Kai Avent-deLeon talks community, coffee, and coming back home.

Kai Avent-deLeon opened the doors to Sincerely, Tommy just about a year ago, but her shop feels like it’s been part of the Bed-Stuy community for far longer.  Stocking everything from simple straw slippers to silver plastic dresses, it doesn’t seem like there’s a limit to where her shop will go and grow, and we’re so excited to see what she has in store for the future.

Q / Hi Kai! Hope you’re having a good morning! First thing’s first, how did you decide to open up shop right in the heart of Bed-Stuy? You seem to be the only clothing store as far as the eye can see.
A / I grew up literally four blocks away from the store and still live in the neighborhood. I did move away at one point, but my mom and grandmother are both in real estate and have their own properties in Bed-Stuy, so we have always kind of moved around based on whatever building my mom was working on. At one point we moved upstate…but I’ve spent most of my life here.

Q / Have you always planned on staying in this neighborhood?
A / Yeah! I love Bed-Stuy! I’ve always had such a good experience, and seeing the changes that are happening now makes me even more excited because I think there’s such a good community of artists moving in.

Q / How did the idea to start Sincerely, Tommy come about?
A / My first job at sixteen was at a retail store in Fort Greene. They had a similar concept to my shop in that they were carrying a lot of emerging brands and it was very neighborhood and community based…kind of like a hangout spot. I really just embraced that environment and fell in love with it, so I decided at that age that I wanted to open a clothing store at some point. After that, I just took on similar jobs as a buyer at other small boutiques, and then I went on to Chanel for a year. I worked in operations, which is totally different, but I was still learning the backend of how to run a store. My last job working for someone else was in SoHo at Aritzia, a Canadian company. It’s very big, so they have a completely different way of selling and approaching retail. I was in management and I took a lot from that job actually. As intense as it was, it was a great way to learn. So that’s my fashion work experience so to speak, but I think I’ve always just gravitated towards the arts and really unique pieces when it comes to clothing. Even at a young age I always dressed differently, so I was really invested in creating a store that was more of an experience and not just there to sell nice clothes.

Q / Could you take us through how you usually spend your days? Is there ever any set schedule?
A / I think the only thing that is strict about my schedule is that I have these really intense to do lists that I hold myself accountable to follow through with each day, and if something doesn’t get done…it’s rare that something doesn’t get done. That just helps me keep organized and stay on top of things. In terms of having a routine, it’s a little challenging because I’m in the store most of the time and I’m working as a sales person in a sense, but also doing all the backend stuff. I also do a lot of interviews at this point so that can pop up at any point in the day.

Q / Are you usually at the store or do you spend more time on appointments and meetings with designers?
A / I’m here working Tuesday to Thursday and on the weekends I’ll pop in, but I try to get all of my non-store related stuff done on the weekends. There really isn’t a routine every day, but I’ll be traveling starting in September, so I try to make sure that I leave when fall collections are already in the store and it’s a little slower going into the winter. Traveling, buying, and having showroom appointments, along with doing press interviews and organizing events, those are things that usually happen throughout the day.

Q / Do you do a lot of events at the store?
A / We try to do something at least once a month, but we have trunk shows more then anything else. Last night we had an art opening for Elise Peterson, a Brooklyn based artist. We rotate the art every three months, so after that, Adrian White will have a show up and we’ll have an opening for her.

Q / Is there a time of day when you feel most productive?
A / Usually between 1pm and 7pm are my most productive hours, just because it’s the middle of the day and I kind of despise just not doing anything. I mean, I definitely take moments when I’m like “O.K. let’s chill out,” but I’m always finding things to do for the store, so it’s hard for me to stay still. I’ve always been a go getter. There are so many different components that go into the store, whether it’s promotion or new brands to bring in, the list is always getting longer. I’m constantly researching a new designer or project, and now we’re trying to do more community events too where we team up with different organizations. It’s a never ending list.

Q / You also have your own clothing line that is available at the store. How big of a part does that play in your business?
A / It’s a very small collection, but it actually plays a big part because the intent was to offer a lower price point that still had the same aesthetic to the higher end pieces we have. We realize that there’s no other retail in the neighborhood at this scale with our price points or environment, so we don’t want someone to be intimidated when they see a $400 dress. If you go into the city things will be much higher than that, but our in-house line is definitely at a lower price point while still remaining good quality. I think it gives our customer a taste of how you can buy a little more basic and still have quality pieces that last for a long time.

Q / Do you have a designer who works with you on the collection?
A / We have a designer, but it’s very small scale, actually just the two of us right now. We’re working on a more extensive collection that hopefully we can launch next year.

Q / In terms of the store, how big is your team currently?
A / We only have two people right now, and actually used to have more. At first I really liked the idea of having someone in each area, but something I learned as a result of the shop getting a lot of attention early on was that in the first year, me being that person is way more important than having someone else here to handle it immediately, because i’m so picky about how everything is carried out. Who we’re dealing with and partnering up with is really important too so we’ve narrowed it down. The coffee counter is so different from the other side of the store, so having people with an in depth understanding of both aspects of the business is incredibly important.

Q / How does the coffee bar affect the atmosphere of the shop?
A / A lot of people come in and are so surprised that it’s here, but that was a big part of the concept of the store. It makes people a little more comfortable to hang out. I know from experience that when you see a clothing store, you often don’t want to go in unless you’re going to buy something, so giving people a spot to just hang out was the intention with the bar. We have a lot of return customers who come in for coffee who’ve never even ventured into the rest of the shop but they’ll sit and talk for an hour or just hang out.

Q / Did you have any experience with the coffee business or a partner that helped you starting out?
A / In the beginning we were sub-leasing to two guys who had their own bar, just because I didn’t know anything about this world and didn’t really want that responsibility so early on, but now my boyfriend and I actually partnered on the counter and we do that together which is nice.

Q / How big of a part does social media play in the store? You have such a huge presence for a shop that’s been open for such a short period of time. Was it something you were super focused on when you started?
A / It’s so weird. I come from a generation that didn’t have Instagram so I’m on the cusp of not having it and adapting to the fact that people rely on social media for everything now. When I started the store’s Instagram, I had no idea what it was going to be about, so I just looked at stores in a similar realm, and that led to posting inspiring pictures and people wearing our pieces and it really took off. Then when anyone heard that we are in Bed-Stuy it was kind of a shock to people, but that’s played such a huge role in our presence as well.

Q / Does e-commerce play a big role in your business as well?
A / Absolutely. This summer has seen a really big shift towards web versus in store sales for us. We’re growing a strong presence in the UK actually, I’ve noticed that most of our customers come from that region online. I do all of the web stuff by myself but I don’t come from the e-commerce world, because when I was working in smaller shops, it was still during a time when you didn’t need a web store. It was all brick and mortar and you could rely on that, so its interesting to see the growth and what people are responding to.

Q / Is there anything you find problematic about it?
A / Instagram has definitely taken over my life. That page where it suggests people you should follow has allowed me to find so many designers, so i’m constantly on for hours discovering new people and brands. It’s insane.

Q / Do you reach out to most of the designers you stock at the store or do most of them get in touch with you?
A / It’s very rare that the people who reach out are people I end up working with, not because I don’t like their products, but because we often have something similar. The people I reach out to are often much harder to find. Most of them don’t even have websites, so I do a lot of research.

Q / What have you found to be that hardest part of running the shop?
A / Staffing. I’m so specific about what goes on here no matter what it is. I want things to go a certain way and am more concerned with quality than quantity, which has been tough. When we first opened we had two assistants, maybe three interns, and two sales people, but it just became too difficult to manage them and stay on top of what kind of work they were doing and the type of message they were sending out. When you’re starting out any company you obviously want to make sure you have the right people in the right places and the right team behind you. Finding people who respect you is also hard. Since I’m so young, I normally get people in their twenties who will apply for jobs, and managing someone who is so close to my age can sometimes be tricky. If you’re looking at it from the standpoint of “this is my peer not my superior,” I hate that term, but it’s definitely a challenge.

Q / Is there anything in particular that you’re really excited about coming up this year?
A / There is so much. This place is my baby. Watching the shop grow and seeing people’s response to it is so exciting. The opening we had last night was one of my favorite events so far because it really represented what the space stands for, being able to bring in a world of young kids and initiating a dialogue that’s inspiring is something that I think is awesome. In a sense we’re functioning as a community center and that part makes me emotional and is what I want the shop to be about.

Sincerely, Tommy is open Tuesday-Sunday at 343 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn, NY.

Article & Photography
Catherine Litke

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