The Short North is a place of constant evolution, but the back-to-back departures of two of its most popular menswear boutiques marks a new chapter for both the neighborhood and the shop owners. Milk Bar Boutique and Brigade have been men's style destinations in Columbus - and now they're going out on top.

The Short North is a place of constant evolution, but the back-to-back departures of two of its most popular menswear boutiques marks a new chapter for both the neighborhood and the shop owners. Milk Bar Boutique and Brigade have been men's style destinations in Columbus - and now they're going out on top.

"It has always been a dream of mine to own a fashion boutique," Jackson said during a mid- January interview in a German Village coffee shop. "I'm not the kind of person to say I'm going to do something and not do it."

At 24 years old, Jackson left his job at Abercombie and Fitch's home office to open Milk Bar Boutique with business partner Eric Hayes.

"My parents gave me a six month deadline to get a job or move back home after I graduated - and I refused to move back home. But working at Abercrombie was draining. I knew I had to do something quick before I killed myself in there," said Jackson, now 31.

Fashion has always been a point of interest for Jackson, and he attributes his tastes to the music and cultural scene in his native Washington, D.C.

"Growing up, my friends and I would hang out in Georgetown where people are really into clothes and style. I had friends who were gutter punks, and some who were into hip-hop, so my style grew from that," Jackson said. "When I first got to Columbus it seemed like there was never anything to do or anywhere to shop. That's how the idea for Milk Bar started - out of necessity."

After meeting Hayes through a mutual friend, the two moved forward with plans to open a retail shop that catered to their own interests. In 2007, Milk Bar 1.0 was opened on the north end of the Short North.

"Starting the shop was fun. The first couple months were awesome. But then I was like, 'I'm only 24 and running a business - I gotta figure this out quick,' " Jackson said. "Once we got in the groove of it, we knew what we were doing."

Once Jackson and Hayes found their stride, the boutique flourished, becoming both a busy retail shop and a social hub.

"Different groups would take me here or there and expose me to new stuff," Jackson said. "I got to see so much culture in Columbus from being in the shop."

In 2009 Hayes and Jackson moved Milk Bar to its second and final location at 795 N. High St., next to Sole Classics shoe retailer, where it developed into a cultural nerve center for Jackson's friends, as well as associates from far-flung groups that stretched from motorcycle clubs to sneaker heads.

"I think it's important that there are places where people can get together and share ideas that aren't necessarily the expected spaces," Brigade's Robertson said. "Kareem is great at providing a place where everyone can get together and have a sense of community."

And after a huge turnout at a local dance party, Jackson was approached about throwing events of his own.

"I didn't hesitate," Jackson said. "I was bored of listening to trap and house music while I was out. I started OGEE so I'd have a place for me and my friends to listen to [old school hip-hop]."

Jackson has been throwing events ever since and plans to continue. OGEE celebrated its sixth anniversary in January at Strongwater Food and Spirits, and a farewell to Milk Bar is slated for Valentine's Day at MINT Art Collective on the South Side.

Jackson wasn't the only one who felt Columbus was missing a well-curated men's boutique. Robertson and his business associates were also scouting potential locations to launch Cleveland's Brigade concept in a new market.

"We saw a lot of potential in Columbus when we opened Brigade, and it's starting to come together," Robertson said. "There was definitely a void because not many shops were catering to men's style needs besides places like Milk Bar and Tigertree."

Brigade opened at 670 N. High St. in 2009, and in 2014 moved to its current location at 940 N. High St., sharing the space with MADE by Ngo under banner of The CO+OP Shop. When Robertson learned there were plans to sell the building, he decided to use the news as a fresh start.

"Knowing there were plans to redevelop the side of the street my shop was on, I decided the timing was right to go in a different direction," Robertson said. "I had been tying in vintage elements in the Brigade store as displays, and people were always asking to buy it. Vintage isn't part of the Brigade offering, so I decided to start Flatfoot Vintage to pull in a mix of new designers and vintage pieces."

Like Jackson, Robertson's influence extends past his business into Columbus' nightlife and social culture. Robertson was featured in Experience Columbus' "Life In Cbus" campaign in 2014, and has promoted Brother Drake's twice-monthly Restart House Music party.

"I wanted to spread the word about [Restart House Music] to everybody. The party has been going on forever, and they were playing the best music in town, but the turnout wasn't great," Robertson said. "They are in a good, consistent place now. I'd like to think I helped in some way."

According to Robertson, the overlap between event promotion and owning a boutique is natural, and he hopes to be involved with more events once he has found a space for his Flatfoot Vintage concept.

"Often people who own clothing shops are interested in arts as a whole; music is a huge part of that," Robertson said. "When so many people are coming through the shop, you really get your finger on the pulse of what is going on, and you can tailor experiences for those people."

Of course, the pressure of staying up on the latest trends can eventually wear on even the most motivated businessman, according to Jackson, who further cited shifting priorities, an increase in social engagements, and the mental and physical strain of running day-to-day store operations for his decision to move in a different direction.

"Both Eric and I were getting busy with other projects, and there came a point where I wasn't into fashion as much as I thought I was," Jackson said. "People would come into the store and see I wasn't into it. There's a lot of growth that happens between 24 years old and 31. My values changed and I just needed space to breathe."

Jackson plans to pursue a career in real estate, but will also continue to host events. Both he and Robertson hope a new wave of tastemakers will carry the torch.

"The fashion scene in Columbus is cool right now. Back in the day, there was such a small group of people into fashion you could probably fit them all in one picture. Now it's everywhere," Jackson said. "I hope there is an opportunity for other people to step up and throw their own parties and open their own shops."

"The bigger picture is the culture. I see others adding to it and I'm excited to see who is going to step up," Robertson continued. "I think a lot of people saw Kareem doing events and got inspired. I think they will keep the ball rolling."

Photo by Meghan Ralston