Tessa Williams // Brooklyn Collective, Working with Artisans and How to Succeed in Retail


LOCATION:212 Columbia sT. // HOURS: thURS.-SAT. 12 - 7 PM, SUNDAY 12-6 PM


Tell us about your creative background.

I lived in New Orleans right out of high school and to make money I made drag queen and stripper costumes. I was also in a band and when we landed in San Diego I pursued a formal degree in fashion at FCC College. I studied in Paris for my final semester and then moved to NYC where I worked for Diane von Furstenberg, J Crew and Champion.


What prompted you to open Brooklyn Collective in 2004?

Brooklyn Collective (BC) was born out of the need to sell. I was making one-of-a-kind clothing, and my friend was making jewelry, and we couldn’t find shops that would buy our more creative pieces. There wasn’t a lot happening in the neighborhood, at the time, so we were able to find an inexpensive storefront to set up shop. We recruited other designers, formed a collective, featured their work, and split the rent costs.


So, how does the collective work now?

Artists go through a submission process and once they’re accepted they sign an initial 3-month contract with a monthly fee, which they can renew for as long as they want. If an artist sells a piece they receive 90% of the proceeds and the remaining 10% covers store administration fees. I allow artists to renew as long as they’d like and some have “stuck around” for over 10 years! I refer to them as “the lifers”. BC is great in the sense that it’s become a testing market for many artisans. Some of their work might be overlooked at Renegade or Brooklyn Flea but in this boutique environment they often sell more of their unique pieces.


Who is your average customer?

She’s a local workingwoman in her 30’s but I have such a mix. There are teenagers who save their money and shop and then I have an amazing 80-year-old musician who comes in once a month and buys herself something fabulous! I offer products with various price points so that everyone can afford something. Category wise customers generally gravitate towards jewelry or home goods.


How do you find designers? Do they reach out to you?

I enjoy going to local craft shows in search of new artisans though it can be difficult nowadays because I usually have to bring my 3-year-old son! What I look for in a designer, whether I find them or they contact me, is someone who produces quality pieces, understands the store’s vision, and appreciates our maker community.


Do you have any tips that you would share with someone interested in opening a retail space?

1.     Make sure you offer something, could be a physical product or an emotional connection, to set you apart from your competition.

2.     Find ways to stay relevant in order to gain returning customers and artisans. With the rise of social media, easy to make websites like Squarespace and Weebly, and craft fairs, artists have become great at promoting their own work, which decreases the need to sell via a retail shop. So be open to their feedback.

3.     Be social, honest, organized and build relationships with customers, clients, designers and neighbors. You’re going to need their help!

4.     Lastly, if you have extra space, consider turning it into a studio or offering classes. When it is slow in retail you’ll have to find innovative ways to generate income.


You have a lot of space. Do you plan on offering classes?

Yes! We’re going to add two big worktables that will be able to accommodate 10-12 students starting in September. There will be sewing and pattern making and silversmithing to start. Eventually, I’ll offer more specialty classes, to reflect the store’s eclectic products, like how to crochet a mermaid. Stay tuned!


What’s one of the best parts of working at BC?

Every couple of months we have a large promotional event where we do an open bar, live music, and invite all the artists and customers to the store. Customers love to learn about the artist process behind what we sell. I’ve had customers nerd out and go up to the makers and say “I’ve bought so many pieces from you!” or “I’m wearing all your stuff!” On the other hand, artisans get new ideas for products and are surrounded by positive feedback. For me, it’s been great to recognize local artisans. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.