the designers and other retailers that there was this customer in Brooklyn — there has been a lot of power women who have moved out here since — that had the spending power and a certain taste level."
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In 2009, Mankins opened the sprawling South Williamsburg store after dining across the street at the Italian restaurant Baci & Abbracci for a friend's birthday and chancing upon the "For Lease" sign. Adding to the empire, of course, is ShopBird.com, which was made over in September with sometimes unconventional models, including one sporting a short-sleeved floral top by Suno and fully tattooed arms.
''I have very lofty ambitions of how I want to execute my vision," Mankins said. "Real estate is a huge definer of the city. If people are going to pursue something creative or entrepreneurial, they're going to have to take that into account. Everything here, not just fashion, is high-stakes."
Of the increasing amount of competition in the borough, "you can get bogged down with what other people are carrying," she said.
''But it's just a waste of time because then you're operating from a place of fear."
Mankins' ace in the hole might be that, like many in the great pantheon of retail mother hens, she is not afraid to give her opinions.
''She's pretty direct," Comey said. "She knows what she likes, and that probably comes through for her customers, too."
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Gretchen Jones, a resident of the Fort Greene neighborhood and a designer who won Season 8 of "Project Runway," said Mankins gives feedback that can be seen as "true critiques."
''She has pushed me to focus on my prints and embrace what I'm good at, which is less about trends," Jones said. "And she has really helped me understand valuation in pieces. My price point is high and she points out the little details that make something worthy of investing in."
For Jones, who said she participated in the reality show because she "needed the money" and not to attract "a mainstream following," having Bird's stamp of approval was crucial.
When Mankins first picked up the designer's label for the spring 2012 season, Jones said, "I felt like I got to be part of the cool club."