This is the second part of a 2 part profile of Ina Bernstein, the founder of the INA consignment stores in New York. Here she answers questions and shares her perspective on fashion and style today. To read part one about her beginning in fashion during the ’80s in NYC click here.
Fast fashion has really become a dominant player in the marketplace. What’s your take on those stores?
I think they have a place, they really do. A lot of people shop now and buy something really special at say Jeffrey’s and then they’ll go to H& M and Zara to get some little something and then they’ll come to my store…lots of women use everything for their palette. It’s like a painters palette – the designer’s store, low-end store, sample sales, consignment shops. It’s wonderful. It’s not limiting. There are so many choices. I don’t know where this is going to go but I don’t think the designer’s going away. Fast fashion is just part of a larger picture.
Are there specific designers that you notice people are looking for?
Well we have people who are collectors. People who come only for Commes des Garcons, Yohji, or other specific designers. But I find that our best customers really look and don’t necessarily pick out by designer but by what they see. Often we get things before they’re in the stores because we get them from the fashion people. Or a bag that’s also in Barneys today but we’re selling it for $300 less.
Do you have a personal favorite designer right now?
Well I can’t answer one. I do like some of what Celine is doing. I like Balenciaga, Lanvin, vintage YSL and I happen to have a weakness for Dries. I couldn’t wear it head-to-toe but I think he’s brilliant with prints and fabrics and I’ve always liked Margiela. And I also like select Rick Owens. I own about 5 black Rick Owens tops and I find them a perfect basic for me.
I also love Alaia. I bought Alaia originally in the ‘80s when he was only sold at Charivari – which doesn’t exist anymore – and Barneys. We don’t keep Alaia in the store for too long. It goes so fast. But anything so great doesn’t stay in the store too long.
Was there a learning curve to opening the men’s store?
Men were much slower than women in coming to consignment stores. But word started to spread in the fashion world and the business grew enough to dedicate a storefront to menswear. One thing I remember very vividly when we just had one store was women would try things on and be “Oh my God, I am so fat! Look at my thighs! And that sort of thing ..and men would try things on and go “Oh it’s not my size.” With men, it was the clothes that were wrong. With women, it was the body – and that continues to this day.
Who do you consider a style icon in New York?
Lynne Yaeger. I’ve known her since she was fashion editor at The Villiage Voice. She has always been an extremely talented and witty writer. Now she writes for Vogue, Fashion of the Times, and is the darling of the international fashion world.
And she has a style that is just so heroic and so unique and it’s the same as it was 20 years ago. She just looks like that. I really respect someone who is so willing to go out on a limb and have herself look so different and feel comfortable.
It’s hard to come up with someone else at the moment. I think it would have been an easier question to answer years ago because nowadays there are so many people with stylists. You see people walking around looking fabulous and they all have stylists. So I don’t think there are style icons the way there used to be. Maybe their stylist should be. I don’t know but to me that’s not iconic.
For me a style icon is…Babe Paley, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn…
If someone said “I want to go to a consignment store but I’ve never gone and am kind of intimidated” what would you say to them?
First of all we try to select employees that are friendly, make people feel welcome. My staff isn’t in competition with one another. Our staff is there to give advice if you want, if you need a pair of shoes to try on a dress and you’re wearing sneakers they’ll do it.
But for someone who’s never shopped at consignment they need to take a chance and go and experience looking through the racks and see if they find anything they like and trying it on. Once people find something they like they come back again. They realize they don’t have to spend $700 at Barneys, they can spend $350 at INA.
If a woman is on a budget, where should she spend her money? If someone’s on a budget I’d say a great bag, great shoes and a great coat or jacket. Because if you have that on you look great. And then underneath it depends on what the work is. If you work in the corporate world a couple of great pencil skirts, and maybe a couple of silk shirts, cashmere sweaters. Investment pieces. The rest of it doesn’t matter. The casual clothes you can make do with very little. The accessories are really important. Women look at women. Men like sexy. Period. But women look at women and everyone looks at bags and shoes. I think for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money it’s important to get certain pieces. Buy things that are somewhat classic that you can accessorize with great pieces.
A trench, a pair of leather pants…these are things that would be good right now. I don’t think people wear that many dresses all the time. You can buy one great black dress and do a lot with it. Unless you have the lifestyle of a socialite…then forget it. One great black dress. …and that’s what we do have.
What’s your favorite place in NYC for inspiration?
Hanging out in the INA stores is incredibly inspiring. I love seeing the creative way many of our customers style themselves. No matter their age, lifestyle and pocket book, I’m always amazed with the creativity people who love to shop with us have in putting themselves together. I especially keep an eye on the younger customers who often forecast what’s coming next. They are fearless dressers who mix designer, vintage and look fresh and new.
Is there another city that you like their fashion as much as New York? – what city and why?
I love to walk around Paris and see the elegant way the traditional French woman puts herself together. It’s not something I emulate, but I marvel at how natural it is for them. I also enjoy Italy. Again, elegant women but much sexier than in Paris, and – do they love jewelry!
I know you’ve started taking photographs in the past few years. How has your life in fashion informed your photography – or has it?
I think all my years in fashion have trained my eye in a way that’s very subtle, that is, I’m not consciously aware of it. I seem to naturally take well-framed and fairly graphic photos. I shoot black-and-white film with a Nikon I bought in the 80′s on automatic, so most of my photos are not posed or planned but found as I wander. I recently did my first “fashion shoot” with an acrobatic troupe modeling furs in Iceland. My teacher is Mary Ellen Mark and she continues to inspire me.
What do you like most about having the shops?
I’m a people person, I love to chat and meet people. And I’ve made so many friendships because of the store. It’s very nice. I learn a lot from our customers. I’ve had customers for so long I’ve seen them go from shopping with their father’s credit card to their first job on a budget to getting married or getting a bigger job. So I know their life very well and they get to know mine.
I love to see them come in looking one way and they put themselves together another way. I really like the idea of the transformation. It’s really interesting to see people try on a new persona through clothes. That’s what fashion is about – an opportunity to explore different personas.