By Jotham Sederstrom
Call her superstitious, but when the Robert K. Futterman & Associates broker Karen Bellantoni recently went shopping last month at Rag & Bone, the excursion was more than a simple indulgence.
Tapped earlier this year by the men and women’s clothing retailer, Ms. Bellantoni inked a 1,000-square-foot deal on Columbus Avenue near the Upper West Side in October. It was only after the store’s grand opening last month, however, that the retail broker permitted herself to shop at the lifestyle brand’s existing stores—for fear of jinxing her pending deal.
“I never shop in a store with a new client until I’ve actually done the deal,” said Ms. Bellantoni, an executive vice president at RKF. “It’s just a rule. It’s like a luck thing, it’s my golden rule.”
Guns N’ Roses lead warbler Axl Rose refuses to play cities beginning with the letter “M” because, apparently, he believes Montreal and Montpelier to be cursed. Michael Jordan famously always wore his blue North Carolina shorts underneath his Bulls uniform during games. And while the retail broker’s skill set is a bit different than those of Messrs. Rose and Jordan, it could be her winning combination of experience, savvy and superstition that has allowed her to accrue more than 1 million square feet in deals since joining RKF in 1998.
Indeed, since shifting to real estate after years as a fashion buyer, Ms. Bellantoni, 52, has entrenched herself in the kind of retail deals that guests at this week’s International Council of Shopping Centers conference would absolutely drool over. In addition to the deal she did in 2007 with Apple to establish its store in the meatpacking district, Ms. Bellantoni has worked nationally on behalf of L’Oreal, Kiehl’s and Elie Tahari, among other brands.
Building on her strong relationships in the fashion industry, Ms. Bellantoni earlier this year inked a transaction with the New Zealand-based clothing company Icebreaker for its first New York City storefront, at 102 Wooster Street. When the 3,500-square-foot store opened last week, Ms. Bellantoni presumably headed to the Soho spot for one of her tried-and-true shopping excursions.
The same can probably be said for the grand opening of Frye Boots on 113 Spring Street, where Ms. Bellantoni inked a deal for the clothier’s very first New York City store this summer. When it opens next year, she’ll be first in line. “In New York City, shopping is truly everyone’s favorite pastime,” laughed Ms. Bellantoni about her knack for shopping. “I’m a full-blown shopper.”
It is her 10-year commitment to the long-ago gritty meatpacking district, however, that most defines the work of Ms. Bellantoni, who has arranged deals for dozens of retailers in the area.
Before the High Line became the park that it is today, and before hotels like the Standard and Hotel Gansevoort established themselves in the former neighborhood of cattle butchers, Ms. Bellantoni was aggressively making deals in the meatpacking district. As early as 2000, in fact, the broker was working on behalf of a roster of retailers that would come to include Anthropologie and Arhaus Furniture.
But it was her relationship with Apple that set in motion the tech company’s eventual deal in 2007 at a 52,000-square-foot space on West 14th Street. The assignment, which began in 2005, helped usher in a bevy of big national retailers who, until then, had resisted moving to the isolated neighborhood. “I would say that a majority of what you see today in the meatpacking district is a result of some of the deals I’ve done,” Ms. Bellantoni said. “But once Apple made the commitment, a lot of people wanted to come there.”
LONG BEFORE SHE began working as a real estate broker for the city’s fashion set, Ms. Bellantoni was heavily involved in the clothing industry. As a buyer in Ohio for the May Department Stores Company, which operated a chain of stores before folding in late 2005, Ms. Bellantoni got her first taste for New York during regular business travels.
“Because I was a buyer living in Ohio, that’s where I grew to love New York so much—because I was up here for buying trips nearly once a month,” said Ms. Bellantoni, who also briefly worked at Belk Department Stores, where she oversaw buying for the North Carolina-based chain. “Being an outsider and coming to New York as a visitor was really enticing.”
Before jumping to RKF, Ms. Bellantoni worked in retail merchandising for Corporate Property Investors, the group that, following an acquisition, became the Simon Property Group, among the largest shopping-center owners in the country. While there, she worked with the asset managers for the company’s then-portfolio of 27 shopping centers across the U.S.
“When Simon had announced that they were buying CPI, I started getting involved with leasing, so I know most of the shopping centers,” recalled Ms. Bellantoni, who worked there for nine years before coming to RKF. “At one point, I think I probably visited almost every shopping center in the country.”
It was through her experiences with the fashion world and her knowledge of real estate that Ms. Bellantoni first caught the attention of Mr. Futterman, who in 1998 launched his own firm after years working at Garrick-Aug Associates, a former retail behemoth.
Although many of Mr. Futterman’s original crew of brokers hailed from Garrick-Aug, Ms. Bellantoni first met the well-known retail broker through their combined efforts to sign a lease for the shoe purveyor Steve Madden at the Roosevelt Field Mall, a shopping center that Corporate Property Investors had owned in Long Island.
Since joining RKF in 1998, Ms. Bellantoni has continued to pull from her experience in the fashion industry to negotiate savvy retail deals. More than her belief in superstition, it may actually be her intimate understanding of her clients and their needs that has fueled her second career.
“It really goes a long way when they understand that you can speak their language and that you know some of the things that are very important to them when it comes to building a store and building an inventory,” Ms. Bellantoni said. “So when a tenant is looking for a retail space I have an opinion, and I’m not afraid to voice it.”