The Real Deal New York

Brooklyn Industries hopes to spread outer borough chic

October 30, 2007
By Sarah DiLorenzo

While it may seem that everyone is moving to Brooklyn these days, a retailer just crossed the East River in the other direction.

Brooklyn Industries, purveyor of hip T-shirts and hipper satchels, opened its second Manhattan store last month at 161 Eighth Avenue in Chelsea.

To meet the continued demand for $78 mailbags and $84 sweatshirts, a third Manhattan outpost should open this month on the corner of Hudson and Christopher streets.

The expansion is a belated follow-up to the company’s first foray into Manhattan three years ago with a Soho store at 286 Lafayette Street, before the brand gained more widespread popularity.

While broker Simon Dallimore, principal of Dallimore & Co., which represents Brooklyn Industries, declined to say what the company paid for its long-term lease in Chelsea, he said the asking price was $150 per square foot.

Competing for the young

Brooklyn Industries’ niche, according to some brokers, includes youth-oriented competitors like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters.

Though both American Apparel and Brooklyn Industries specialize in T-shirts and place heavy focus on positive working environments, both Brooklyn Industries founder Lexy Funk and her broker resist the comparison.

“American Apparel is the Gap to me,” Dallimore said, implying that Brooklyn Industries’ products move beyond the basics. Urban Outfitters, another alternative clothing store, isn’t quite a match either, he said. The Urban Outfitters shopper is younger and may frequent Brooklyn Industries’ stores, but the reverse is not true, he insisted.

But David Rosenberg, executive vice president at Robert K. Futterman & Associates, saw room for comparison. Both clothiers, he said, were capitalizing on Brooklyn’s boom, catering to “the market that’s there now, the hip, the cool, the sophisticated.”

From the $7.2 million in revenue a year that Brooklyn Industries does these days, you would never guess that Funk, who founded and owns the company with her partner Vahap Avsar, got into the clothing business by accident.

The couple, both artists, were running a film production company in 1997 when Avsar made a messenger bag out of vinyl billboard material. Friends’ compliments told the duo they were on to something, and soon they were making bags out of anything they could find.

They lived and worked in a factory on North 15th Street and Wythe Avenue in North Williamsburg, selling their bags wholesale. In 2001, they changed course again and moved exclusively into retail with their first store on the corner of North Eighth Street and Bedford Avenue.

As with the first vinyl bag, Brooklyn Industries’ signature is reusing and recycling materials into clothing. On sale now on the company’s Web site are zip-up sweatshirts fashioned from T-shirt remnants and fabric scraps.

Designs on Manhattan

The new Eighth Avenue store, a 2,000-square-foot space, represents a departure, “the next phase” for the company, Funk said. The look, created by Avsar, who is the chain’s chief designer, and William Harvey, vice president of store design, is splatter-painted walls, accented with browns and greens, with subtle references to industrial architecture, like a neon water tower and pylons.

“It’s very much related to the neighborhood, very alive, very bold, quite graphic. It plays off Chelsea,” Funk said, noting that it is quite different from the stores in Brooklyn, where white walls, wood floors and metal fixtures reference artistic loft-living.

The store is on the corner of 18th Street; corners are something of a signature for the clothing company, with all but one of their Brooklyn outposts placed on one.

Dallimore explained this choice in terms of foot traffic. “Great corners are the best billboard for any company,” he said.

Funk, meanwhile, said the idea is to place stores in neighborhoods where people live as well as shop. (The Soho location is a partial exception to this rule — it’s “more transient,” she acknowledged.)

Though even the company’s logo reflects the view from Brooklyn, Funk has no qualms about the move to Manhattan. She imagines that the location of Brooklyn Industries’ stores will become irrelevant “as we become a more established brand that has a reference to Brooklyn but has its own identity,” she explained.

She noted that many brands — like Patagonia and Banana Republic — evoke a place without necessarily being tied to it geographically.

Broker Dallimore agreed that, while the company embodies a certain Brooklyn-ness, this identity is by no means irrelevant to the rest of the world. “The days where Brooklyn was an isolated place are gone. It’s the West Village years ago,” he said of Williamsburg in particular. “The creativity that’s coming out of these places — people aspire to that nationwide.

“Manhattan is corporate,” Dallimore said. “I don’t see inspiration coming from Manhattan anymore.”

Hence, the move to areas like Soho or the West Village, where retailers can reach clients who aspire to the edginess — or purported edginess — of Brooklyn, but who may actually live in the suburbs and come to recognized retail corridors like West Broadway to shop.

Rosenberg of Futterman & Associates sees Brooklyn Industries’ progression as a natural one. It began in neighborhoods where people live and shop, he explained, and became part of that fabric. “As they develop more of a following, they can broaden their scope.”

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