How Beth Buccini Fired Up a Fashion Revolution
Beth Buccini turned SOHO and the fashion world upside down when she opened her first boutique in 1999—and she’s still at the top of her game.
Beth Buccini spends a few weeks each year jet-setting
Beth Buccini does things like clink glasses of champagne with gal pal Jessica Seinfeld, chat style with Gwyneth Paltrow in Montauk, N.Y., vacation in Capri, and, if you believe the lush Christmas 2016 spread in Harper’s Bazaar, bake holiday sugar cookies in her Chadds Ford kitchen for her four children, aged 8 to 13, while wearing a bold red lip and nearly $4,000 worth of silk Gucci decadence.
Is it a stretch?
“My oldest will always say, ‘Mom, why do you have to be so fancy? We’re just at home,” Buccini, 45, says with a laugh. “She’s 13 and has a great eye, but she’s more into horses than style.”
Perhaps even more impressive than, say, trimming a Christmas tree while balancing in glimmering Gianvito Rossi sandals is this: Buccini also does things like change a screaming 6-week-old’s dirty diaper smack in the middle of the Givenchy showroom without pause.
When recalling the polished Parisian women teetering by with pinched faces, Buccini shrugs. “I simply said, ‘Je suis un expert, il est le quatrième enfant’—‘I’m an expert, it’s the fourth kid.’ After that, I nursed him there, too.”
And after that, she rolled her baby buggy out of Givenchy, having purchased thousands of dollars worth of the designer’s clothing to nestle among the coveted racks of her world-famous luxury boutique, Kirna Zabête, with a flagship location in SoHo.
“I look back on that buying trip—a crazy-busy eight days. I was deeply sleep-deprived. I was nursing and I had no help whatsoever. It was insane,” she says.
Buccini opened Kirna Zabête in Manhattan in 1999. She has opened three more since then, with a fourth on the way.
But if you ask husband, Rob Buccini, it’s not insane. It’s just Beth.
“Her mother told me when we were dating that Beth always likes to be busy, even as a child,” says Buccini, co-founder and co-president of Wilmington development company The Buccini/Pollin Group. “She continues to operate this way. She is driven first and foremost to be a great mother. While her business is incredibly important to her, it takes a daily backseat to school drop-off, homework, the children’s sports, doctor and dentist appointments. She has mastered the art of conference calls in the school car pickup line.”
Buccini, a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn, post “Roman Holiday” haircut, settles back in the gorgeously appointed fitting area at her newest Kirna Zabête store, on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The Buccinis moved to the area five years ago, and it wasn’t long before a prime space opened for the next Kirna Zabête.
A former SEPTA bus garage, KZ Bryn Mawr boasts high ceilings, chic black chandeliers and whimsical washes of warm rose-gold. It’s filled with pastel bubble-gum arm candy in the form of mini Chloe shoulder bags and racks of straight-from-the-runway looks from everyone from Gucci to Altuzarra, exquisitely crafted jewelry (the hand-carved Of Rare Origin birdcage earrings are sublime) and the pops of eclectic fun that Beth is known for.
A woman shuffles out of a fitting room, then examines herself, seemingly unsure of the lip-smacked Saint Laurent sweater she’s chosen.
“Oh, that looks so great on you,” Buccini says. She turns. “Doesn’t that look great? I wanted to carry that because it’s just such a fun piece.”
It’s not a put on.
Buccini—a bona fide member of New York’s fashion elite who turned SoHo on its head when she opened one of the country’s first specialty retail stores, who helms a fashion empire with one manicured hand while the other helps with sixth-grade math homework—is, perhaps surprisingly, just plain old nice.
“My high school yearbook quote says, ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice,’” she says. “When I’m hiring, I make it clear that nice is critical. There are no attitudes here. We sell items at very high prices. That’s daunting and intimidating enough.”
Buccini grew up in Virginia with a “self-made guy” as a dad and a museum-docent mom. When she was 13, she broke her leg. Already plagued by “gargantuan Coke-bottle glasses,” Buccini had a cast from ankle to knee to contend with. So she did what any future fashion industry titan would do. “I covered it with glittery socks,” she says.
And while many girls her age might doodle a crush’s initials on the front of a paper-covered textbook, Buccini kept an itemized list of outfits. “I recorded everything I wore,” she says. “I remember always loving fashion.”
While an art history and French lit major at the University of Virginia, Buccini spent two semesters in Paris. “It changed my life,” she says. “I knew I wanted to live in a big city after Paris. And it’s where Zabête comes from—Beth in French.” “Kirna” is the nickname for Sarah Easley, her close friend whom she met at UVA. Buccini bought out Easley last year, so she is now the sole owner of Kirna Zabête.
Buccini moved to New York City and worked as a fashion editor for Mirabella and New York Magazine. She was 26 years old in 1999 when she took a hard look at the landscape of SoHo and noticed something. “Here we are, basically in the center of the universe, and I have to go to a department store to buy nice things,” she says. “Why don’t we have some hip, amazing, fun place to shop?” She reached out to Easley, who had high-end retail experience, and, with some help from investors, they did what no one else in Manhattan or, arguably, anywhere else in the nation was doing—specialty-store retailing.
“There might have been a very small handful of us in some other big cities,” Buccini says. “So talk about a gamble. I look back at it now, and it was completely bonkers. I was 26, and I signed a 10-year lease. Sure, I had the street credit from being a fashion editor. I knew the designers. I knew the industry. But it was completely risky.”
Meanwhile, Rob, also living in New York, was a few days away from a blind date with Beth and settlement on a home on Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington.
“He likes to say I was 45 minutes late,” Beth says.
“She was 45 minutes late,” says Rob.
“Our first date went something like this: ‘I just signed a 10-year lease on a store in SoHo.’ ‘Well, I just bought a house in Wilmington because I want to move back home.’ So…” Beth laughs. “But it all worked out.”
The handsome new guy, the store in its infancy—it had to work out. “I come from a family of overachievers,” Beth says. “It didn’t even occur to me that failure was a very real option.”
Until it almost was.
Beth and Easley went on their first buying trip in Europe before the ink was barely dry on their lease. Arms full of couture, Beth got a phone call: The lease fell through. “Here we are, halfway across the world, having just purchased all of these clothes for a store we didn’t even have,” Beth says. “It was a scary time. But I called my dad. And he said, ‘Beth. Everyone is faking it. Everyone.’”
The self-doubt barely had time to settle before she was able to retain the space.
But then came Sept. 11, 2001.
Beth chokes up. “I was there. I saw everything. I saw the Twin Towers,” she says. “I so vividly remember—you could smell it already, immediately. I remember Sarah and I pressing damp clothes under the door to try to keep it out, and seeing the people walking by covered in soot. We were barely in the business by the time that happened. It was terrifying.”
Like everything else in New York, the doors of Kirna Zabête remained closed for some time. “When we opened back up, it just felt wrong. When people started coming back, it was because they needed funeral dresses. It was absolutely gut-wrenching,” she says. “Considering everything, it all felt so pointless. I just said, ‘Sarah, let’s stop. This has been real, but it is all so pointless now.’ But we persevered.”
In the 15 years since, Kirna Zabête has spawned three storefronts, with a fourth on its way. And while Buccini may have been in the right place at the right time all those years ago in SoHo, luck had little to do with it.
“Were we able to buy designers that no one else was carrying all those years ago? Yes, because we were the only game in town,” Buccini says. “Not the case anymore. So you have to work to stay relevant, to stay abreast of the next hottest discovery. There is pressure, but it’s self-imposed. I know that I’m not looking over my shoulder for anyone but myself. If I keep working at the level I need to work, and maintain it, I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“This is an incredible amount of work,” Buccini
Buccini spends a few weeks each year jet-setting back and forth on buying trips to Milan and Paris. Stateside, her daily grind has her on the 6 a.m. Amtrak Acela to New York at least two days a week, then making it home just in time to see the kids before lights out. Then there’s the press, the e-commerce meetings, the ordering, working on the design for her new storefronts, cultivating vendor relationships, getting the Hamptons location ready for the East Coast summer season, working with the factories for deliveries, poring over sales reports, managing staff, working with finance, scouring the marketplace for the next hottest thing (she’s credited with discoveries like Veronica Beard and Thakoon), and getting her newest KZ—Palm Beach—up and running later this year.
“Beth has an insane work ethic,” says friend Alina Cho, former host of CNN’s “Fashion: Backstage Pass” and current editor-at-large at Ballantine Bantam Dell in fashion acquisitions. “She had one store in SoHo that has become wildly successful. For many, that would have been enough. Not for Beth. She is building an empire, and her success is a direct result of having a clear vision about the types of items customers can’t live without. It is why, in the current down climate of retail, her stores are profitable.”
“This is an incredible amount of work,” Buccini says. “The pace is absolutely relentless. If you don’t have a passion, don’t even bother, because you won’t survive. And my mom friends say to me, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t see how you do it.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re doing it, too. You just channel your Type A personality into volunteering at the school, Christmas tree lightings—the types of things I don’t always get to do.’”
Does it make her sad? Maybe at times, but it’s not often she misses something for the kids. Case in point: one evening during the Christmas season, when Rob arrived home from work and had to wade through a hallway of beautifully appointed Christmas gifts.
“Thirty gifts, for all of our children’s teachers and CCD teachers, all bought and wrapped by Beth that day,” he says. “Seriously, who does that? Despite the packed days of raising four children, commuting to New York, having a husband that works long hours and devoting time to not-for-profits, she is a very calm person that does not get aggravated. It is a very un-Italian trait in our very large Italian family.”
Longtime friend Hallie Biden is just as impressed. “She balances her work and home life like no one I’ve ever seen before,” says Biden. “She is extremely organized and packs her days and nights to make everything work seamlessly. She is a remarkable and strong woman.”
Biden and Buccini like to get the families together at Buccini’s 100-acre dairy-farm-turned-home in Chadds Ford. “We do outdoor barbecues in the summer while the children play, or pasta in the winter and relax by the fireplace,” Biden says. “She is a confidante to me, as life has had its challenges, and will always answer her cell with time to talk,” says Biden, widow of Beau Biden. “Fashion isn’t my forte, so I love looking through her closet and borrowing. She is a wonderful friend, mother, wife and businesswoman.”
Buccini makes one thing clear: She is nowhere near her peak. “That would be awful if I was,” she says. “I’m only 45. I really love this age and this time. It’s an intense time—this year has seen incredible growth for the company. I’ll do things like read when I’m 52 or so.”
Does she see her life’s work as an empire?
“You know, it’s funny—what is the true empire? I really want my career,” she says. “But my children are the joys of my life. I went to chapel this morning, and all four kids sang. And Rob and I are just looking at each other because, my goodness, that’s what just absolutely kills you.”