There are all sorts of easy ways to be cynical about Brooklyn and the ways that the upwardly mobile dress there, but Jen Mankins, who is the owner of the Bird boutiques and a sort of de facto Brooklyn-style ambassador, is one of the most original and dynamic characters in the New York fashion world. Mankins bought the original Bird in Park Slope from its founders for $80,000 in 2004 and opened its Cobble Hill and Williamsburg outposts in 2006 and 2009.
In honor of the original store’s 15th anniversary this week, Mankins invited three designers — Maria Cornejo, Rachel Comey, and Jane Mayle — to collaborate on special mini-collections for the store. The entire thing feels like a tribute to small, independent brands, to women designing for other women, to a kind of ground-up fashion that is pleasantly separate from a corporate mass-market luxury machine that trades in glossy ads and pricey lipsticks.
Mankins, who spent a chunk of years working in the buying offices at Barneys and then at Steven Alan, says her success with Bird probably started with the fact that she understood the customer. She lived three blocks from the Smith Street shop, and says she imagined the Bird woman as the same person she’d see on line in the grocery store or picking up toothbrushes at the Rite Aid down the block.
She cobbled together a signature look that’s relaxed and fashionable and often a little tongue in cheek. It’s fashion that corresponds neatly to what is now understood to be “Brooklyn” — that bougie-boho thing that makes it possible to go up and down subway steps and even ride your bike to work while still looking good. Mankins herself wears bright colors, loud prints — a generally cheerful mash-up that’s as exuberant as she is.
A lot of the Bird brands happen to be helmed by female designers: Isabel Marant, Tsumori Chisato, Zero by Maria Cornejo, Rachel Comey, and the now-closed, oft-mourned Mayle. These women make clothes that would suit their lives well, which, it turns out, is the best way. There is no Funny Face–style fantasizing or extrapolating about imaginary ladies doing imaginary things, no abstract muses that need be conjured or invented. Cornejo lives down the street from Bird, and rides her bike along the waterfront on weekend afternoons. Comey lives not far, too, and has two little kids and a walk-up studio.
Bird’s anniversary will be celebrated with tacos, beers, loud music, and probably some dancing. The good news is everyone wearing her designs should be plenty able to eat, drink, and move.