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Meeting Amy Abrams, founder of Artists & Fleas, a bi-coastal marketplace of makers, felt like sitting down with a familiar, waaaay cool friend—but the nice kind of cool. Abrams has created and cultivated communities of tastemakers, collectors, and curators and helped provide them with guidance as well as a platform so that their wares can be consumed by shoppers looking to connect with something meaningful IRL. With outposts in NYC, Brooklyn, Venice, and soon Washington, D.C., Artists & Fleas is helping this creative community of shoppers and sellers come together to discover and be discovered.
MELISSA: You have such a unique concept and with so much emphasis today on makers and creators and curators—especially online—how have you been able to harness that creativity and translate that into IRL experiences? Where do you find everyone that you put in your spaces, do you have a specific criteria?
AMY: We’re actually celebrating our 15 year anniversary this year, which is super crazy. We’ve been doing a lot of looking back lately. So it’s really timely that you’re asking me these questions. Originally one of the things, and sort of to this day, that has always been important is attracting a very deep variety in lots of different categories.Our philosophy is that the market will tell you what kind of works and what doesn’t work. So I think initially, 15 years ago, the landscape looked very different in terms of makers and creators. We had to really go to all different random places and stores to ask people to participate. Then over time people started to hear about us. There are lots of different pathways people find us and we find them. It still remains remarkable to me how many people are so talented.
I also have a really amazing team and I’m so grateful for them. I know what I like and my tastes have evolved but I think my team is really in touch and much more in the scene. Our weekend markets are constantly changing because it’s a very low barrier to entry. Many of those people work towards being able to be at the market seven days a week. It’s really amazing when people say, “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve always wanted to sell with you and I’m finally here.” I never forget how hard it is to put something you have made out into the world. We try to maintain a really supportive environment in terms of our staff and other merchants so people feel good. It’s really rewarding when people respond to something, love something, and make that connection.
MELISSA: Do you find the different locations have a different mix? Tell us about the Artist & Fleas bi-coastal customer, we’d love to know how things are going in Venice and what you’ve discovered since breaking ground out west too!
AMY: Totally. I think all of the locations have a bit of a different personality. I’ve always felt that way. I think because Brooklyn and Venice are just weekends they have more experimental people at those markets. While the seven day a week markets have a little bit more established people who know their customers. They have a better sense since the stakes are higher. I always say, there are more dreamcatchers, kimonos, and really amazing crystal energy in LA, which I love. I feel like New York has a little bit more of an edgier grind to it. You do see some crossover in really beautiful jewelry in both places. For us what is really fun is seeing merchants sell across the country in both places. Also, there are certain things that work both in NY and LA. Vintage works everywhere, records work everywhere. I love vintage so its a gift that it works everywhere. I most recently found a puff sleeve 80s denim jumpsuit. Believe it or not, I have multiple denim jumpsuits! I also have a very big collection of vintage 70s Indian dresses, which I have collected forever but have found some amazing ones in LA. I feel out there, I find a more casual California vibe, which I love. And here, I tend to find more designer, heavier pieces. My latest purchase from Mark at Gypsy Nation was a camel velvet suit from the 70s.
MELISSA: Is there a time when you can recall a trend emanating from some of your creator and seller community? Like were you seeing a ton of tie dye, macramé, or head wrap headbands 2-3 years ago before they resurfaced in the mainstream and wound up on every millennial?
AMY: Absolutely. I think that it’s unbelievable how many designers shop the market, and it’s really exciting when we have met some of them. Personally, one of the highlights of my time was when Isabel Marant came shopping in Williamsburg. I love her clothes and I’ve collected her clothes and I wear her clothes. I always pictured myself, going to go to France one day, going to her office and drinking coffee. I don’t smoke cigarettes, but smoke a cigarette with her. Then she came to my office! It was really great. It’s amazing because there’s so many designers that come and shop. I think that they are looking for inspiration and I think it’s a combination between vintage, but also tons of people who are just artistic and pushing the limits. So, I’ve definitely seen trends over the years. I remember, this is now going back a little bit, but years ago there was someone who was making really interesting jewelry with animals and owls. And then I remember two years later there were owls everywhere! Recently, there has been a big explosion in body and bath care. Both in LA and NY people are making their own clean, herbal soaps. I mean everything you mentioned, we have seen along the way.
I hope that I'm weirdly inspiring!
MELISSA: I often see you spanning the 70s and 80s in your own style. Do you have an era that you gravitate towards more or less, or do you transcend both?
AMY: I would say … it’s funny. I think that I lean very heavily towards the 70s but I definitely like the 80s because I grew up in the 80s. I have never met a puff sleeve that I didn’t love. It’s interesting because I like a lot of different things in vintage, although you would probably see thematic things and I love color. I love coats and outerwear. But I definitely think I like a lot of things from the 70s and early 80s. I was a young adult in the 90s but I’m not a huge fan of that look. I feel the 60s is a little bit too structured, although I think Bonnie Cashin was pretty visionary. I really like to be comfortable. I really love beautiful clothes that feel good, but that you’re very comfortable wearing. So if I’m not comfortable, I never grab it.
MELISSA: You’re the mom of 2 lovely young ladies, do they lay claim to certain pieces in your closet? Who is fighting for what?
AMY: They are definitely … it’s funny. They have very different styles, but there are pieces that they love. I laugh. They both steal my shoes now, but they definitely like certain things and sometimes they’ll say, “please save that for me. I don’t really want it now.” I have a big collection of metallic everything, jumpsuits etc., I just love metallic and sequins. So that has been claimed by my younger daughter. She’s super into that. Whereas, I think my older daughter, she tends to like more of the … believe it or not, I do have some super understated items. She likes a lot of the coats that I have. She likes some of the suits that I have and she’s super into accessories. She wants all my jewelry. It’s going to work out. We’re going to divide and conquer!
MELISSA: In a sea of black clad New Yorkers you are certainly not afraid of color and embellishment. How do you keep it vibrant but not too costume-y?
AMY: I think the funniest thing is that people really respond to color. I happen to really like red and I think actually everybody looks good in red. We recently had a party in Soho and I was wearing this red ruffle-y jumpsuit. Every single person said, ‘Oh my god, I love your jumpsuit!’ I think that sometimes people think they can’t do something. I hope that I’m weirdly inspiring. Everyone should wear red. I actually spend very little time getting ready and looking in the mirror. I might think about what I’m going to wear, but I have no time in the morning. So I think that I just follow things that I love and I really do! I’m sure there’s one or two times and it might’ve come off as crazy and clown-ey. But on the whole, I think it’s just about wearing things that I absolutely love and make me feel good. I definitely know what I like and definitely have edited out a lot of things that don’t make me happy anymore. But I’m a collector so I also have a lot of things!
MELISSA: What’s next for Artists & Fleas? Do you see it growing? Do you see it staying like this? Changing, or what’s up next?
AMY: On the horizon? Wow. We just came out of a really big meeting talking about that. Well, I think that we love what we do because it allows local talented people to create amazing things. It allows local communities to support us as well as visitors. And I think people have meaningful, in person experiences and people are thoughtful about what they buy. In the next couple of years we’re going to experiment with other cities and experiment with more verticals. But you have to be thoughtful about how it can be supported. Definitely a mix of new and vintage. We’ve done these really fun vintage showcases with small curated collections. These are what we would want to bring to other cities. Huge is amazing, but it’s too overwhelming for most so we want to keep these small. I think we will do what we do, but have it take on a few different forms in more locations.
MELISSA: What is the schedule for the different locations?
AMY: All of our locations are always changing. The dynamic component to what we do is really important. Sometimes in Soho we do a tiny pop up for someone who is really interested in seeing if their stuff will work before signing on. But most people in Soho are here at a minimum of two weeks. Sometimes people do a month, sometimes people do three months, sometimes people are here for a year because it’s their store. Chelsea is similar to Soho, the minimum is two weeks and Brooklyn, we have people that come, the shortest is a weekend and the same in LA. You can just do one weekend. There’s a lot of people that it becomes their location. There are always new people. When everyone’s like, “Oh my God, what’s new?” I’m like, there’s always something new.
MELISSA: People are really fickle and savvy shoppers these days with the internet and so much choice. Do you think that changing out merchants is helpful for you?
AMY: I think that there’s a combination between—we change out the merchants and the merchants are pretty savvy at changing. I think jewelers change out their color stories while vintage is constantly changing. For example, Juan Carlos who makes the hoodies, does a limited edition hoodies with different color ways. This is an example how a lot of the merchants have gotten much savvier at clientelling.
MELISSA: 100%. How did you come up with the concept and the unique name?
AMY: My husband is my partner, which is mostly fun. I mean there’s moments! We both love to travel. When we travel we always try to find marketplaces. I also come from a long line of shoppers. My grandmas were both great shoppers. One of them had no money and one of them had a decent amount of money. So one was a bargain hunter and one liked outfits. My mom loved jewelry, though the only piece of fine jewelry she owns is her diamond ring. I got my love for craft fairs from going with my mom and buying from craft makers. She also loved flea markets. My husband’s father and grandfather were both art and antique dealers. It’s in our blood.
When we started it, we were living in Williamsburg and all the markets had closed on 6th Avenue. It started as a place for all our friends to come and hang out. In our original location, we had a woman selling cupcakes, later we found out they were more like weed brownies. Another woman was selling sake, it really was a place to bring people together and create a place where we would want to hang out. Then people started to say, ‘I can quit my day job if I know you’re going to be open next week.’ It evolved into a business. Ultimately, it became something that was really meaningful to a lot of people, including ourselves and supports our family.
MELISSA: The name?
AMY: Yes. The name. It’s so funny. I think it’s a great name. My husband and I both love vintage, so fleas was a play on that. I think artists capitalizes on a lot of things and I think your artistic if you support artists. So that was the name. It stuck! Yes, people have said to change it but we are keeping it!