Jennifer Mankins and the Brooklyn Aesthetic

December 28th, 2012

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

SPENDING POWER Jennifer Mankins, who owns the three Bird boutiques in Brooklyn, at her South Williamsburg store, where she stocks approachable pieces by independent designers.

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 Brooklyn for some 20 years, describing one of the most identifiable styles that has developed among the brownstone bourgeoisie there.

“It’s gold lamé, but it’s cut into a classic shirtdress,” she added by example. “You’re still wearing gold lamé 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” Ms. 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 lamé standard for local dressing: a style oasis in the land of organic kale chips, strollers and bicycle helmets.

In the past few years, Ms. Mankins has distinguished herself from her Manhattan counterparts by stocking approachable pieces from independent designers like Isabel Marant, Rag & Bone and Rachel Comey. Ms. Comey credited Ms. 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,” Ms. Comey said. “Jen has a ton of energy. Because she’s always active, she keeps things interesting.”

Ms. Mankins was indeed bustling with energy on a brisk November afternoon during a visit to her South Williamsburg flagship (she also has stores in 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. Mankins’s 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,” Ms. Mankins said.

Ms. 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.

“It’s very small-town U.S.A.,” 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.”

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