On a quiet strip of Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, amidst the Chinese trading companies, Jewish furriers and incoming crop of hip, young businesses, Georgia Fenwick opened her namesake vintage boutique. Beyond the curated selection of 1960s and 70s garb lovingly collected from across the U.S. and Europe, Georgia alludes to a forgotten era of female sexuality and sophistication, tempered with a dash of playful girlishness. With its lusty gold and red walls, tufted settee for two, dimly lit bare bulbs, and jungle of lush potted plants, you could easily mistake the narrow storefront for the private boudoir of one Miss Brigitte Bardot.
“I’m really inspired by women of the 60s. They were busty and had bums and wore mini dresses and just looked like they were always having fun and genuinely enjoying their youth,” she says. At 23, Georgia is no stranger to youth or fun (or mini skirts for that matter). But starting your own business at such an age requires more than a carefree attitude; it demands gumption, shrewdness and a level of commitment rarely found in one’s early twenties.
“When I was 12 and in London we were doing a career exercise in class and my teacher asked everyone what they wanted to be,” she says, posh English accent still intact despite moving to New York a year later. “I said, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur’.” Adolescent ambitions aside, Georgia wasn’t sure what form “entrepreneur” would take.
In the past six years, she’s tried her hand at various things: working in restaurants and bars throughout the city; interning at art and cultural organizations including MoMA PS1 and TimeOut New York; and attending CUNY’s Baruch College for a bachelor’s degree in English. This past winter, Georgia felt she had waited long enough to make good on her promise to her 12 year old self. In just five short months, Georgia has sprouted from a nascent seed into a fully operational business. And much like her shop, she is growing and adapting with polish and grace.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
Starting a business is incredibly risky. Why did you open Georgia instead of pursuing something more historically reliable, like a steady 9-5?
I like the freedom and ability to create something of my own. It’s like being an artist or writing a novel. You can show the world your little bubble of how you see everything. I thrive in the intensity of striving to create something and to keep going when things get tough. Some people like going to and leaving work at a certain time. But there’s something I love about working till midnight or getting an email at 5am. It’s stressful but exciting. There’s also a lot involved in this type of business that interests me. I get to do artistic things like curate the racks, style different looks and take photos, but I’m also of service to people. I’ve always loved that aspect — people come in, you get to chat with them, see how their day is, communicate with total strangers. It’s great.
First time business owners often encounter new realms of fear and self-doubt. What were yours before and since you opened and how did you overcome them?
I have way more fears now than I did before. Before it’s just an idea. You can think about it and work towards it but it’s only in your head and no one can touch that. At that point, the only thing to be afraid of is yourself. Now it’s far scarier because it’s a tangible thing. Now it’s this. So there’s the fear of showing people what your idea is because it’s not just a business; it’s something that came from my heart and from things I’ve known and experiences I’ve had and all of that can be judged. Then there’s the financial fear of being able to make money and the general fear of what I could be doing better and how I could improve my customers’ experience. Essentially, they’re all kind of irrational if you think about it. There’s always ways to deal with those things.
What were your first three steps towards working on Georgia?
Collecting inspiration on Pinterest in order to visualize exactly what I was thinking. “Vintage shop” is very broad, so gathering things that sprung to me visually helped narrow it down.
Financials. I wrote down what I thought rent, utilities and inventory would be so I could figure out how much money I’d need to make per month. The numbers part of a business plan can be very daunting, so I literally just tackled it like a toddler. Rent = X, internet = X, utilities = X, and then just added them up.
I immediately started looking for spaces which was a good thing because it took me almost five months to find the right one. At that point, I was so eager to get it built out and operating that my friend Woody and I did it in only 18 days. It was crazy, but we got it done.
You hadn’t worked in retail until Georgia. Why did you decide to open a shop instead of something you’re more familiar with, like a restaurant or bar?
If you’re 23 and starting your own business, you might want to start smaller than opening a restaurant. That’s such a huge operation that requires a lot of money and is particularly difficult in New York given all the permits and licenses. You need to hire waitstaff, bartenders, barbacks, a chef, prep cooks, etc. That environment is great because you learn to work collectively as a machine but there’s so many moving parts involved, not to mention a huge financial investment and lot more competition. But a shop is doable as a one-person business. You can carry out your own vision and you’re not relying on anyone else. You can do it yourself. Of course you can hire people to help you, but ultimately the responsibility is all on you.
Beyond financial gain, what did you want to achieve by starting your own venture?
I never thought this would be the biggest success ever or the be-all and end-all. I want to be able to pay my rent and have the basics and keep this going. Mainly, I’m looking to gain an understanding of what it takes to run a business and see if I can accomplish the things I want, like the look and feel of the shop and people’s interactions within it. I’m looking at this whole thing as an experience. I met this guy who also had his first business at 23. It failed financially but as he sees it, he spent the same amount of money doing that as he would have on a graduate degree. Instead, he just got a degree in life essentially. He told me, “The best education you can get is just doing it.” That really helped me. Everything is an experience and you learn from it, whether it’s good or bad. Probably, it’s going to be both. You just don’t really know until you do it.
Location is so critical in New York where space is at a premium and exposure is greatly dependent on foot traffic. Why did you choose this neighborhood?
It’s still very authentic to me, which is something that’s getting harder to find as New York gets more gentrified. Plus, I’ve always lived downtown and I know it well. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Brooklyn to have even considered it. I would’ve made it harder on myself by opening in a location I’m not familiar with. Then you also have to think about rent. I love Lafayette — it’s one of my favorite blocks — but I absolutely couldn’t afford it so that was out of the question. The Lower East Side is relatively affordable and it’s a mix of old and new. I love that my next-door neighbor has been here for 30+ years but then the guy across the street just opened a new restaurant. This is one of the few places downtown that still feels like a neighborhood. Everyone helps each other, you know everyone, everyone’s friendly.
Real estate here can be pretty tricky. What was involved in finding and leasing this space and how long did it take?
Months! I started looking in January and found this place the last week of May. It was really hard and discouraging. I looked at a ton of places with my broker. When I’d find one that I liked, we’d negotiate the lease terms, submit my financials and sometimes even my business plan. You have this dream of what you’re looking for and property owners will take advantage of that and lead you on. I spent two weeks negotiating a lease for the first place I wanted, only to have the landlord pull out at the last minute and give it to someone willing to pay more. I didn’t realize real estate in the city was such a dog-eat-dog world. And that happened two more times! My first broker told me, “Whatever space you end up with will be the best space for you.” It’s like when you break up with your boyfriend and your friends are like, don’t worry he wasn’t the one, you’ll find a better one. The same situation applies to this. Actually, I’m lucky I didn’t end up with the other spaces. This one is just right.
Why did you choose to sell vintage clothing opposed to contemporary?
So much more fun! They have stories behind them and journeys they’ve been on. Each piece has its own personality and history. You could have a really sweet pink and white 50s dress and next to it a 60s fringed leather halter top. It’s like each is a different character and you can come here and be that character. Like picking a Disney princess for a day: you can be Cinderella or Pocahontas. That’s why I call this a “dress up box.” I want people to come in and not be scared or intimidated to try on different outfits and personalities. I want them to come and have fun dressing up.
Hunting for quality vintage must be quite laborious and involved. How did you discover where to go for great stock?
Trial and error. I would literally get into a car or onto a plane, eat a really big breakfast and tackle a list of places I’d gathered. You don’t know exactly where they are, when they open or if they’re even open, they won’t pick up the phone, and they certainly don’t have a website. So you just go there and find out. Sometimes you’re really lucky and other times you find nothing. I kept a list of where I’d been that was good and tried to build contacts along the way. I searched all over! I really had no idea where to go, but it was so much fun and in the end I found all this great stuff.
WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR VINTAGE STOCK?
What was the biggest bump you hit while trying to open?
The emotional bump. I knew it was going to be difficult but I had no idea it was going to be that emotionally trying. Halfway through I was like, ok I get it. I get why not every single person does this because I literally feel like I’m going insane. You can ask people for help with practical things and you learn them yourself along the way. But waking up in the morning and making sure you have a straight head to get those tasks done is another thing. If you’re looking at 30 things you need to do, you can get so overwhelmed that you don’t know how to take the first step. Overriding that is the hardest part. You just have to face it and do it.
Any last words of advice for someone who wants to start their own business?
Make sure you have a solid concept for what’s in your head. If you’re unsure about what it is you’re selling or trying to do or create, that’s when you’re going to hit bumps. If you know exactly what it is you want to do and have a clear image and picture of it, then you can work everything else out. Because without the dream or goal or vision you can’t really get through any of the tough shit. You need to know what you’re selling.
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