With the arrival of fall, women are thinking about their wardrobes. Fashion is big business in New York City and one person who knows this very well is Princess Jenkins, owner of The Brownstone. Opened 20 years ago, the Harlem-based Brownstone specializes in plus-size fashion and has cultivated a roster of celebrity clients that keep coming back.
Here, TNJ.com caught up with Jenkins to discuss her success as a small business owner in retail.
TNJ.com: Why did you launch The Brownstone?
Princess Jenkins: The Brownstone launched two decades ago in Harlem at a time when there weren’t many retail options. The 125th Street Mart (a vendor’s mini mart) was closed and they were forcing vendors off the streets. I moved from the Bronx to Harlem in the early 90’s and the women looked so glamorous on Sundays mornings. Looking at their wardrobe, I thought wow Harlem must be lined with wonderful boutiques and clothing stores. Regrettably, I found that most women traveled to midtown to the major department stores to make their purchases.
I thought to myself wouldn’t it be a great idea to open a boutique in Harlem with all of the local designers, crafts people and artists I knew?
Looking at locations, I found a wonderful turn of the century brownstone just off the famed 125th Street on Fifth Avenue. This would become our fashion mecca for close to a decade. We turned three stories of this brownstone into Harlem’s first Black-owned department store with contemporary clothing, accessories and evening wear on the main floor. The second-floor housed fine jewelry, and a restaurant. Our third-floor housed a day spa, bridal salon, hair salon, interior design department and menswear. I have always said, “We were ahead of our time…but right on time.” We were just what Harlem needed.
TNJ.com: Describe “The Brownstone Woman.”
P.J.: The Brownstone “Lifestyle Boutique” focuses on “Inspired” fashions for women (sizes 12 -20) featuring a unique collection of contemporary clothing and accessories from local, national and international designers and collections.
The Brownstone woman is typically between the ages of 50-75; time may have softened the body, but the mind is sharp. Filled with wisdom and wonder, these ladies for the first time in their lives are living for themselves…not their husbands, their children or what society says they should be.
Many are well-traveled and well-versed in life and when it comes to building a fashion wardrobe, they are ready for something different that also speaks to their spirit.
TNJ.com: Does your clientele include businesswomen and if so, what are some of your tips for “dressing for success” in the workplace?
P.J.: The high-level corporate business person to celebrities and women in the arts all delight in the private exclusive shopping environment offered at The Brownstone. Our business clients are women who have already excelled in their careers; they are the thought leaders, CEOs and managers both comfortable in the skin and their positions. We dress these women for corporate events, sorority luncheons, the theater, the Opera and Black-tie fundraisers.
The fashion tips that we often share our clients include but are not limited to:
• You are a center of influence and people are watching
• Don’t be afraid to wear color in a room full of black
• Dress for the camera you will be photographed
• Remember the accessories are as important as the outfit
• Wear exciting shoes that offer you comfort
and my favorite
• Have a gracious reply for all the compliments you are going to get.
TNJ.com: Do you have a buyer or do you manage that aspect of the business?
P.J.: One of the most exciting aspects of running The Brownstone for me is shopping the collections each season. It puts me ahead of the coming fashion season. I can spot new trends, fabrications and accessories. With a keen eye for what my clients will want “next”, I must keep it new and on trend without being trendy.
Over the past several years I have also designed a wonderful collection for the store because what my clients had been requested was missing in the market place. We have built the design division to include evening wear and bridal under our “Brownstone Black Label” collection.
TNJ.com: What kind of shopping experience can customers expect at The Brownstone that is different from the competition?
P.J.: We offer our clients a distinctive, private shopping experience for the customer who is seeking quality, value and most of all customer service. The Brownstone works very closely with each client to get a true understanding of her life and her lifestyle. They come for the fashion and come back for the friendship.
TNJ.com: Did you face any challenges in getting the business launched?
P.J.: Most small businesses will fail in the first 3-5 years and I often ask myself why? Access to capital, poor location, family distractions…I have experienced them all and even after 30 years in business, I still have my share of problems.
Where The Brownstone does not fall short is in offering the best possible quality product and building our brand and identity. Maintaining our passion, and our love for women and fashion has never faltered.
TNJ.com: What about your work do you enjoy the most?
P.J. What I enjoy most about my work is meeting and dressing women in a way that enhances their lives, and elevates their confidence and self-esteem.
TNJ.com: What, if any, advice do you have for people looking to open a brick & mortar boutique?
P.J.: For the past 10 years, I have taught a class at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in the CEO department entitled “How to Open a Successful Brick & Mortar Boutique.” I teach because I believe in two things: giving back and getting adequate training and education in the career of your choice.
New and aspiring business owners would be wise to interview successful business owners, participate in free business training programs, take advantage of seminars, webinars and workshops related to their business and read, read, read. I am an avid reader of business and industry magazines.
TNJ.com: What has been your secret to staying in business when so many boutiques have closed due to major retail stores sprouting up everywhere?
P.J.: In every changing retail environment, The Brownstone has remained relevant because of our commitment to excellence, our high touch customer service and our design offerings.