Their parents thought they were crazy.
When brothers Desta, Paul, and Jacob Parris conspired to open Vinnie’s Styles on Pacific Street and Flatbush Avenue in early 2002, they were not only launching a retail boutique in the economic ashes of the Sept. 11, but in the midst of a much more personal tragedy—the passing of their grandfather and inspiration, Calvin Robertson. It was enough to cause most people to table any dream chasing until there was a more stable climate.
But the Parris brothers pushed forward, undeterred. Vinnie’s Styles, was their destiny.
“Things were so unpredictable at that time,” said Desta Parris, 33. “We understood what they were thinking but at the same time our grandfather’s vision was burning inside of us.”
Calvin Robertson was a Panamanian tailor who migrated to America in the 1950s. In the late 1970s, he opened a small menswear and alterations shop named Vinnie’s on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights that is still a neighborhood fixture today.
“We grew up in the business,” said Desta.“Before we sold jeans and sneakers and stuff, we couldn’t even come in the store with jeans on. That was the rule. He’d tell us, ‘Don’t even come in my store with jeans. Come from school and take them jeans off. Put on slacks."
The brothers may have grown up in the business, but what is now a top destination for high-end street wear fashion was earned only after weathering rough waters. The first years for most businesses are extremely temperamental, especially those ventured in the midst of a recession. Vinnie’s Styles was forced to make concessions to establish a customer base.
“It was a real struggle,” Desta said. “It wasn’t just out the gate, ‘here’s jeans.’ We sold the garments from over on Utica, doing alterations in order to bring the customer base up. We were still selling shoes. A lot of stuff (we sold) was the slacks and the shoes and then eventually a lot of urban lines that we had to sell at the time because we had to get our feet wet.”
As the market improved in the mid-2000s, so did Vinnie’s Styles sales and reputation. The boutique became known as the only place to find the most en vogue apparel in Brooklyn. Vinnie’s Styles was the first in the borough to carry Japanese denim, Evisu and the posh American line, PRPS (founded by former Nike designer, Donwan Harrell). Platinum artists, Fabolous and Jim Jones among them, began shouting out the shop in their verses. Everyone from hustlers to doctors to celebrities frequented the shop in search of the world’s "flyest" wears.
But the tipping point for the boutique was the creation of the now ubiquitous “Brooklyn” T-Shirts designed by 30-year-old Jacob Parris. Bombarded by tourists and people new to the neighborhood wanting tees with the borough emblazoned across the front, Jacob grew tired of directing patrons to the local Army & Navy stores.
“My brother literally wrote that out one day with a pencil,” Desta said.
“The first time he did it, I was like “Nah, I don’t like it,” says Paul Parris, 26. “I told him to write it again.”
Jacob continues: “When they first came in I thought they were ugly. ... but we had a couple folks that came in when it first hit the stores. They bought a couple pieces and it was like wildfire after that.”
The “Brooklyn” tees became the flagship design for Vinnie’s Styles in-house brand, Paulie’s, and were so successful that they were heavily bootlegged. Local competitors copied the logo and printed their own in attempt capitalize on the craze. Even a major hat company infringed on the rights to the logo.
“It’s a salty-flattering feeling, if that makes sense,” Jacob said. “We worked that out with them and got ourselves into a little better position." Out of the experience came Paulie’s Hat Company, with the caps debuting in the fall.
The Parris brothers have a keen eye for what’s next in fashion and style, supplemented by two generations of familial entrepreneurship. They launched Vinnie’s Styles in one recession and expanded as the nation wallowed in another.
In 2008, Vinnie’s Styles Atlanta opened its doors. In 2009, they branched into the children’s market with Little Vinnies on Flatbush Avenue. In 2010, Vinnie’s Styles moved out of its comparatively meager Pacific Street location and into a plush, 2000 square-foot flagship store on Flatbush Avenue and Bergen Street.
“Vinnie’s Tokyo, that’s already in the works,” said Paul. “Look out for Miss Vinnie’s, too.”
But beyond the notoriety, business savvy and the swank wears, what resonates most is the Parris brother’s unwavering sense of community. Shopping in Vinnie’s Styles feels like picking out clothes out of your best friend’s closet—only if your best friend were Jay-Z. Desta, Paul and Jacob seem to know every customer personally and the one’s they don’t, they treat like family as well.
“I shopped at their grandfather’s store over on Utica,” said Whitney Thomas, now a patron of both Vinnie’s Brooklyn locations. “You come by, you chill, relax, talk. You play chess. It’s a community thing.”
“We’ve been in business for 10 years and another five to 10 years at our grandfather’s location,” said Desta. “We literally grew up with everybody that’s our customers. Our grandfather was a fixture of his community. Vinnie’s Styles will always be a fixture in the Brooklyn community because that was the whole concept of Vinnie’s.”
"The worst risk is not taking a risk,” he added.