To cross the threshold of Souk Bohemian (styled as Souk Bō’hēmian), Ponce City Market’s newest boutique, is to be transported half a world away. The whitewashed walls and low-slung tables evoke the arid climates of the Maghreb, while Moroccan singers lilt in French through subtly concealed speakers. The store’s palette is an elegantly muted range of earth tones, but the goods for sale burst with textile diversity, from slide-on mules made of goat hair to rounded incense holders carved from soapstone. On one wall, shelves of dark-stained wood boast a vertiginous selection of handcrafted ceramic vessels, each with an air of far-flung glamour.
That’s the idea, said co-owner Vanessa Coore Vernon on a recent visit to the store. Souk Bohemian’s doors had just opened a few days before, but customers were already spilling in—one of the many perks of a securing a permanent location in foot traffic-heavy market. Vernon and her co-owner, Morgan Ashley Bryant, are also best friends: both from Northern California, they met in Atlanta while working at the retailer Anthropologie and shared dreams of starting a creative enterprise. The pair launched Souk Bohemian as on online market in 2016—“With one lonely sweatshirt!” Bryant recalled, laughing. As a venture of two Black, queer women, Vernon and Bryant weren’t sure how things would go. But since that first lonely sweatshirt, Souk Bohemian has flourished.
They name, they explained, evokes the brand’s juncture of global style and individual expression. Vernon, who handles the business’ curatorial end, had earlier traveled to Morocco to source rugs, where she was dazzled by the sprawling, colorful outdoor markets known as souks. Souk Bohemian merges the aesthetics of those namesake markets with elements of free-spirited style and design.
“Everything in here is to be touched and looked at and explored,” Vernon said of the store. “It’s like you kind of get to travel without the passport.”
Bryant runs business operations, but both partners source goods for the store, an eclectic process that spans the entire globe. Merchandise rotates: on a recent visit, one could peruse hand-woven caps from Ukraine, prêt-à-porter linen sets from Bali, and hundred-year-old ceramic vessels from Turkey (a two-hundred-year-old vessel, standing sentry in front of the dressing room, had been authorized for export by the Turkish national museum and was not for sale. “She’s our good luck,” Vernon said fondly). The goat-hair mules, which Bryant had spotted on Instagram, were the handiwork of a Moroccan craftsman who spoke little English. To procure the shoes for sale in the store, he and Bryant hammered out the trade details via WhatsApp translator. “It was difficult translating the European and American sizes,” Bryant said. “But we figured it out!”
Souk Bohemian also produces a branded apparel line, featuring designs by a small roster of Black women artists. They routinely change out designs, Vernon and Bryant explained, but you’ll always find minimalist portraits of Black and brown-featured faces: Souk Bohemian is, first and foremost, inspired by and for women of color.
“It has to be reflective of us and our customer—she’s everyone, but our core customers are Black women,” Bryant said. “They’re why we’re here.”
That dedication to its core customer base, along with Souk Bohemian’s lush, tour du monde aesthetic, made it an appealing tenant for Ponce City Market, owned by Jamestown Group. That said, securing a permanent store in the coveted commercial hub was no small feat. When Vernon and Bryant pitched for a spot, they won over several Jamestown team-members, who doggedly advocated for them in a process that dragged on for months.
Ponce City Market has a long waitlist of would-be renters, and small, independent brands struggle to compete with giant retailers like Nike, which opened one of its signature “Live” stores at Ponce City Market last December. “Those (brands) have the funds to say, ‘whatever you’re asking, we’ll double it,’” Bryant said. She and Vernon credited Jamestown associate Toni Williams for seeing them through, helping to convince skeptical higher-ups that a small boutique owned by two queer Black women—with no brick-and-mortar experience and no conglomerate financial backer—was a worthy addition to the building. Ultimately, they said, the brand’s authentic orientation towards Black women customers—a consumer base whose gargantuan influence and buying power has only recently been fairly acknowledged—gave them the leg up they needed to secure a permanent space.
Launching the new boutique required all hands on deck, both to raise the money and to build out the space. Their second-floor spot had been vacated by Onward Reserve— boutique catering to what we might call the cosmopolitan sportsman—when Souk Bohremian moved in; the walls were still festooned with multiple pairs of antlers. Vernon and Bryant enlisted family, friends, and partners to help transform the space into their North African-inspired vision.
“When we say this space was built by the people we love, it was—literally, physically,” said Vernon.
While this store their first foray into brick-and-mortar retail, the reception has been tremendous so far. “It’s been really beautiful to have people walk in, who don’t know us, and they’re like, Oh my God, the smell, the music!” Vernon said. “That is incredible.”
While the co-owners discussed the long road that led them here, more customers poured in through the wide-open doors. “This is such a cool store!” a young woman perusing slate-gray linen button-ups exclaimed to a Souk Bohemian team-member, who happened to be Bryant’s friend, Kim. “You’re going to be very successful here.”