WHO: Designer and entrepreneur, Michele Varian.
WHERE: Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, a favorite Brooklyn shopping destination.
Established in 2001, Michele Varian is a design-driven home goods and jewelry shop that recently located from New York’s Soho to Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. One of The Shopkeepers Best Home & Interior Shops, Michele likens her shop to an unexpected oasis of curious, provocative, and beautiful things. Michele shares her shopkeeping journey, inspirations, tips and favorite shops.
What do you think makes the Michele Varian, Brooklyn shop so unique? There’s a distinct and strong point of view throughout the shop, both in my own designs and in the other work I carry. The most insightful way I’ve heard my taste described was by an old neighbor, who said that my aesthetic is that I like to see the hand of the maker in things. That’s the way I design and it’s the way I curate as a retailer, too. This comes with being an independent business owner, because I am also the creative director without having to answer to anyone else. It’s what brings people back in, so they can take a little of that “point of view” home with them.
What is Michele Varian best known for? People come to the shop for lighting, wallpaper and pillows, which are my own designs – and I’ve expanded into furniture in the last couple of years, as well. In addition to that, people are also drawn to the shop’s one-of-a kind ceramics and jewelry selections.
What are the “must-have” products in Michele Varian? Pillows! These were one of the first designs I began producing. They have a characteristic exterior tie. Then there’s the lighting. It’s made on-site at the shop, and ranges from smaller table lamps to really expansive mobile chandeliers, and everything in between. And of course there are our cast iron pigeons, which have become a sort of iconic item that people recognize as being from the store.
Where are Michele Varian products sourced and made? All the product designed by me is made either in-house or locally. The bulk of the other products I sell are sourced from North America-based designers and fabricators.
Who are your customers? Predominately creative professionals. I love that the people who shop at my store are “my” people. And they’re not just interiors or design trade, but photographers, fashion designers, editors, stylists, musicians, filmmakers, actors, writers. They run the creative gamut. Which also means we do have some notable shoppers, so keep your eyes peeled when you’re in here!
How has the internet impacted your business? It’s been both good and bad. It amplifies our voice and reach, and allows us to share our experience and product beyond just the local neighborhood. But it also means that we’re competing with more voices to be heard and seen. Not to mention, it means managing additional channels, in both commerce and media. That can be a challenge for us as an independent business, but we’ve done well innovating on that and growing the roles of some of my staff – a lot of whom have been here for a decade! – to change with its influence.
THE SHOPKEEPER : Michele Varian
Who inspires you? I’m lucky enough to have parents who really inspire me. They’ve always supported my creativity and commitment to a creative career. Beyond that, my customers inspire me. A lot of them have become my friends. That community, shared now between the City and Brooklyn, has a palpably artistic energy. Being a part of it is very special to me.
What inspires you? Innovation. Well, smart innovation. New uses of materials, for example, and art exhibitions, and fresh references to or interpretations of historical contexts.
Before I was a shopkeeper, I…. designed and distributed my collection to other retailers before opening my own store. And before that, I was a fashion designer.
Why did you open your shop? Because of 9/11, the showrooms that represented my collections were closed, and the trade shows where I would have been exhibiting my work for others to find out about it were all – rightfully so – cancelled. There was a commercial space for rent along my walk between my loft and the loft that my then-boyfriend (now husband!) lived in. I needed a space to show and sell my designs, and back then rents were more realistically affordable – so I pounced!
Did you have prior retail experience? As a designer I had “remote” retail experience from working with stores to sell my product. My only direct experience was a stint at Macy’s in college, where I was pigeonholed into the gift-wrapping department. It was awful! Christmas time at Macy’s had lines of hundreds of stressed-out people, not to mention their chaotic, jam-packed box room. More reasons I really love small retail!
Your favorite thing about owning an independent shop? Besides having creative control, which is important, I have always loved being part of a network of independent, owner-operated businesses. In my early days as a shop owner on Crosby St. in SoHo, we’d have “bench night” outside my store. Everyone would congregate after work. It was social, but it was also a support system.
Now, moving the shop to Brooklyn, I feel I’ve recaptured that network of businesses.
Your advice for anyone wanting to open a shop? Use your design conviction and point of view. If you’re carrying other product besides your own, buy things that you like and only that you feel strongly about. Also, know what you do well, and delegate what you don’t. Having a great team is crucial.
If you weren’t a shopkeeper you would be..? A designer. I still am – I get to do both! Due to my small business and tenant advocacy, I’ve also been told I could be a lawyer. But I don’t think I’d like myself too much if I were!
What are your favorite local independent businesses? Consignment Brooklyn, right across from us on Atlantic Avenue, is great. It’s a treasure chest of fashion – all the creative professionals in the neighborhood bring their consignment there. Farrow & Ball is on the block, too, and we’re getting our paint there to redo the front of the store. It’s nice to have them so close. Betty Bakery down the block is great, too. The savory pies are where it’s at!
What are your most precious possessions? I love beautifully designed, functional objects. Which means that many, many things that I have adored have expired, because they’ve been so well-used. I try not to ascribe preciousness to things too much though, because I love the eclectic nature of things cycling in and out of the home. One thing, though, is our bed, which we bought from ABC Carpet & Home. It was featured in a home tour and the buyer reached out when they saw its photo in print. She shared that she was actually the one who had sourced and brought it back from India. In fact, she admitted she had actually wanted to keep it for herself!
What are your five favorite shops? In addition to the other ones in the new neighborhood in Brooklyn, our nearby neighbor The Primary Essentials is great for more home goods. As is Jao Social Club, a tiny little sundry-style shop with vintage French and Japanese workwear, candles, and general store vibes – it’s really special. The concept store Clic and, for clothing, Rachel Comey – both back in my residential neighborhood, SoHo – are more local go-tos. The program at Colony, which would be more of a trade “shop” because it’s technically a showroom, is lovely. I always enjoy attending their events and design exhibits.
What are your favorite Instagram Accounts? @the_shopkeepers, of course! I also love @hilaryrobertson. She’s a long-time friend and stylist, author, and creative director. She’s curated a really beautiful feed.
I wish I could… Multiply myself! And I would love to slow time down. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
ON THE FUTURE OF RETAIL
“I’m happy to say that there’s a renewed appreciation of supporting smaller, independent business owners – and a hunger for things that can’t be found everywhere online. I also think that, as has already begun, the footprint of physical retail will concentrate down to only the most meaningful spaces. “
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