Jennifer Gerien remembers Court Street in Cobble Hill 11-years-ago:
“There were a bunch of butcher shops,” said Gerien. “But no clothing stores.”
Gerien, a Brooklyn resident, solved that problem in 1999 when she opened , a clothing boutique originally located at 177 Court St. and now located two blocks south in a bigger space at 209 Court St.
“It was sort of a spontaneous decision,” she said. “Back then rent was cheap so it was doable.”
About two years later, fashion veteran Diane Russo, who also lives in Brooklyn, opened her own boutique at 174 Court St., citing the same shortage of clothing retailers.
“The neighborhood needed an upscale clothing store,” said Russo.
The two shops have been staples of Court Street for the past decade, serving as forerunners to the dozens of boutiques and retail chains that now line Smith Street and Atlantic Avenue.
While Lily and Diane T share a thoroughfare, they exude distinctly different atmospheres.
Lily welcomes customers with an indie-rock soundtrack and an earthy vibe. Distressed wooden tables and double-decker racks under an original tin ceiling display Michael Stars tees, Hobo wallets and Dansko clogs.
T-shirts with a “bklyn” logo designed by a local artist were the store’s hottest items in its early days and are still stocked on the shelves. Maureen Salter trudged through the snow on a Saturday afternoon to buy a gray “bklyn” tee.
“I can’t find these anywhere else,” she said.
It’s Gerien’s goal to stay local when it comes to her merchandise.
“I like to carry jewelry and clothing from local designers,” says Gerien, who gained her fashion sense at a young age. “My mother also owns clothing stores. I grew up in the business,” she said.
Across Court Street and one block north, Diane T, with its bright white walls and bare cement floors, is a decidedly high-end boutique. The store introduced itself to the neighborhood in 2001 as one of the first stores in Brooklyn to carry 7 For All Mankind denim.
“Customers lined up outside for those jeans,” said Russo.
The clothing racks that line each wall of Diane T’s airy space are still stocked with upscale creations from French designers such as Vanessa Bruno and Cacharel and domestic high-fashion name brands like Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg.
"I wanted to open a nice store in the neighborhood that would give people more options," said Russo, who also got an early start in fashion.
“My mom used to design my clothes. I’d pick a pattern, and she would make it,” she said. “Fashion has been my life ever since.”
When Russo and Gerien first opened their stores, the neighborhood was just starting to gentrify, and the influx of older, more affluent residents during the past decade has undoubtedly boosted business. But as grocers and bakeries turned into restaurants and coffee houses, other boutiques, chain retailers and vintage shops infiltrated what was once Diane T and Lily’s niche market. Stores like and on Smith Street and and Callalilai on Atlantic Avenue opened. And now, the two boutiques face their biggest nemesis yet: the on Atlantic, which opened in October 2010.
“The opening of those stores didn’t necessarily make me happy,” said Gerien. And as a result, she has made a few tweaks to Lily. To keep up with the changing neighborhood, she’s started selling pricier handbags and has mixed more contemporary looks with the casual, natural-fiber styles that were once Lily’s mainstay.
But for the most part, the owners of Diane T and Lily have barely flinched in the face of tough competition. They continue to rely on the strategies that have kept them in business for a decade: customer loyalty and a varied selection of apparel.
By being the first stores of their kind on Court Street, both Diane T and Lily developed devoted customer bases that don’t seem to have strayed. On two consecutive snowy Saturdays in January, a steady stream of customers flowed into both shops.
Julie Farris has shopped at Diane T since its launch and still prefers it to some of the newer arrivals.
“Anything in Diane’s far exceeds anything in Barneys," she said. "It’s not corporate and it’s much more wearable."
Lily has its own faithful following. Carmit Zori, a violinist from Cobble Hill, has shopped at Lily for about six years.
"This store hooks people, and it becomes like a subscription,” she said.
Both owners combat the onslaught of competition by aiming to make their stores small, one-stop shops that sell a wide range of items. After all, if you find everything you want in one store — whether at high-end prices or lower ones — why go anywhere else?
“We want this store to be like your closet,” said Danielle Ritter, manager of Diane T, which sells casual clothes like a brown Inhabit cashmere cardigan (marked down to $250) and dressier fare such as a silk Diane von Furstenberg nude and navy striped dress ($345).
The same holds true at Lily, where the selection of clothing ranges from Michael Stars long-sleeve tees ($68) to a green floral-print Salaam frock ($88).
Russo and Gerien also rely on word-of-mouth to garner new customers, a smart strategy in a neighborhood dedicated to supporting its own.
Indeed, "bklyn" tee buyer Salter says buying locally is key.
"I like to see local business do well," she said. "So I make an effort to shop here."
After watching Court Street transform from a butcher and bakery-laden boulevard to one now packed with retail chains and small businesses, both boutiques fully embrace the evolution of a community that’s supported their businesses for a decade.
“We hope that as more stores open, this neighborhood becomes known as a shopping district,” said Ritter.
The idea is catching on. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Madeline Polton, who lives nearby, browsed the racks at Diane T, hunting for a dress for vacation.
“I started shopping here at my cousin’s suggestion. She said ‘everything you want from Bergdorf’s is right here.’”