By Brinley Knopf
I step from the subway – it’s one of those days that’s golden, sun-dappled and cool, unseasonable for late July when on any day you could fry eggs on the sidewalk. Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, a neighborhood without the recognition, the skinny-pants populace or the cheesemongers of Williamsburg, is up-and-coming.
I don’t see any hipsters, although on my short walk, I do see sundry coffee shops, bagel stores and a cafe that I’d bet serves bottomless boozy brunch.
Finally I get where I’m going. Suzette LaValle’s eponymous little store seems like it traveled on a Jitney from the Hamptons. It’s breezy, beachy and every cotton romper or T-shirt I see could be the light, whisper-soft togs costuming my next getaway. But with its novelties, artsy Etsy-like merchandise, colorful retro artwork shelved for display and sale, jewelry and the cutest handmade greeting cards you’ve ever seen, this isn’t a store you can put in a box. The store is bright, vibrant and warm – there’s music playing, funky jams from different gamuts; Brazilian, reggae, the blues. It’s a feel-good store. You’d buy birthday gifts for your friends here, but you’d might just pick up some MOMA zigzag placemats or sequined pillow for yourself while you’re there, too.
I had the luck and happiness of getting to meet the store’s owner, Suzette, and pick her brain about fashion, style, Brooklyn and her career “wearing different hats” and presiding over the fashion industry.
Q: How’d you get into fashion?
A: I got into fashion directly after high school. I made a decision not to go to college – I was just so into the idea of working. I couldn’t really wait to get out of high school. I wasn’t really digging the whole high school scene – you know, high school is a time of conformity and I realized then that that wasn’t something I felt comfortable with. I couldn’t wait to leave, I didn’t want to do anymore schoolwork. I wanted to branch out. So I went directly into the city. I grew up in Long Island, and I headed into the Big City. I did a little time modeling and realized that was going to be a waste of my time because I didn’t fit all the criteria. So then I got into – now we’re talking in my early twenties – I got into production first, I worked for this product development company.
But I didn’t particularly care for it; it was really behind-the-scenes, it wasn’t interesting enough for me. Then I got a job working an area of the garment center which is kind of like the Société, which was developed in France, where you do cash and carry. And so I worked for this French company and from there, somebody picked me out and hired me to work at their company, working in production. He had this little store on the Upper West Side, and one day he put me on a plane to go to Paris and buy. I was very excited, very young and very scared, but it turned out to be a regular thing that I would do almost maybe twice a month. I would go by myself with a checkbook. But I made friends fast and they sort of took me under their wing. And so I was with [that company] for four years. After that I decided I needed a break. I went down to Miami, and I saw all these photoshoots going on. Not tons-tons but I stumbled upon a lot of them and I thought ‘that looks really cool.’ So then I decided I wanted to be a stylist. So I went back, I quit my job, and then I went through all the pains of putting a book together. It was at a time when it wasn’t as saturated as it is now; it wasn’t easy but it wasn’t as difficult as it may be for someone just now getting into it. So I became a stylist for thirteen years, and during that styling time I also sat on the seat of being an editor for some magazines. I did everything, I did fashion shows, editorial – lots of editorial, catalogs, advertising, everything. Then I went back to work for the same man who hired me as a buyer, now he had a store in Soho and so I stayed with him for six years as a buyer [again]. After that I left to become a freelance merchandiser – during the crash of 2008. He closed the store, he’d given it to somebody in the family but he took off and we all left out of necessity.
I had to reinvent myself and decide if I was going to be be a stylist again. I didn’t. So I became a freelance merchandiser, and I got accounts throughout the city – I’d go into stores and I’d overhaul, I’d go that 2-3 times a week. Still to this day, I do [visual merchandising] for a store on the Upper East Side called Pookie and Sebastian. I really enjoy merchandising – visual merchandising – because merchandising, as you know, can be broken down into so many fields. It’s the largest word in fashion, I think. While I was merchandising, I started building for [my store]. I worked with the small business association who taught me how to put business plans together, build my credit and at the same time I was doing some street festivals on the weekend – a medley of things. I found this space through a friend of a friend and fell in love with it, put it together, designed it. There’s a lot of love in here [laughs]. That’s how I got here.
But I love styling – I’m looking for a new agent to get back into it; when I was doing the FIT Future of Fashion Show, it brought back some intense high-octane moments that I fed off of – and also the creativity that goes into it, it’s really challenging. It’s constant creation. In a creative sense, styling is working with a fantasy and you’re hoping it’s something others can appreciate, love and identify with however they interpret it. You’re kind of just a little director.
Q: How did you get involved with the FOF show?
A: The woman who produces the show is a woman I worked with quite often when I was in my heyday. We still stay in contact, and she’d been asking me if I’d be interested from two years ago [to now]. I was a little apprehensive because I hadn’t styled in so long, and it was a big account. I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to handle this big job but she convinced me that I was so good [laughs] and that I’d be great, perfect for the position and so I took it on.
Q: As a fashion stylist for the show, what was your role?
A: I think that there’s a difference between being hired as a stylist to do a show for a designer [and] being hired to do a show for the Future of Fashion because you’re dealing with 70-90 different designers. Each one of them has their own view of design, and it can be a little difficult to find some cohesiveness to put a show together. But somehow there is something that brings it all together and you try to find that one element of design or color or balance or texture – and then you just try to bring it together, to put some cohesiveness to the entire show, even though it is 90 different designers with their own visions.
–Did you attend the shows?
Absolutely! The student show was great. It provides a window into what the show’s going to look like later. You can detect if something didn’t work, so you can go out and change it and perfect it for the Big Show.
-Did you have a favorite designer?
There were things I liked –
Photo Credit: Salven Vlasic/Getty Images for FIT
Some designers really stood out, to me and what I like – but they’re all amazing. The knitwear always stands out for me. It’s not often you see how sweaters and knitwear can be produced – the textures, fabrics, it’s all pretty fascinating.
Q: What’s your day-to-day like as a store owner?
A: I’m up at 6-6:30, I use that time to do all my billing, emailing and I strategize the day’s goals and what needs to be done. I go into the city in the early morning to go to a showroom appointment or pick something up in the garment district, whether it’s supplies or maybe something for myself. That’s the hour I have before the store opens – my week is packed with appointments before the store opens. Then I come to the shop; I work with customers throughout the day, I merchandise my store – I spend a lot of time on my windows. It’s one of the more fun things I do, as an artist – my windows. I’m here seven hours a day. I also look for other different projects to work on, I’m always dabbling in something- either writing for a blog, or my own blog, or researching new designers.
Q: Do you notice fashion trends tend to differ from Brooklyn to Manhattan?
A: Yes, absolutely. I find the women in Brooklyn dress for comfort, not to make a statement but for practicality. When I go to the city, there’s a lot more showmanship [and] thought into style. It’s a little disappointing having a store [in Brooklyn] that you somewhat feel would do so much better in a city that likes to dress for style. But you learn to work with your community. It’s your job to help them see [that] they can be a little more adventurous – letting them do what they’d do normally, but helping them add to that to discover some things that they never would’ve done before.
Q: How do you choose your merchandise?
A: The merchandise is chosen based on what will appeal to my neighborhood, my customers. I think about them, but I also have to think about something that’s more original. I think about my customer, what I like, and what’s different [and] innovative. Something people might not find where they normally shop. I always have to think within a certain price point which, if I was in the city, I wouldn’t worry too much about, but being in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Brooklyn there’s a lot that has to be thought about as far as price point, and that can be very limiting. The buying can be very challenging – you have to think about price point, originality, comfort, practicality – and I also have to be happy, too. I get [my merchandise] all over from walking trade shows. They’re great places to find a ton of talent. I schedule my entire day to scope them, very carefully. I take notes, narrow it down, edit and bam! A good portion of what’s in my stores come from the trade shows, or several Brooklyn designers that I support.
-What are you favorite trade shows to go to?
The main ones that happen here in New York. Coterie, The Fame Show – the only problem with the Fame Show is that the majority of everything sold there is made in China, but I have to go because it’s affordable. I do them all.
Q: Do you have any bestsellers in your store?
A: I think my jewelry is the best category of bestsellers. I’ve dealt with accessories for a very long time. It’s where I began in fashion – I worked for a buying office. There used to be a lot of them, years ago, little boutique buying offices – I used to go around and take pictures of jewelry at different showrooms. And then [the buying office] would take the pictures, put them in a book, and then the stores would look at the pictures and see which companies they liked. But then, I took the very same pictures and presented them to – this was when I worked for a magazine, called Sportswear International, a trade publication – so I approached them and said “I’m being paid to take pictures of accessories in the industry, maybe I [can] use those same pictures to do market editing for your future stories.” They agreed to that, and so I would go around looking for cool things that would fit their editorial concepts for that month. I was doing both, at the same time. Jewelry was really my first love.
Q: So you’re involved with all aspects of your store – buying, marketing, visual merchandising? You do it all?
A: I do it all. I just hired a writer to help with my blog. But I’d like to – I’d like to get a column in a newspaper. I just submitted a story to a local newspaper. And [I’d like] to keep my blog separate from my website. And marketing, I’ve been doing it on my own, but I look forward to the day where I can hire someone to help with that. I think it’s essential to have a marketing team outside of your own ideas.
Q: Do you have a favorite store to shop in?
A: I do, but I don’t think it’s cool enough to tell. [Laughs] It’s not cool! I mostly get my things from my store, but if I need some staples, which is all I’d really buy outside the shop, I’d do either Banana Republic or Club Monaco. I mean, I’d love to [shop at] Barney’s everyday but –
I love the merchandising at Club Monaco, it’s really nice to go in. And I do like Banana, too. For staples. And they’re always like giving half the store away! 30% off this, 30% off that, I end up with five things for $50. But it’s good quality merchandise, good basics, good T-shirts.
Q: Can you describe your own style?
A: I think I found a way to incorporate my love for so many different genres of clothing. I can be everything. I can be a rock ‘n’ roll girl, I can be a little flower child, I can have a boyish look sometimes, I could be very glam. I love so many genres of fashion. I’m everything. I don’t have one particular style. I have a lot of fun being different people at different times. I do believe that all of us hold those different genres within us and it’s nice to know that we can pull some of them up, and not just be, you know, this conservative dresser or this rock ‘n’ roll girl or this punk rocker. It’s nice to flirt with different kinds of clothing. It’s endless.
Q: Any style tips?
A: Be adventurous. Do things you wouldn’t usually do from time to time. Try on things you wouldn’t normally try on. You change; your maturity changes, your body changes – that’s always room to explore and be someone different as you go on in life.
Q: What are you excited about right now?
A: Again, I just found a writer. I’m looking forward to doing some writing, submitting my writing to different publications. I used to do a little writing when I was editing. I did [just] make my first pattern, I met up with a pattern-maker who is going to FIT right now! I’ve wanted to put a collection together. In the future, I’d like to have a collection of 12-18 pieces that more or less stay the same. [They’re] the best pieces I’ve put aside from all my years. I’d just change the fabric from season to season. Then I’d add [one or two] novelty pieces every year. It’d be signature pieces that I think fit and look great on everybody. So I just made my first pattern, or somebody made it for me! So I’m looking forward to that. That would probably maybe launch within, I’d say, a year and a half. That’s definitely going to happen – how broad will it get, I don’t know. But it’ll definitely be in the store. That’ll be interesting. I’m definitely looking to expand with another shop within that same period of time – to have another location somewhere.