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When Claire Distenfeld opened her boutique Fivestory in April 2012 in a townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, the press pounced. Partially because Distenfeld had hired good public relations and partly because the idea of a new multibrand luxury fashion store — not a Web site — seemed novel in this age of e-commerce domination.
In the case of Fivestory, the real brick and mortar was a historic brownstone on Manhattan’s East 69th Street, gutted and refilled with black-and-white marble floors, polished stone and tufted velvet furnishings by designer Ryan Korban. Before construction was complete, Fivestory had been written up in Vogue and The New York Times based purely on Distenfeld’s bravado. With no real retail experience, the then-26-year-old, who was coming off a brief stint in the art world, had been putting her store in the same sentence as such famed boutiques as 10 Corso Como and Colette.
Perhaps it wasn’t that easy, but a year into its existence Fivestory remains a name on the right people’s lips.
Sitting in the shoe mezzanine of the two-and-a-half-floor establishment, Distenfeld reflected on her first year in business, which admittedly came with a steep learning curve.
“I was able to do this because I was completely naïve and totally ignorant,” she said. Having a lot of cash with which to work didn’t hurt. Fivestory is financed by Distenfeld’s father and business partner, Fred, who closed the business he inherited from his father — Luxury Accessories International, an importer of exotic skins — just as he and his daughter decided to open Fivestory. They spared no expense when it came to designing the store, which carries men’s, women’s and children’s wear.
Such a lush, expensive-looking environment has no doubt given Distenfeld much-needed leverage in New York’s shark tank of a retail environment. Carven, McQ, Balmain, Creatures of the Wind and Peter Pilotto are among the women’s designers she stocks, while men’s includes Michael Bastian, Comme des Garçons Hommes, Visvim and Christophe Lemaire. Her shoe selection includes Gianvito Rossi, Nina Ricci, Aquazurra and Rochas. Distenfeld would love to add Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaïa to that list in shoes and ready-to-wear, but with neighbors like Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Valentino, Céline, Chloé and Proenza Schouler, a start-up retailer seeking designer wares to sell can be more akin to Avon calling than, say, Carla Sozzani wandering into a showroom.
“I have no shame,” said Distenfeld on knocking on designers’ doors. “It’s so funny because when I talk with friends about rejection in some way, shape or form, I’m like, ‘I get rejected 17 times a day. You just have to deal with it.’”
Getting the right designers is an ongoing challenge in the race to be distinctive. Stiff local competition has lead Distenfeld to readjust her original stockist point of view, which was to carry things not found elsewhere.
“Between the Internet, and blogs and Instagram, it’s impossible,” she said. “I realized that everything started getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Net-a-porter is going into beauty now and Barneys’ shoe floor is just a monster. I do want to carry things that are off the beaten track, but they’re curated. We have Peter Pilotto, Bergdorf has Peter Pilotto, but instead of having 12 dresses, I’m going to show you four.”
Distenfeld said she’s surprised by something every day. For example, fine jewelry has emerged as the most lucrative category for Fivestory, which currently has Alison Lou and Noor Fares exclusively. Or that the men’s wear customer has been a far bigger mystery than the women’s shopper, who is “between 35 and 50,” said Distenfeld. “She likes to be unique, but she doesn’t want to dress wacky. They don’t come in and want to put the plants on their head.”
Distenfeld is no Luddite — the store maintains a chicly-designed Web site, Tumblr and Twitter — but she has no plans to launch e-commerce. “I really worked so hard with my team and Ryan Korban, who designed the store with us, to make this a palace,” said Distenfeld. “It’s almost like doing e-commerce delegitimizes how much work we’ve put into the brick and mortar.”
It doesn’t begin and end with the decor and the merchandise — Fivestory is a lifestyle store, built on thinking big in a jewel-box environment. The store is introducing an exclusive scent done in collaboration with Le Labo. Distenfeld considers events important, but the average trunk show won’t do.
“I have an excuse to get in touch with anyone,” she said. “I can call Mario Batali. I technically don’t know him, but I can try and get in touch with him and be like, ‘I want to do a cooking event at Fivestory.’ The second you call yourself a lifestyle you have access to anything.”