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Lexy Funk
industrious
by Vivian Manning-Schaffel
July 31, 2006

Brooklyn Industries is a small New York fashion retail chain doing big sales—an estimated $6.7 million this year. Inspired by Williamsburg’s thriving artist community and its nouveau-boho spirit, the firm has found considerable success in reflecting the area’s tastes and sensibilities. We spoke to Brooklyn Industries president and co-founder Lexy Funk about her improbable journey from artist to small business mogul.

For college I went to Wesleyan, where I studied art and art history. After graduation, I came to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, in 1991, and worked as a photographer. Soon after I came to New York, I was invited to participate in a studio program held by the Whitney Museum of Art, which was exhilarating on both an academic and philosophical level.

 
 

To support myself, I was fortunate enough to piece together enough projects to make a living by working exclusively through art—shooting weddings or portraits. At night and on days off, I would make art installations, with lots of moving parts and sound—real avant-garde stuff. Like most people in their early 20s, I was living check to check, but it was a vital time to be in Williamsburg. There was a strong, almost bohemian artistic community forming and we all became great friends and supporters of each other.

In 1994, I decided to take a break from Brooklyn and travel to Russia, Uzbekistan and Poland with a circle of artists to explore those places through our work. I also went to Israel and did some exhibitions.

Eventually, I returned to New York and was invited to a three-week residency with studio space at the Art Omi International Residency program. It was a very exciting opportunity, because it’s considered prestigious.

After the program, I intended on traveling some more, but when I was there, the unexpected happened—I met my husband and business partner Vahap. We fell in love and moved in together here in New York.

After we were married, I got 9-to-5 freelance work at an ad agency, doing promos. Vahap was working at a popular restaurant in the Village (Manhattan) called Stingy Lulus. It wasn’t the life we wanted, but we didn’t want to have to struggle to support ourselves anymore, either.

We got to talking about design, and how it could say something about society while being practical and serving a purpose, and we thought about brands that did those things.

My dad is an entrepreneur, so putting money at risk to do my own thing was never a big deal to me. So in 1996, we both quit our day jobs to start a production/design company called Two Tsunamis. We shot local ads, music videos, designed logos—basically taking any and every project that came our way.

Back then we had studio space on 26th Street in Chelsea, way up on the 11th floor. Vahap saw these cigarette ad billboards on the roof and brought them inside. He took the vinyl off, and we tried to figure out something interesting we could create with it.

The vinyl was waterproof, so we thought the material would be perfect for a messenger bag. Vahap knows how to sew, so he made the first one. We got to thinking about how we were going to market the bags, and decided to go to a trade show. Imagine our surprise when 12 stores, some of the most elite retail boutiques in Manhattan, picked them up.

Suddenly, we had all these orders and no resources, and we really had to scramble to fill them. We got ourselves kicked out of our studio for hauling in these massive billboards, so we rented a huge factory in Williamsburg and dove headfirst into the wholesale bag-making business.

The first incarnation of Brooklyn Industries was called Crypto, and was focused just on making bags. We kept coming up with new designs, exploring and experimenting with different materials. We even used a fabric that changed colors when you touched it.

Eventually, I took over the business function and taught myself about all it entailed—invoicing, finance, everything. It was challenging, especially when it came to sales, but I got better and better at it and worked hard at making our warehouse more productive. Vahap, meanwhile, continued to design the products. Our first Crypto retail location was located on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. We were one of the first retailers to open there, before it became the arty hotbed of activity it is today.

After three years with Crypto, we decided to shift our brand strategy and changed our name to Brooklyn Industries. The name signified our lives and sounded bold, heavy and industrial—just like where we lived and worked. We definitely started out as a streetwear brand, focusing on messenger bags, t-shirts and logos that spoofed on different concepts.

We realized quickly that we wanted to solve the problem of whether to focus on a catalog business or a more localized retail experience, and we went with retail. One year later, we opened our first Brooklyn Industries store on the corner of North Eighth Street and Bedford in Williamsburg.

We approached building our brand by focusing on a concept, which we call ‘community retailing.’ Where we were from and what people around us could afford directly influenced what we made and our pricing model.

It was through our first retail venture that we realized how much we love having a brand so deeply rooted in a feeling of community. We felt a really good connection to the place, hired local people and liked having a place where people could come, hang out and talk about what was going on. Eventually, we opened our second retail location, then a third and so on.

As a whole, Brooklyn is this incredible melting pot and with a great eclecticism. I’ve been living here for 15 years and it’s going through a renaissance right now as being one of the most important artistic nerve centers in the world. It’s a great place to live, with a vital entrepreneurial spirit, and we aspire to capture that with our brand.

Our growth path has been very organic. Right now, we are focused on product development and using our catalog as a brand vehicle to get our message anywhere it wants to go. We are still very much in the process of building our brand awareness. But if we can bring our concept out of state and still be relevant, that would be great.

 
  
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a freelance writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
     
 
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