THOUGH HE CARRIES TWO cellphones, maintains a personal Tumblr blog, and Tweets throughout the day, Christopher Yang likes, he says, “to fly under the radar.” He won’t say where he lives, how old he is, or even his professional title at The Tannery, though he later relents (he’s general manager and a buyer). The most specific personal detail he’ll offer up is his Starbucks order — Venti black tea lemonade — which, actually, is less revealed than overheard.
Young shoppers these days are a mess of contradiction, and part of Yang’s success is understanding, and playing to, that fact. Yang is a Tannery employee but also its quintessential customer, the endlessly plugged-in 18- to 34-year-old who’s interested enough in fashion to spend most of his disposable income on clothing (“My savings is my closet,” Yang says) but way too cool for department stores. Only a few years ago, that customer was too cool for The Tannery, too. For 40 years, the family-run store was known for its apparel and its shoes, which skewed toward the functional: Minnetonka moccasins, Birkenstocks. But in recent years, The Tannery has transformed from practical to a place where you can buy leopard print cashmere and skinny floral denim, as well as, say, a pair of classic penny loafers.
In late 2008, the Hassan family, which owns The Tannery, hired Yang away from the Nordstrom shoe department to help launch Curated by The Tannery, the shop-in-shop that features designer and ready-to-wear clothing and shoes for men and women. There are still plenty of Birkenstocks — and Uggs and Hunter boots — but there are also shoes and clothes from names, both well known and less so, including Helmut Lang, Bottega Veneta, Surface to Air, and PRPS. “We’re not going to drop a brand like Birkenstock, which everyone loves and is a relationship we treat with respect,” Yang says. “At the same time, we’re trying to push the envelope in Boston a little bit, move it away from black and white, black and brown, Sperry, Polo.” The feel in the Boylston Street flagship and its Harvard Square satellite is upscale Urban Outfitters: loud music, staffers with cool haircuts. The fifty-something browsing the racks of Moncler looks out of place until it becomes clear she’s here with her son.
“Three years ago, that woman would be in here for boots and shoes only,” says Yang. “Now people come in here and are like, ‘Wow, you sell clothes?’ And then they keep coming back.” Yang describes a storewide culture that emphasizes being all things to shoppers: outfits and shoes for any occasion, from late night at a downtown club to Sunday brunch with the parents to weekends in the mountains. Four new websites launching in September — all designed, produced, and to be maintained under Yang’s leadership — will aim to take the brand beyond Boston and include separate “shops” for The Tannery’s shoe floor, Curated by, Harvard Square sneaker shop-in-shop Concepts, and Wilderness Workshop, with brands like Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Barbour.
Like its customers, The Tannery takes pains to be different. By scouting out new brands — they were the first to carry Rag & Bone’s full men’s and women’s collections in Boston, Yang says — or buying what Yang describes as “out there” pieces, the store has been able to wrestle brand exclusivity away from other small boutiques and operate in tandem with department stores. “Department stores might buy the more traditional colors, but we’re willing to take the risk and buy that electric blue no one [else] wants to buy,” says Yang. “And that has really set us apart,” both with shoppers and with designers. To keep the model successful, he insists that buyers — in addition to sales staff — engage with customers: Why isn’t an item selling? Why is it? “We want to know the reason why every single piece has worked or hasn’t,” he says. “Reading reports is one thing, but being on the floor is where it’s at.”
It sure is. On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Boylston Street store, there’s a swirl of customers poring over Tory Burch flats on the ground floor and a three-deep wait for the women’s fitting room upstairs. “Once a lot of the kids come back, there’s a definite rush, and things go fast,” he says. “Like, last August, there was this Opening Ceremony coat that had just hit the floor, and I had to have it. It was 85 degrees in August, and I was going around wearing a camo peacoat. I just loved it so much.”