Alexis DeSalva Kahler
Alexis is a Senior Research Analyst at Mintel. Alexis focuses on US Retail and eCommerce reports.

October is National Women’s Small Business month, so for the next installment of the Female Founded series, Mintel’s Senior Retail and eCommerce Analyst Alexis DeSalva Kahler, sat down with Brooklyn-based small business owner, Eva Dayton of Consignment Brooklyn for a two-part interview. They discuss Eva’s long tenure in the fashion industry and how she’s navigating the current retail challenges as a female-run small business. Eva shares how she got started as a business owner, including her decision to focus primarily on consignment retail, the importance of the local community, and how her business has pivoted to meet the demands of today’s changing retail landscape. She does this all while caring for her daughter and being a vital part of her local community. Check out Part one below:

Alexis DeSalva Kahler:

We chatted a bit about your background when we met, but can you tell us a bit more about how you got started in the fashion industry and what made you want to open your own store?

Eva Dayton:

I’ve been working in fashion my whole life. I started young, working in shoe stock rooms, and I started working at the Gap doing a lot of visual merchandising. Eventually, I moved to New York and worked for Urban Outfitters in the visual department, and after moving to LA and working for Banana Republic for a little while, I was hired by the Armani group and moved back to New York.

ADK: When Armani calls, you answer.

ED: When Armani calls, you go running! So I came back to NY and started styling and merchandising in the showroom as well as for their wholesale accounts, like Barney’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and helped them with their floor moves. I worked with Mr. Armani for a long time and I had a great boss, who always knew I wanted to do my own thing, so I slowly transitioned into working as a freelancer for Armani, while also opening my own business. I found a little store in Brooklyn and I started out as the only one working there. I would freelance for Armani in the morning and come back to Brooklyn and open my store from 12 to 7pm. And I self-funded the whole business at first, and other than a small loan from my parents, I never had investors or outside funding. Over the years as my business grew I’ve had a few loans as we’ve expanded and I’ve had to hire people, but my first store opened in September of 1999 and in the beginning, there was no business plan.

ADK: But you obviously knew the industry.

ED: I knew the industry, I knew a lot of people and I knew what I liked, which I think is the most important thing. And I had the gift of gab so I was able to talk to people and have a conversation. And that helped spread the word; designers would find out about me and then a showroom would find out, and I’d go see everything because that’s what makes the best buyer. I didn’t want to miss something, because what if it actually did well? And I just started growing my business and buying Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, Marni, Balenciaga – all the big designers – and I mixed it in with small designers, and that’s what put me on the map. Carrying larger labels, the brand recognition elevated my business.

ADK: So that was not a consignment store? How did you pivot into secondhand?

ED: I was undergoing a renovation at the store but I had a lot of sale merchandise, and I just needed a little space to house the sale stuff because I needed to sell it and make money. So I rented a space for two months to see what happened and that was in 2005 or 2006.

ADK: It doesn’t sound like that long ago but so much has changed.

ED: So much has changed! The way people are shopping, everything. I didn’t have a website!

ADK: There was no big eCommerce presence. There was no Instagram!

ED: No, there was no Instagram and it was all word-of-mouth. At that time, Brooklyn was on the verge of something and I really went out into the community, talking to people and socializing, and building my brand and people started recognizing me. And long story short, we renovated the space and I was selling the sale stuff like crazy. So I cleaned my closet and decided to sell all my old Armani clothes.

ADK: It always starts with a problem you have yourself. Or a need.

ED: A need! I had no sale clothes left so I went to my own closet and put two racks outside of my sale space. One was a $30 rack and one was a $20 rack. I was selling Armani blazers for $20.

ADK: If anyone out there has those blazers, please let us know!

ED: People got wind of it and started asking if they could bring in their clothes to sell.

ADK: So you weren’t even looking for people to consign in the beginning?

ED: No, I was just trying to fill up holes and make money. So I realized I should open up a consignment store! Some of my consignors are shoppers too, and some of them are still my consignors today.

ADK: So it’s just like a rotating closet for them?

ED: Exactly! They were buying stuff at the original store and then bringing it back and consigning it at the consignment store. It’s a constant rotation. Then in 2008 when the crash happened, and the business went through a change, it was a time where I had to question if I wanted the main store, because it was very expensive. It was a big risk and I was willing to take it, but then I had a child and it was a very big responsibility. And I realized I could either go full force into operating a website, but at the time there wasn’t Shopify or ways to figure it out on your own, so it was just a big eCommerce animal. And I realized it was just a bit safer to focus on consignment, so I closed the main store and moved solely to consignment and kept looking for new ways to do business.

ADK: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned that as a store owner you’ve survived 9/11 and the 2008 recession. The pandemic is different, but it turned everything on its head for everyone. Are there things that you weren’t doing before but you are now? How big was eCommerce or Instagram for you before the pandemic?

ED: I feel in some weird way, COVID was an awakening, at least for me. This block we’re located on is a very community-driven block and I started a group text with all the business owners right before the pandemic.

ADK: Wow, you have good intuition! It seems like you have the ability to really look and think ahead.

ED: Think about where business is headed and what people are into and what’s driving shoppers. What makes it cool and interesting to come to my store or this neighborhood? The way people are shopping now is so different than the way people were shopping. My business is not an eCommerce business. People want to come to my store, try on things, and hang out.

ADK: It’s a social experience.

ED: Exactly. It’s social, it’s fun and there’s only one of everything so it’s hard for me to put one of everything online. Between pricing, getting it approved by the consignor, ticketing, steaming, photographing it, it’s not always worth it. I do the pulling and styling for the website and I pull based on styling choices and things that are cool, and I leave the business side out of it, even if it’s a lower priced item. Because you have to have all different price points for all different people, and all different sizes for all different people. That’s what makes my store, my store. And Brooklyn is very community-driven, and we’re all in this together. I know that phrase gets used a lot, but it’s true. If you’re not in, then why do you have a small business? And my eCommerce site is building slowly; I feel like we’re building the brand every single day, including on Instagram.

Read part two of Alexis’ interview with Eva Dayton here, as they discuss leveraging social media and experimenting with new services such as curbside pickup.