By Francesca Moisin
The one constant at B. Conte boutique in Williamsburg is that things are always changing. Friendly-priced merchandise flies off shelves, to be swapped with new pieces from famous labels and up-and-coming designers. Regular trunk shows introduce cocktail-sipping customers to an influx of fresh accessories, both antique and au courant. Even the 750-square-foot retail space pulls double duty as a gallery, with the work of local artists rotating on the walls. “What I like best about my store is how it’s in steady flux,” says owner Bernadette Conte.
Such modifications mimic the neighborhood itself, which Conte feels has evolved dramatically since she opened shop four years ago. The economy had tanked, dragging her eponymous clothing line down with it. Potential garment patrons weren’t spending, and the 50-year-old entrepreneur struggled to concoct a new business plan. That’s when husband James Sheppard, a furniture maker and longtime Brooklyn resident, stumbled upon the empty North 9th Street room—and Conte couldn’t resist. “I suddenly remembered this tucked-away dream of owning a boutique,” recalls the Yonkers native. Now the place is packed with urban bohemians and quirky young professionals, all with at least one quality in common: their fetish for eclectic fashion. “I go to trade shows, paw through Garment District showrooms, and scour vintage warehouses, because I’m always searching for unique items,” says Conte. “If you can find it easily elsewhere, I’m not so interested.”
Less subtle is the Eve Gravel “April” pencil dress ($220), a chocolate Mad Men-esque Lycra and cotton confection boasting bold mustard accents, like epaulettes. Can’t find the perfect frock? Conte, an FIT grad, also breathes new life into outdated duds by adding modern tweaks while preserving their vintage vibe.
Near the entrance, a glass case displays copper cuffs from the 1950s, all varnished with a special lacquer that ensures they’ll never tarnish. A gold ‘70s mock-Egyptian necklace screams for attention next to its shy sister, a Victorian strand. There are Damascene brooches, pewter Selen Design pieces, and striking adornments by Sky Phaebl. “We’re known for our extensive jewelry collection,” says Conte. “These treasures are like my babies—I feel a pang when each is sold, but I want them all to end up in happy homes.”
And, most blissfully, there are hats: petite cloches, cheeky cadet caps, velvet turbans, pillboxes with veils, and froufrou fascinators worn by Brits at weddings. The pomegranate “Head Lipstick” fedora ($225) from English milliner Julia Knox is made of fur felt, each feather hand-adhered to the brim with care.
“When would I put it on?” asks a dazzled browser. “You’d become the girl with the red hat, so you’d want to wear it everywhere!” says Knox.
Ditto for everything in this world of whimsy.
167 North 9th
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211