If you listen to the New Yorker, the world looks to Manhattan as a tastemaker in the West. If you listen to the Times, Manhattan looks to Brooklyn as a tastemaker within reach.
Who, then, sharpens Brooklyn’s taste and therefore the world’s?
Briana Swords pours water for the table. It’s 9am on a hot summer morning, and the sun is just now peeking over low-slung Williamsburg rooftops. An awning materializes - props to the staff at Sunday - but Swords is unfazed. To the casual observer, her black dress and black sunglasses may seem unseasonal; but as the owner of Brooklyn’s foremost independent boutique, Swords and “unseasonal” couldn’t be further apart.
In 2013, Briana Swords and her partner R. Smith opened SWORDS-SMITH in a former industrial space on Williamsburg’s South 4th St. Their goal: find then nurture the world’s foremost independent designers, serving both their discerning client base and the designers themselves. Over the four years since, the two have traveled the globe seeking out talent in a distinctly old-fashioned way. By evaluating based on process, not products, SWORDS-SMITH’s stock is curated to reflect only the most exciting and inspired pieces from every corner of the map.
Lucky for us, that map is centered on Brooklyn. Under the watchful eye of Swords, her husband, and their staff, SWORDS-SMITH has become one of the city’s most exciting boutiques, with a reputation for catching brands on the rise. Swords and her Brooklyn team don’t just make tastes - they refine them to a point. If you’re looking for that sharpener, look no further than SWORDS-SMITH.
Earlier this summer, we sat down with Swords to talk fashion, culture, and style in the city we call home:
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your inspiration behind starting SWORDS-SMITH.
So I, in my past life, worked as a womenswear designer for about a decade, mostly for large, corporate brands. When myself and my partner [husband R. Smith] started the business, our goal for the store was to provide a really legitimate retail space for independent clothing designers that were doing it right. They were [designing] the way we believed in and wanted to support.
And you met your partner R. Smith through your past life as a designer?
We met in California, I was working at the time at Levi’s, and he was working in advertising as a graphic and interactive designer. He’s personally my partner in life - he’s my husband - and we wanted to open a business. That’s why it’s called SWORDS-SMITH: it’s our partnership.
How do you decide if a designer is a good fit for SWORDS-SMITH?
It’s a gut decision. When we work with designers and look at product to consider them for the store, we typically evaluate either their creative process or their production process. For different designers, it’s about different things. For some designers, it’s about the creative inspiration, the conception behind the collection; for other designers, it’s about the production process, the materials, and where they’re sourced. It varies by who we're working with, but there’s always some sort of passion point to connect with.
It’s important to me that they’re coming to the design process with a creative point of view, and an inspiration-driven point of view rather than a merchandising point of view because I find that leads to the best product, and I think in general, a lot of clients come to us to be inspired by fashion and to discover fashion, and I think that if you’re just selling products, there’s no reason to come to us. It has to be special.
It seems like a lot of these thoughts were incubating during your career in womenswear.
Oh, definitely. I used to work directly with merchandisers to plan assortments and develop a really strong product offering on a larger scale, but that’s not really what we’re doing here. We’re at the beginning point with designers versus the endpoint, when they’re already huge and trying to grow even more, which is where I was before.
What’s the relationship like between you and the smaller designers you work with?
Being in SWORDS-SMITH for a newer designer like C.F. Goldman must be a huge co-sign.
It varies, although it’s very personal on some levels. There are some designers that I work directly with, but there are other designers where we work with their showrooms - some international designers I don’t work directly with, or we do it over Skype. But in general, it’s definitely personal. We’ll have moments, and we’ll have wins, where it’s just me and a designer together.
Has the Brooklyn fashion scene evolved at all since you’ve been a part of it?
When we first started, the majority of the business in Williamsburg were independent. Since we've opened, we've seen Urban Outfitters, Starbucks, J.Crew, Madewell and so many more large corporate companies open in the area. It's interesting to see that change, but it does provide us the opportunity to stand out as a creative, independent voice in this new marketplace.
My partner and I have been living and working in Brooklyn since 2000. We opened this business because we wanted to do something cool and unique. We knew the neighborhood really well and we saw the opportunity in the local market. The decision to open in Williamsburg happened organically for us.
Now, everyone is trying to capitalize on "Brooklyn" and buy into the success that's already here and a lot of it's really over-inflated. The commercial rents in Williamsburg right now are crazy. I don't see how any small business can open here right now.
What does that mean for SWORDS-SMITH featuring Brooklyn designers going forward?
I think it solidifies our positioning, because what we want to do is provide a legitimate retail space for independent designers. We’re still buying into that, and these bigger stores aren’t - or if they are, they’re not doing it in a genuine way.
Do you find that a lot of the people now making the “Manhattan migration” to Brooklyn are the SWORDS-SMITH customer?
Sometimes - we’re still a discovery for some people, especially for clients that aren’t local to Williamsburg or don’t shop with us online.
Everybody’s at a certain place. Some people are just stepping in and discovering Brooklyn, and then some of the people on our block are working class families who bought brownstones in the 70’s for $30,000 and are now sitting millionaires - everybody has their own perspective, I guess. That’s the best way of putting it.
And then you have the luxury condos that have been opening up, which have brought a lot more diversity of professions to the neighborhood. When we first opened the store, everyone who came in worked in some sort of creative industry. Now, I meet people who work in finance, sales and accounting, doctors and lawyers - people who have “straight jobs” but also love fashion.
That’s gotta be rewarding to take a client from one place to the next by introducing them to a unique, up-and-coming designer.
I think that’s what most clients come to us for: discovery.
They’re looking to be inspired by fashion. They’re coming in to see what’s new, and what’s exciting.
What does “Brooklyn style” mean to you?
I’m more of a champion of independent style and defining your own style versus having one look. That’s just how I see it. Even with the store, we carry around 80 designers. Different clients can buy the same pieces, but everyone’s wearing them a little bit differently. SWORDS-SMITH is not a place for anybody who’s trying to buy into a specific style or look. We're more about individual taste and expression.
Where do you see Brooklyn in five years - both the neighborhood and its fashion scene?
We will hopefully see less homogenous fashion - fewer mass market brands, more creative exploration, and more individual expression. That’s what I think is interesting and has always been interesting about Brooklyn style - people taking risks, and experimenting, and saying something meaningful about themselves.
I always hope to see more of that, and I think there will be more of that. That’s what interesting to me: to see people taking more ownership of their style versus being defined by a look. We live in New York, so it’s obviously a bit of a bubble compared to other areas in the US. I think a lot of people just enjoy dressing to express and empower themselves, and I hope to see more of it.