Pixie-like and thoroughly tattooed, Shana Tabor is Brooklyn’s response to Manhattan’s traditional retail moguls. While her counterparts rely on mass production and heavy marketing for sales, Tabor, owner of the clothes and accessories brand In God We Trust, has established a reputation for personally curated selections, intimate service and word-of-mouth street cred. Last fall the 31-year-old inaugurated her fourth store, on Greenpoint Avenue, a mere zip code away from the first one in Williamsburg, which opened in 2004.
A few months into her original venture, Tabor, a 31-year-old jewelry designer from New Hampshire, quickly developed a following of fans who shared her vintage-colonial and tongue-in-cheek aesthetic — old-fashioned bowties and 50s-inspired dresses displayed next to delicate sterling silver rings and necklaces made out of friends’ grown teeth, a repurposing of their keepsakes from visits to the dentist (How’s that for literally tongue-in-cheek?). Five years later, Tabor has two stores in Brooklyn, two in lower Manhattan, and plans to expand her indie retail empire further into Kings County, even in the midst of a recession. But this might be a good time as any to keep expanding: Brooklyn, it turns out, is New York’s retail refuge, accounting for one out of every five city-wide positions in the sector. While the rest of NY is bound to lose 10,000 retail jobs, the our favorite borough will only be responsible for a tenth of those, according to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
But how did Tabor go from being a recent FIT graduate with a part-time customer service job to owning a mini fashion empire? Through commercial self-sufficiency, financial restraint and a little bit of luck.
Back when you opened the Williamsburg shop, you had no business plan and little savings. How did you cover the start-up costs?
I borrowed $5,000 from my brother. I was very fortunate: One of my friends was closing her store on Wythe Street, and I decided to take the place. The landlord didn’t even charge a security deposit, and my friend had bags, hangers and a credit card machine left over; I had friends help me set the place up and do the vinyl lettering for the storefront. It was friend-based, a matter of trade and barter.
Did you have to resort to another funding source in order to stock it?
No, because fortunately I made most of the merchandise right in the back of the store or at my house. Plus, I knew a bunch of young designers — mostly friends of friends, because we don’t scout out other people, and I only sell things I like — who gave me their products on consignment.
Was the opening of the second store, the one on Lafayette Street, as painless as it was the first time around?
It was quite difficult. Some places asked me for a six-month security deposit, which meant that you needed $30,000 just to sign a piece of paper. I don’t come from money, and my bank, the Commerce, didn’t approve me for a bare-bones business loan, even though I had good credit. I was feeling very defeated. At the time, Bank of America had this commercial where people were walking down the street and saw their great futures next to a Bank of America logo. I was sitting in my little studio in Williamsburg, fuming and cursing the commercial and the American Dream while actually applying for a business loan on their site. Literally, within five minutes, they were like, “Sure! You want money?”
That’s good for you, but isn’t that laxity how the American Dream got in trouble in the first place?
It’s scary talking about it right now, but I’m very good with money. My dad is a construction worker and my mom doesn’t really have a profession; she works in retail and waiting tables. Because of my and my parents’ financial past, I can clearly see that if I don’t have money for something, I don’t buy it.
Speaking of the American Dream, you’re making fun of glorified American values with your store name. But isn’t it odd right now to have a name inspired on American money?
Here’s something interesting: [The government has] taken “In God We Trust” out of the new coins that they’re minting, and people are freaking out about it. [Ed note — This is actually an urban legend, although the motto has been moved around a bit lately. Read here and here for full explanation.] But the name was always supposed to be funny. For the most part, our customers get it, but from time to time we’ll have the minister from Ohio walk in with his family, expecting to find God’s place. But that’s exactly the type of person I’m making a comment about.
Back to the relaxed banking practices of yore: You run away from credit cards in your personal life, but you say you basically owe your second shop to them. How so?
In Christmas of 2007 my brother gave me a ReadyMade book where they explained how to operate a business for a year on credit cards. Knowing and trusting myself enough, whatever money I didn’t have from Bank of America, I just maxed out all of the zero-percent-APR cards I could get. I put myself on a strict budget for nine months, and paid the debt. I want to know what’s realistic in the market. That’s how I found the Ludlow Street location.
Why would you decide to keep expanding during a recession?
Everyone keeps asking me about that, and they have their own perception of how things are running. But the truth is that we’re very self-sufficient: We design and manufacture 90 percent of our merchandise, either in our studio or in the Garment District, so right off the bat we have huge control, because we don’t have to buy other people’s products. We can change and adjust immediately.
SoHo, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg are retail dream spots. What made you open such a large shop in still-developing Greenpoint?
Our studio, up until three weeks ago, was a 9×10 room in the back of the Wythe store, and at least three people were working there every day. Our wholesale business could grow if we had more space for interns, or for a second computer, so that someone could finish line sheets. Or if I could move my tiny sewing studio from my house. Now we have so much more space to photograph the merchandise, and to have someone work on our website. We now have more space for storage, and we don’t have to restock as often. This is about cost efficiency and business efficiency, because I know that in Greenpoint customers aren’t going to be rushing to our door. But I like the idea of a studio being attached to our store, and our customers like that intimacy. That’s what it’s like at the Williamsburg store, but now that we have this one, it’s only open on weekends.
Are you thinking of closing it?
It’s not breaking the bank. We’ll see what happens.
How many direct jobs are the four stores generating, production included?
Including myself, seven, plus three interns who work on customer service as well as jewelry and sewing projects.
The SoHo store is your biggest moneymaker, due to foot traffic. Have you considered moving all your business to Manhattan?
Not really, because of the intimacy, and because there’s a huge contrast between the business being done in the city and in Brooklyn. A retail store on Broadway is blowing money, paying five gazillion managers and people behind the scenes, versus someone who’s opening a store in Brooklyn that’s probably going to have five employees. Maybe that’s why Brooklyn hasn’t lost as many jobs: The stores are mom-and-pop to begin with. And that seems to be working.
Interview by Rab Messina, sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of In God We Trust.