Kai Avent-deLeon: Sincerely, Tommy

Chelsea Sonksen

Marisa Vitale

When Kai was sixteen, her mom told her to get a job. So she marched down to a boutique in Fort Greene and handed them her rather unimpressive resume. Even without experience, the owner hired her as an intern, and Kai quickly fell in love with the idea of owning a store: she discovered its potential as a hub for creativity and support system for emerging designers. In the years that followed, Kai worked in a variety of different retail settings, gathering bits of wisdom along the way. She was only twenty-six when she actualized her dream and opened Sincerely, Tommy, named after the store’s location on Tompkins Avenue.

Sincerely, Tommy has become a canvas on which Kai can express whatever she is going through personally, so the store has morphed and changed over the years as she has matured. She’s currently in a minimal phase, ridding herself of objects so she has more freedom, and you can sense this in the space, which is sparsely merchandized and feels more like a fashion museum than a retail establishment.

Kai’s vision is for Sincerely, Tommy to serve not only as a boutique, but as a gathering space for her community. She partnered with Dan Solomito to create a coffee shop element, and she hosts a number of events—from a book club to “Sip and Sketch” where people gather to draw a nude model. Recently, Kai hosted a mentorship session with 30 kids from Covenant House, a charity serving homeless youth, to discuss how to start a brand.

What was one some of the hardest things you encountered as you built Sincerely, Tommy?
I come from an old-school retail background where online shopping wasn't as popular, so breaking into that market was a challenge. I had to figure out ways to make our products appeal to people online the same way they do in the store—especially since our pieces are so unique. Now we have a lot of fun with it; we use friends as models and shoot in the neighborhood.

How is your company different now than when you began?
When we first opened, I was concerned about offering unique products, and now, as I grow personally, my goal is not only that, but also to serve my community. I see a lot of young people in Bed-Study who haven't been afforded the same advantages I had growing up, so I want to make sure I give back and do what I can to serve them.

What was your professional highlight of the past year?
Launching our clothing line was a huge moment for me. I am not a trained designer, so putting together a line was a new experience, and I had a lot of fun with it. I went to Mexico City to find fabric and had everything made in NYC. I have an amazing production manager, who has been a tremendous blessing. The biggest moment was when our line got picked up by stores here and abroad. I did a double take when I saw how many orders we got!

What is the next goal you have your sights set on?
I really want to mold our community-based initiates. There is a lot of negative going on in this world, and I don’t believe these problems would still be happening if we each took the time to ensure the wellbeing of our communities.

What is the best part of your day?
Listening to music at home at the end of the day either alone or with friends or lovers.

What advice do you have for women who want to start their own businesses?
Have a very specific vision. After that, everything else will fall in line.