Bed-Stuy native Kai Avent-deLeon is opening her dream store and investing in her community at the same damn time.
Ever fantasized about owning your own store, full of beautiful thangs? Former Chanel employee Kai Avent-deLeon did, too. And then she made it happen! Here's how Kai brought new Brooklyn boutique to life....
Hi Kai! Please introduce yourself.
I'm 26, from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the owner of Sincerely, Tommy.
"Tommy" is short for Tompkins Avenue. The name is my ode to the neighborhood and street where I grew up (as well as the street the shop is on). Having a business in this neighborhood has been my dream since I was 16. Bed-Stuy is the heart and soul of Brooklyn. It's a creative incubator for people from all over the world as well as being the home for some of the great artists of our time. The concept behind Sincerely, Tommy represents that creative essence, along with some influence from my travels around the world.
In the store, I will be carrying international and local emerging designers/brands that have yet to be picked up in any other stores. There are so many amazing brands out there who either don't have the capital to showcase their collections or just don't know where to start. 80% of our products are exclusive to the store. Every there months there will also be rotating artwork on the wall. A big part of the concept is the coffee counter in the front of the store. I decided to incorporate the counter because I want people to interact with us, other customers, and really feel welcome in the space.
What were you working on before?
I have always worked at different levels in retail. My first job was at 16, was working as a sales associate at a local Fort Greene boutique. It's also what inspired me to want a clothing store of my own. After that job I decided I was going to learn as much about retail as I could to eventually open my space. After seven years, and management positions at Aritzia and Chanel, I finally decided it was time to do my own thing.
What was the lightbulb moment for Sincerely, Tommy?
I always knew I wanted a store in Bed-Stuy. The actual concept of integrating the coffee counter with the retail portion came about because I started to feel that the neighborhood was losing some of its "cool".
What is it about Bed Stuy that you find so inspiring?
I grew up here, my parents grew up here, and my grandmother came here in the sixties. There is a rich and nostalgic history for me. I also love the brownstones, and the strong sense of community.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the process?
Trying to balance my creative self with my business self.
And what has been the most rewarding aspect so far?
Following my mother's and grandmother's footsteps. They are both entrepreneurs and very inspiring. They always take risks and succeed in the process. My mom opened up the first vegan cafe in a neighborhood ten years ago - it was completely different at the time. My grandmother bought her first brownstone in Bed-Stuy when it was "Bed Stuy do or die") when she moved to this country as a single mother with three children. She now owns 11 buildings in Brooklyn.
What do you wish you'd know before you started?
It's such a learning process and I am really embracing that. I take everything with a grain of salt and realize that their will be moments where I may trip up, but it's the only way I can learn how to do something right the next time around.
Who helped you to bring your idea to life? How do you develop ideas and seek business advice?
I really didn't ask anyone. I tend to trust myself and my vision. My mother and grandmother have definitely been a huge part of the process. They bought the building the store is in after I expressed that I wanted to create this business. We gut renovated a pre-war building, designed the entire thing, and came out with an amazing result. I designed the store on my own - everything from the layout, to the floors, to the coffee counter and the store front.
I did utilize Score, an NYC based program that provides resources and helps develop business plans for small new businesses. I also ask my boyfriend, who runs his own small business, for a lot of tips.
Which retailers around the world have you looked at for inspiration?
Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Our Legacy, Portrait Haarlem, and Dover Street Market. They're all so special and so well-curated.
Where do you go or what do you do to stay inspired in general?
The museum - usually the Met or the Guggenheim. I am a huge film buff, I probably am most inspired my the films that influenced me or their directors. Woody Allen, Jean Luc Godard, Ingmar Berman, John Cassavetes. I could go on....
What's your vision for Sincerely, Tommy? Now and in future?
Sincerely, Tommy is a lifestyle. I aim to have another store in 2-4 years. I would love to open a store in Paris (my second favorite city in the world) or Brazil. I want to continue to showcase new brands and gain a reputation for carrying the newest talented designers from around the world. Most importantly, I want to influence young people in this neighborhood to invest back in their community if they can.