The first line of Lauren Gay’s bio reads ‘A 38-year-old: Hustler.’ Plenty of people include their age on their Instagram, but something about the way she wrote it struck me. It read like the title of a memoir. The subtitle tucked below lists her job and the reason for my skimming her page, General Manager: Common Thread – a community project.
When I went to interview Lauren about the shop early one Friday morning, I’d planned to ask her about the title. Was I reading too much into it? Or was there something uniquely noteworthy about age 38?
Not even five minutes after we’d met, I discovered that she is, in fact, a birthday person. Not the demanding, self-absorbed kind of birthday person, but the kind who just loves to celebrate life. She gushed about her father’s upcoming birthday and how excited she is to gift him a custom art piece. He’s the reason that she goes so hard on her day every year. She recounts childhood birthdays with balloon filled rooms and three cards in a day – one for morning, noon and night.
Now as an adult she has her own traditions. Each new year comes along with a new theme. It can be a feeling, an intention or a mood that encompasses everything learned from years past and all things claimed for the year ahead. 33 was her Jesus year, born again. At her 35th birthday dinner, she flipped tradition on its head and brought gifts for all her guests squealing “you get a gift! you get a gift! you get a gift!” as she went around the table. And thus, her Oprah year began.
She’s declared 38 as A Dream Come True. “I just feel like this year is everything I’ve wanted to do, it’s everything I’ve dreamed about because of the opportunities for not only myself but also my friends.”
Common Thread is the brainchild of designers Maggie O’Neill and Warren Weixler, the duo at the helm of Swatchroom creative agency. It was initially developed as a hybrid holiday market-chartable drive — selling vintage goods and original artwork from local creatives while also collecting gently used clothes to be donated to charities serving the District. Maggie and Warren set up shop in Union Market’s concept space, In Seven Words – created by the developers at Edens as a rotating short-term platform for community-focused retailers. Designing the space and collaborating with artists was built into Swatchroom’s DNA, but most of their past projects were hospitality ventures. The shop’s opening last December was their first foray into retail.
She happened across the store on opening day and was hired as a sales associate within the week. She worked in the previous shop housed In Seven Words, so she knows the building specifically and the neighborhood more generally as a Northeast resident. Most importantly, she knows the business.
Originally from Detroit, Lauren moved to Virginia in 2005 to study fashion merchandising at Marymount University. The program introduced her to all the different pockets of the industry and since then she’s worked in damn near every one from sales to patternmaking to styling to personal shopping to model dressing to closet organizing. This twenty-year breadth of experience makes Lauren uniquely prepared to reimagine what retail can and should be in order to thrive.
Brick & mortar shops have been in decline for over a decade and the pandemic was a fatal blow to many stores already on life support. A record 12,200 stores permanently closed last year, up from 10,000 closures in 2019. Those who are left are scrambling to restructure their business models to coax both employees and shoppers back into their doors.
Retail work has a notoriously high rate of turn over and that seemingly endless stream of new associates impacts the way managers and owners view staff. Lauren felt overqualified and undervalued in many of her past retail jobs, often having to her train superiors. Her last full-time position was as a supervisor at Georgetown’s Rag & Bone. After three years at the shop, she made the decision to leave and pursue freelance retail consulting and personal styling. She remembers the exact date of her final day. “I left on April 16, 2019. That’s my leap day. That was the day that I really took a chance on myself.” The retail model she’d worked in for almost twenty year no longer served her. It’s parameters were too narrow, too rigidly defined.
Now together with Maggie and Warren, she’s able to curate a new shopping experience at Common Thread as a space that prioritizes people, planet and profit – a type of ethical business framework known as the triple bottom line. “It’s not about numbers. It’s different in that it’s about how we can figure out ways to support the community in all different aspects. It’s about how we can reach out to the entire area and show people what makes the DMV so great.”
Everything in the shop is made and sourced by local creators. Los Gitano’s vintage collection greets you at the front with 1960’s Americana femme. Libby Rasmussen’s antique glassware lines a full wall, arranged in a technicolor gradient dotted with glimmering disco balls. Justine Swindell’s digital collages hang in the back as mounted memorials to DC’s black heritage. In one piece four little boys in 1940’s Barry Farm are bathed in the glow of a pink moon, illustrating a new world while highlighting the old.
More recently, Lauren has brought in menswear collections Trezo Beach and Chris Cardi in a continual push to broaden Common Thread’s assortment. She’s personally shopped with Trezo’s owner Shareef Muhammad for years, starting with his vintage Mickey Mouse merch. She’s a collector – she reaches down to show me her Mickey Mouse mask and a pair of ears that she’s brought for our shoot. Later as I’m photographing her, ears on and smile beaming, I think of Walt Disney’s famous quote, “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” This is 38.
Bringing in Shareef and other creators in her community is the highlight of her role at Common Thread. “I’m always trying to figure out how I can incorporate my friends and people I know that are worth this money, that are worth this opportunity. I’m about anyone that hustles as hard as me or even harder. I will put you on, support you and invest in you.” That support expands beyond vendors to event partners. Lauren programs regular pop-up activations at the shop complete with bartenders and musicians, many of whom she’s collaborated with in the past like mixologist Bianca Cerise and DJ Alex Love.
She describes each activation as a “mini Superbowl” – a hard fought win, only possible through teamwork and her carefully orchestrated playbook. But a space filled with drinks, dancing and disco balls seems more like a birthday party. A celebration of new horizons of connectivity and sustainability. Thankfully joy is a renewable resource. “Am I tired? Almost every single day, but do I wake up genuinely happy about what I’m doing and going to work? I do. I’m so excited to get tired all over again.”