The following interview was originally conducted and posted through Katya Moorman on her fashion blog, Style Defined NYC.
(Access both parts through this link:
The interview will be posted in two parts, as it was originally. Look for the second section of this two-part interview next Wednesday. 

INA consignment stores are one of the “not-so-secret” secrets of New York fashion lovers. They’re one of the best places to find really great pieces by major designers for less than you pay in rent. (no small feat!) The first INA opened 20 years ago in Soho and the most recent one this past year in Chelsea. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ina Bernstein and learn about her start in fashion in New York in the ’80s and how she opened the first INA store. Like many of my friends in fashion she didn’t get a fancy degree or start with a big trust fund: she followed her passion and through collaborations with friends made things happen. I found her inspiring and I think you will too!

Ina as a hippie, late 70s

How did you begin?

There was a paper called The Soho Weekly News in the early 70s – the editor was a woman named Annie Flanders and she put together a fashion event at the Mudd Club. This was when Soho was still empty lofts, factories, and all these people came out of the woodwork – probably with an art background – they were making t-shirts, making hats, making dresses – to be part of her event. And I was there and thought “Why not do something with all of these talented people?” so I put together a group called the Soho Designers. It was initially a Co-Op and we decided to put on our own fashion show. We promoted it and sent out invites to the major buyers and department stores in the country and all of the better specialty stores. We held it during fashion week. Thousands of people came. It was this hot ticket. We were turning people away at the door.

Well after the fashion show I thought – there’s a business here. The buyers wanted to place orders but we didn’t have a showroom. So we rented a space on Broadway above Houston and this was our office and showroom. Buyers came and we started taking orders – we didn’t know anything: how to ship, how to price, etc. but we all just kind of learned together.

At some point the problem of being able to allocate money without a vote really started to get to me. As a Co-Op we had to take a vote as to whether or not to buy a stapler! Also some people weren’t shipping on time, some people were much more talented than others and their product was much more finished. So I decided to go private. I rented space on Greene Street with about 10 designers along with a partner and called it Soho Showroom. We were the first tenants in the building and it was so big we had to rollerskate from the office to the elevator to meet buyers! It went fairly well for 3 years. But there really was no downtown fashion industry. The garment district then was really a garment district – that was the fashion center – and the buyers would come into town and they only wanted to come in on Saturdays instead of during the week so we found ourselves having to meet the buyers on Saturday. Sometimes they didn’t have a lot of time and we’d be showing clothes on the hood of a car, on the street…it became apparent to really make it a viable business we had to move uptown.

Soho Showroom

So I rented space in the garment center and made it much bigger and also had an accessory showroom. One of the designers I repped was Anna Sui, and also Todd Oldham when he got out of high school. But it was never about contemporary – always designer – higher end designer because I related to designer clothes. At some point I went to Paris and I tried to get Margiela but he was difficult to get! I also went to Japan because I had the idea of getting some Japanese designers. We had a little division called the Tokyo showroom and that business grew and grew. We helped merchandise collections, booked all the buyers, did all the promotions for the magazine editors – I did this for almost 20 years and loved it. Unfortunately I moved the showroom to another location on 7th Ave – and there was a fire in the building and we lost our space. After that I thought maybe it was time to do something else. I finished up the season, closed the business and took some time off.

Soho Showroom in Tokyo

The Beginning of INA

During this “time off” I was walking down Thompson Street one day and there was a store for rent so I called the owner. The store was $2250 / month at the time. My kids were in college and I didn’t have a lot of money but I was very fortunate: I called a bunch of friends who collectively loaned me $10,000 and I rented the store.

In front of INA on Thompson Street (original storefront) 

Friends came in and we painted it, bought rolling racks and put up a wall for a communal dressing room. My sister bought my first shopping bags and hangers and my daughter did our graphic design. I looked in my closets, and I had all these clothes from all these years – sample sales in the garment district and stuff from Europe and Japan. (When I went to Europe the exchange rate was so great you could buy an Armani jacket – when he was hot – or an Alaia dress in Paris for much less than it was here.)

Then I called about 10 people in the fashion industry and said give me all your clothes and hats that you don’t want and that’s how I started the store. I had never been in a consignment shop. I knew nothing about consignment so I just made it up. But right away I got really lucky. I knew a freelance writer who worked for The New York Times. I called her, and she came to the store and wrote a fabulous article that got a half-page in the Sunday Styles with photos of merchandise and the store. When I arrived at the store that same Sunday that the article came out, it was raining and there were about 40 people standing outside with umbrellas waiting to get in. So I called 3 of my friends and said – “come on and help!” – and the next day hired my first employee. And that put me on the map. I was very lucky; I did the right thing at the right place at the right time.

It took time but it caught on and the people who came in began consigning. After about a year or so I had too many clothes and Milo (my son) and Khadijah said they thought I should open a second store in Nolita. At the time the neighborhood didn’t even have a name but we saw that it was going to be big. I went the next day and rented a space and we opened the store the next month. The business kept growing until we are where we are now: with five stores altogether, and one of them exclusively for menswear which is really unique.

We want people to come to us because we’re a fashion store and we want to give them fashion. 

We want to give them what we think – and they think – of as fashion. I had this woman who bought a designer dress and went to dinner at the Odeon. The girl at the next table said “Oh I used to have this dress but I sold it at this consignment store” and it turns out it was her dress!