From the moment I stepped into In God We Trust’s Shop and studio in Brooklyn I knew I was in a special place. Brooke, the long time friend of founder Shana Tabor, greeted me with a disarming charm and from then on I was swept up in the unique energy of this creative studio. At a time when ‘culture’ is the buzzword on the cover of every business magazine, In God We Trust seems to have found a way of being, a vibe, all its own, and not easily summed up in words. It’s a testament to Shana’s vision, and the community of people she works with every day.
Shana’s story is the story of an artist, and it begins when, as a kid, she discovered a passion for making clothes with her grandmother’s sewing machine. Later, inspired by two art teachers from her youth, she followed her passion for design to the city where she graduated from FIT before opening In God We Trust’s first shop in 2005.
Over the past decade her brand has evolved to include clothing, jewelry, men's and women's accessories and a burgeoning wedding band collection, all made locally in the US. There are currently three stand-alone locations in New York and Shana and her team manage a successful e-commerce site while supplying other retailers with their goods as well.
I thought Shana would be perfect for By The Bootstraps based on a recommendation from previous Bootstrap subjects, David and Kavi Moltz of D.S. and Durga. David worked at St. Helen’s Café on Williamsburg’s Wythe Avenue, across the street from In God We Trust’s initial store, back when the neighborhood looked and felt a lot different than it does today.
I sat down with Shana in her Greenpoint Avenue location last week to discuss everything from the growing pains of a brand, to her creative process, to her hopes for the upcoming election.
First things first, how did you find your passion?
It actually stems from an internal conversation, which was based on something I felt from my parents and a lot of other adults that I was around when I was a child...it seemed that these adults were all miserable with their work and lifestyle. Meanwhile, that work was where they spent most of their waking hours. I came to the early conclusion that I wanted to choose a path that would make me happier – something that wouldn’t have to be this life-long drudgery of, “Work? Blech”! Or, worse, waiting to be your true self until after you’d left work every day.
I asked myself, what are some things that I enjoy doing? More than design it was attached to construction. I learned how to sew when I was really young. Being able to take my mother’s old clothing or things I’d find at thrift stores and turn it into something I wanted to wear, that was really exciting to me.
I was also really fortunate that my public school in New Hampshire, starting at 12 years old, had a jewelry program. I’m pretty sure in hindsight that one of my teachers must have been a jeweler and fought to have a studio in our high school as well as basic metalsmith-ing in the junior high school.
I was so lucky and I also loved her so I think that made me want to follow a design path as well.
My parents were also really supportive to both my brother and I. I actually didn’t realize that was abnormal until I was in college and my roommate told me that her parents were upset with her for pursuing fashion design. It never even occurred to me that having parents like that was a thing.
You started at FIT, how did that lead to In God We Trust?
I actually went to school for apparel-making at first. Then, being in New York and being immersed in that culture a little bit more, I thought it wasn’t as much for me. I knew I’d come back to it eventually but I didn’t want to spend my life wholly in that industry. Now I know that anything can be what you make of it yourself, but at that time anyway, it all felt pretty toxic… the schedule, the environment, etc.
Jewelry making was always something I enjoyed doing, but didn’t realize it was a career path until that time. As opposed to fashion, jewelry design wasn’t an art that required you to live in only one of three major cities or that you work at a fashion company, and there were options: you could be a bench jeweler, or be the only jeweler in a small city. There were endless possibilities. I committed to the jewelry design program and graduated, and then I did a handful of jobs working in accessories and jewelry. These jobs were all at bigger “fashion companies” making costume jewelry, and it was exactly like working in fashion, so that’s when I realized something was still wrong. That world is a weird world – I was in an office Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, which is really 9am to 8 or 9pm, and emotionally, I was slipping away and not enjoying myself.
I had a really good friend who I was complaining to one night and he bluntly told me, “Stop doing this, this is your choice. There is an element here that you love or else you would stop completely”.
For some reason that really resonated with me. The very next day I quit my job and just said, “Fuck it”, I’ll figure it out.
Then I spent two years just kind of…
Figuring it out? (Laughs).
Well, this was 2002/2003, New York was a lot cheaper then and it’s not like I was making great salaries anyway so spending a couple years of being really broke? That was OK. As long as I could make enough money to pay my rent, I was good.
The whole DIY/customizing stuff was really a thing then so I got a lot of random event-based projects. Teen Vogue would hire me to show up with paint and a sewing machine and ruin your jeans (laughs).
Based on the success of one event, I’d get a recommendation for another brand or magazine to come and ruin their customer’s jeans and that was enough work to get me through and scrape by.
Yeah it was awesome! I’m so pleased that I even allowed myself that time to have freedom and figure out who I was.
Of course there was too much partying, too much working, all that stuff… but it was all on my own terms and that’s what was great. I could choose what I wanted to do.
I read that a few friends’ shops picked up your custom pieces, then you found some success and you had your brother’s support as well. Was there a moment where you thought this could be bigger than supplying for other people? How did the shop first come about?
I thought of the first shop as a baby step. I was merely taking my studio out of my bedroom and moving it into somewhere else. I also had a handful of friends that had small businesses and when you’re in your mid-20’s, trying to figure it all out that type of stuff is really important. Aside from myself having any entrepreneurial spirit, it was in my community and all around me.
I had also been selling jewelry to this store called The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The designer’s name was Judi Rosen and she had a shop on North 9th between First Avenue and A back then. She had a small studio space and a shop in the front and I thought she was so cool and that inspired what I wanted to do for me. (Editor’s note, that shop later moved onto Kenmare and Rosen found some success in the late 2000’s before eventually shuttering in an epic closing party.)
I got that space on Wythe between N.7th and N.8th in Williamsburg and just figured I’ll try it. I thought, “Can I make it work? I don’t know but I’ll give it a shot.”
There is this other interesting element about running a business. In hindsight, this is kind of an apology to a friend… I had a roommate that had this shop with one-of-a-kind, small objects, art, etc. She was awesome and continues to be awesome, but when we lived together I always gave her a bazillion opinions of what I thought could work for her shop. Then, when I actually had to deal with those challenges myself I was like, “OK, now I understand what you were talking about and dealing with all those years and I’m sorry.”
People still do that to me now, “Oh, what if you just did this?” “I’m sorry but do you take care of your three stores better than I am taking care of my three stores right now? Oh, that’s right, you don’t have three stores, shut the fuck up.” (Laughs)
It was a huge personal learning moment though, owning my own place, you just don’t know. Even to me the smallest mundane things were the ones you don’t think about: I have to make sure the toilet paper is here. I have to make sure the receipt paper is in. I have to make sure the lights are on and the light bulbs work. Not even the cooler, bigger picture creative stuff, just the day to day.
So that mundane stuff, were those the early struggles? If not, what were the early struggles?
I get bored easily so the different, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none tasks? The stress of those things helps me thrive.
I’m also sort of terrified by the government and being up to date on taxes and stuff, so I’d rather just play by the books and have everything taken care of. I have a great bookkeeper/accountant whom I’ve worked with since the beginning who has really helped with that.
That’s great. Any early wins that you remember that made it feel like you were on the right path? Any time when you felt like you were ready to think about next steps?
I still am humbled to this day when I see people in my jewelry or clothing in the real world.
I do remember a time when the store was open for a year and a half and other acquaintances I knew that were business owners were opening second locations. I thought to myself, “Is this something I want? Am I supposed to want this to get bigger?” Or, “Should I be working towards something more?”
So that turned into me finding a space in the city, and that point was eye opening for me because it meant I was taking this real, but not really real business into – well, this is how you run a business… You need to get a business loan. You need to sign a release. You need to do a build-out a space. It was very real and very scary. What if it doesn’t go well?
But, as cheesy as it is, I like to believe that if people are being honest with themselves and their work is honest, then it will be successful. If you work hard and you’re honest, then you’ll be successful. Whether that is Donald Trump’s version of success or not, I don’t know. I think I’ve always been that way though.
You trusted your gut and believed in yourself!
I think that people can get in their own way. They overthink things and obsess, but you have to just go for it. No one is going to turn around and say, “Well, you failed and I’m not going to be friends with you or love you anymore” (laughs) and if they do, then you don’t want them around anyway!
Did you have any major setbacks then? It seemed like your model to grow was incremental rather than massive and ‘all-in’.
I think personally and professionally, if you can’t afford something then you shouldn’t have it, and emotionally, if you can’t handle something then you shouldn’t try it. For us, it’s always been baby steps. This is our size and it’s good for us, and we do it in steps that make sense for us.
I always feel bad for people that have investors that have a shit ton of money put into a space and then they sat on a space for 6 to 12 months and then they finally open and no one is buying things. What are you going to do when that closes? Get a design job somewhere and pay off $500,000 worth of debt? I guess people think, “Go big or go home.” But that’s just not me.
As you grow, how do you adapt your business?
I think it’s about understanding your customer but also about trusting yourself. This business has changed so much, aesthetic wise… interest wise. In the past 11 years, I’m not thinking, “Oh, we still have to appeal to this set of people.” But in my personal life, I’ve changed a lot, so my personal tastes have changed and the business goes with that. I’ve got kids now, you know?
I’d like to think that my people and customers are growing with us. I opened the store when I was 27 and I’m 38 now. Look at our wedding and engagement rings; if I had tried to sell those then, I probably would’ve gone out of business.
It seems like family and community are important to you.
I’m actually starting to feel less rooted in this community. We certainly have our network and friends but I live in Williamsburg and I work here, but looking around here lately it’s like, what is going on here? And quite frankly, do I even care?
That could just be that I’m getting old though.
It’s funny, I live in Carroll Gardens and can’t believe how much change is happening and how many buildings are going up…still.
Yes, in New York, especially in Brooklyn, but it seems to be happening everywhere. There is this crazy momentum in Austin and Portland and everywhere and I don’t really know what’s driving that… at one point can people just not afford to live anymore? And at what point does it just bottom out and go back to normal?
I think a huge success of our business was timing. When we opened, there wasn’t a lot of competition. And I never would’ve considered our ‘competition’ our competition because we were just community. That’s just not how we functioned. We were one of four boutiques in Williamsburg, now we’re one of four on the block. What, where, who are all these people?
Jewelry, specifically, when I started there were maybe 3 other people who I’d consider my contemporaries - speaking to my audience, around my price point - and we were all friends.
Now, everybody and their goddamned mom has a jewelry line. I’d like to continue to believe that our stuff is unique and persevere but it makes me doubt how our stuff is different than this person’s stuff or this person's stuff. We’ve had our name and been around for 10 years but does the average 24 to 30 year old consumer care about that? They only care about how many Instagram followers you have. I think we’re living in a weird, very transitional time. How old are you?
I think we’re at a very fortunate and interesting age where, up until this point, half of our lives have been manual.
You mean offline.
Yeah, and the other half has been automatic. Basically, we’re fortunate enough to understand what life is like without email, the Internet, without a cell phone… but still know how to use and harness all this technology. We also appreciate how fortunate we are to have it. Sometimes we forget.
I was saying at the beginning of our conversation. To work in fashion, you had to be in NY, LA (maybe), Milan, or Paris if you wanted a career. But now you can live in Ohio and have a dope fashion brand and have followers all over the place and everyone knows what you ate for breakfast.
Even fast fashion, when I was a kid, I couldn’t go to Bradley’s and buy fashionable leggings with a zipper on the side. You wore dorky kids clothes because that’s what was there.
Now, everyone is cool, and nothing means anything. I’m not bitter, I don’t want it to seem like I’m being super negative. It’s just weird.
There was an exclusivity thing, growing up, if you were into The Smiths or Stone Roses, you would see a t-shirt and connect to a person.
You could see that person on the street. Growing up, for me to buy a pair of fishnets or a pair of Doc Martens, I had to lie to my parents, save enough money to get on a bus, and then figure out how to get to Boston to Newbury Street to seek out those places to buy stuff. Or figure out cool mix tapes to get from weird bands. If you were out on the street you might see someone skateboarding with a Minor Threat t-shirt on and that meant something, whereas now, you could say to someone, “I like your shirt.” and they might just say, “I don’t know who this is.” If you want to be cool now, you don’t even have to try. You can walk into Forever 21 and buy a Nirvana t-shirt; there is zero credibility and a lack of authenticity in things.
It does make things less special now that everything is available everywhere. At the same time those passions are more available for people who don’t have access to those major hubs. How do you operate in that environment? You said you worry but do you worry in a broader sense about the world, or is it more of a business sense of how do you stay relevant?
I think we have to be aware. Not to pull out some Dazed and Confused shit but I keep getting older and the people I work with stay the same age, 22 through 27. And, I very much, to a flaw even, assume everyone is the same age as me. Not where I think everyone is 38, but where we’re all just existing at the same mindset. But the truth is that I actually could be your mother. You are 22, if I decided to not go to college, I could’ve been your mom. Like, “How old is my coworker’s mom?” And, “When are we going to drinks?” (Just kidding).
I’m not going to say that all millennials are horrible, because that’s not true. It’s all comes down to the person. One of my favorite people that I work with is 23. She acts older than I do and she listens to real music and is just an awesome person. It doesn’t matter how old she is or when she was born.
So that’s a good point with the kids. Now you have a team. In the beginning, you were doing things on your own and you were creating all the designs yourself. At some point, you shift from being the sole creative energy and you bring people in and…
I still do believe that I’m the sole creative energy for the overall brand, but I do work with other people on stuff.
On apparel, the woman I work with on apparel, I definitely let her take as much creative freedom as she wants. I need her to feel that this is just as much hers as it is mine, so it’s a collaboration.
But generally speaking, I really like working as part of a team but I always bring ideas to the table as, “This is open for conversation.” I like working with people.
I try as much as possible creatively to include people and work as a team so that people have ownership and feel invested. This isn’t just about me. I think that’s partly why people that have chosen to work here over somewhere else.
I noticed that you use the term co-worker rather than employee.
I think it’s gross. I don’t feel comfortable with using employee. I hate it if I’m out in the real world with one of my co-workers and they introduce me as their boss. It’s just so loaded. Now all of the sudden you can’t have fun, you can’t swear, you can’t say something stupid. Even if they don’t mean it that way, I can almost see it on their friend’s face.
Like, “Oh we won’t talk about last night.” :/
Like Lumbergh from Office Space…”Boss” does have a bad connotation. I like that. Ok, final few questions. From an aesthetic/artistic side, do you have a vision? Do you ever have dreams about that stuff?
Sometimes. I wish I could turn it on more but I think I’m more attracted to shapes/silhouettes that I want to be wearing. When I do have those a-ha moments, my favorite is when I think I’m seeing something but it’s actually totally different. But what I thought I saw was what I wanted to make. One day I was talking to a friend and I saw her amazing earrings but I made this thing up in my head of what it was because it was actually just two earrings in a weird position, and now I can make it because I saw the final product in my head. I wish I could have that all the time. Then I could rule the world! (just kidding).
Inspiration comes from a constant conversation in your head.
You just have to make notes of it when it happens so when you dry up you have something to go to.
Most of my emails are from myself because I’m constantly sending ideas to myself. Almost the last question: As a business owner, the upcoming election, anything that you’re hoping to see happen?
I think most of the stuff I want to see is more personally driven. I’m not sure I’ve thought of it that much from a business-owner point of view. I probably should (laughs). I will come out and say that I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter. I think everything that he has to say is great and it would be awesome if it all actually happened.
There is a lot of shit you have to deal with as a business owner. It’s so stupid and crazy with the government. The healthcare stuff we’ve been dealing with is such a nightmare. I do find myself sort of torn because I want this to be awesome and great and I want to be supportive of it but it is actually a nightmare. They should make it all easier to deal with.
What are you most proud of?
My daughters. Is that cheesy? They’re twins, they’re 15 months old.
What advice would you have for someone starting out?
Work your buns off. Work a shit ton. Buy something proper the first time around, especially as far as tools are concerned. Buy a nice drill or buy the pliers that work properly so you don’t spend more money buying that same item ten times over.
Invest in yourself?
Yes! Except some people may take that the wrong way and think they should get a manicure or something. (Laughs)