Claire Distenfeld, Owner, Fivestory
Claire Distenfeld (newly Olshan) is all about elevating an experience. Even upon entering her Downtown NYC home, she is quick to offer you water, but if you think it's a glass from the tap or a closet full of Poland Spring, you would be mistaken. We watched as Claire pulled out her glass water dispenser (it looked something like this) filled it with water and ice, cut fresh lemon slices and swirled them around the glacial water bath with ease. There was a new aroma, a change of mood, a motion that was full of care, and I can quote myself as saying, 'You make the best water I've ever tasted.' Claire's road to starting Fivestory seems similar. A born and raised New York City kid, shaped by her surroundings of culture, art and privilege, Claire started curating through her work in the art world but left soon after she realized her dream job wasn't actually that. Spending time with her beloved New York, searching for her next career move, Claire realized the retail experiences she was looking for were not to be found. However, she was quick to make that change (along with her business partner father) and knew exactly what she wanted it to be, how it should look, and what it should feel like. 6 years later and Claire is now one of the most respected visionaries in the retail space where she still continues to discover and curate new artists and talent, but now, even more than ever, it's fueled by her love of creating experiences for others.
Claire, can you talk a little bit about your background and how Fivestory came to be?
I grew up in New York, and I was always very, very interested in art. Obviously, growing up here, I was surrounded by it and had it available to me everywhere and in all the museums. I grew up uptown and lived next to the Whitney and the Met and the Frick and so I kind of just pigeon-holed and thought that I was going to work in art and do something related to it. I went to NYU, got my Bachelors and then got my Masters in contemporary art. I dabbled in museums and curating, and I finally got to what I felt my goal was going to be. I was directing a gallery in the Lower East Side and I was curating the artist that we sold, as well the exhibitions. I honestly thought that was my dream, but right when I thought it, I kind of felt empty and that the the art world wasn't exactly what I had hoped it would be. I felt that maybe I had to re-evaluate what my entire life pursuit was, which I guess, is a very existential moment that a lot of 23-24 year olds have and I realized that I didn't want to do it. I went to the guy that I worked with and I quit and I finally, completely unemployed, spent time with New York for the first time, ever. As a true New Yorker, you're always over scheduled, you're always running around, and you're always doing too much. For me, it was the first time I really got to spend time and walk the streets and enjoy the city. What I came to realize is that the retail landscape of New York was very empty and very cold, and very calculated. It kind of pissed me off, because this is the city that I loved and I called my own and I couldn't really find any stores that I could explore, and have an experience and discover new things. That's kind of how the idea of Fivestory came about.
What would you say Fivestory's mission is? What makes it different?
Fivestory is here to elevate your shopping experience. It's here to teach you things. It's here to tell you stories. It's here to give you experiences that you can't experience anywhere else, and it's here to really give you a 360 view of what a lifestyle store should be. It shouldn't stop and end with the product, it should stop and end with the customer. That's what we've always been about. We've always been about giving the customer a lifestyle and exposing them to a lifestyle that we think is truly a Fivestory experience. You become part of the family when you buy something there and that you feel cared for because we really, really, really do care about our clients and we would do anything for them. We really feel that that's what makes us unique and different, because we're all about you, we're not about us, we're not about what we're selling, we're about what we can do for our clients, and how we can make stories with them through clothing, through experiences, and through anything.
What do you think has been the most surprising thing of you starting your own business?
I think the most surprising thing, and the thing that really taught me the most is: how to make a mistake, how to deal with a mistake, and then how to learn from a mistake. I feel like I've jumped into the retail business, which has so many idiosyncrasies that I didn't ever, ever fathom. I spent the first year of my business making mistakes and I spent the second year of my business fixing them, but, along with fixing them, I actually had a real introspective moment where I had to realize I was not good at a lot of things. I had to really realize what I was good at, and then I had to hire people who were smarter than I was, and kind of fill in all the gaps. You have to kind of put your ego to the side for a while and let people who know what they're doing drive for a little bit. I think that it's not necessarily surprising, but it's definitely a learning experience that I didn't expect. But it happened really fast and thank God it happened, because these people saved my life.
Connecting to your gut is as much about connecting to your body as it is to your mind and there are certain things that help make the connection to your intuition strong. Are there any practices that you find help you get into your creative space?
I love that you say that, only because I do really believe that the gut is as much a brain as your brain is. You can read it, if you can find the key to the map and you can really understand what all those big intuitions and all those big words really mean. I do think meditation is huge. I think meditation is a real guide to knowing your body. I also think that people pigeonhole meditation to be sitting, closing your eyes, and that doesn't have to be the case. Some people take walks, some people swim, some people dance, some people do tons of different things. Personally I do TM, and that's just my form of meditation. I also do acupuncture. I also just started doing yoga, and I go to an energy healer. I'm really drinking the kool-aid when it comes to that stuff, and I do really, truly see a difference. Not necessarily in the voice of my body, but in being able to get on to the right frequency to hear it.
Could you just talk a little bit about your relationship and experience with your energy healer?
One thing I can tell you, that is very obvious with an energy healer, and I've gone to a few, so I'm not going to say only mine does this, but it's that time really kind of does stop when you're with them. Things slow down. We all juggle so many much during the day, and we can say that we're present most of the moments, but at the end of the day you realize that being present is only relative. You can be talking to someone and be like, 'I'm not on my phone, I'm present', but at the end of the day you're really not. Usually, when you see energy healers they have the ability to really grab and shoo all the other energies in the room away, and give you this pacified nature that allows you to focus on.
The difference between an energy healer and a therapist, which I don't think most people compare the two that often, but should, because they serve very similar purposes, is that a therapist will have you talk through your problems and then will shine light on them. When you leave, you still have these problems that have big spotlights on them. While most people think that they've unpacked them and maybe reworked them, at the end of the day, they're still there. With energy healers, they really try to rid you of the negative energy and try to flush the emotions out. Disease can be like dis - ease, and it can be an ease that's just sitting in your body and creating some type of trauma. Energy healers help flush that out. There's a real kind of cleanliness that you feel in your body when you leave an energy healer that you don't feel with a therapist or anybody else.
And what about those things that you've had to flush, or the walls that you've had to knock down being a young, woman entrepreneur and business owner. What advice can you give others in a similar space?
There's been so many... I think when you start a business when you're young, you really need to realize that no matter how successful you are or how easy things are going or how hard things are, you really need to learn and know that you don't know everything. You really to listen, always ask for advice, take meetings and be the sponge that you should be. It's really, really important. When you're young, you really have to take the opportunity to talk to as many people as possible and learn other people's mistakes, and almost over expose yourself to that.
The best thing I can ever say, was that I didn't let my mistakes knock me down. I was humbled by them and I was frustrated by them, but at the end of the day, think of it as a boxing match. You can fall down, but you just have to go back in the game. I think that's really important.
What I learned from reading The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon, was that he always said to his employees that they should imagine the company that would disrupt their business, and imagine what that company would do to put them out of business. Envision the thing that someone else would do to put you out of business, and do it yourself. Always push the envelope when it comes to your own industry. For me, that was pushing what retail might have to become because I do think that retail right now is in this weird moment where it was the same for always. Buying something for two dollars selling it for five. I don't think customers really want that anymore. I think customers are too smart, I think they want more out of their stores. I think that disrupting your own comfort level is always the way to go.
Henry Ford said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses." And that's what people, his customers knew. So, he invented the thing that made horses null and void...
Our last question is on the idea of legacy and what it is that you want to leave behind as your mark on this world.
Legacy. Goodness, guys that's really heavy...
It definitely has something to do with New York, because to me, New York courses through my veins. I think when I opened Fivestory, I did it, as I said, for the city that I lived in and for the city that shaped me and for the person that I am today. I think that if I could give back to the city a store that can have people fantasize about their life or their future, or their past, or all three in one place and really kind of experience fashion and retail, and health and wellness, all in one place and have them walk out a better person, then that is the ultimate dream. I just want to inspire people in the same way that I'm inspired by everything that I put in to Fivestory.