Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by William Chan
Otte's four boutiques are filled with the kind of luxe but casual basics that celebrities always seem to be wearing when they're photographed walking around the West Village. And in fact, the store has its fare share of famous clients, including Julienne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Christie Turlington, and SJP, who once called in person to put a dress on hold under the name "Sarah Jessica."
But long before owner Kay Lee was chatting on the phone with the city's bold-faced names, she was a struggling designer trying to plan her next move. Lee moved to New York from South Korea in her early twenties to go to Parsons. In 1999, she opened her first location in Williamsburg, and she's spent the past 13 years building it into a well-respected mini-empire.
Last year, she brought on Nancy Zhang as COO and launched an in-house clothing line. The pair just opened on Third Avenue, and they're planning to launch one more local store before expanding nationwide. We spoke with both of them about how to make it in the New York fashion world.
Kay, have you always wanted to own a store?
Kay: Not actually. I used to be a fashion designer, so I traveled a lot. I'd go to India, make all the samples, and bring them back to the U.S. But my boss stressed me out so much, and one day I sat down in New Delhi and said "What am I supposed to do for the future?" All my friends were contemporary designers, and I was still working for somebody else. So I thought, "I can't do design, but I can collect pieces in one spot. What is that? That's a store."
After that I tried to look for a space. But in 1999 the city was very expensive. I didn't have that much money saved to open the store, so I had to budget for space. I'd never been to Brooklyn, actually. But one of my friends moved there, so I just happened to be in the area, and I found one big sign in the Bedford mini-mall. It said, "We are looking for creative, very talented retailer." And I thought, "Oh my god, that's me!"
So I applied. At first I didn't have any merchandise. I literally made all my inventory. I made scarves, I made skirts, I made tops. I'm a fashion designer, I can sew, right? So I started with that, just four racks, randomly, piece by piece. And I didn't have enough money for rolling racks, so I would grab them from the Garment District and take them on the subway. That's how I started, with literally no money. But I built it up for 13 years now. I've evolved so much; my buying patterns have changed so much, and also my store aesthetics have changed.
How did your buying patterns change?
Kay: Since all my friends were contemporary designers, they helped me out. I didn't have any concept. I'd never sold clothing before, I was always a very shy person, but at the time, I had no choice, I had to survive. So for seven days a week, for three years, I would be in the shop, customers would come in, and I'd say "What are you looking for? What do you like?"
From my experience of designing, I knew what fabric was good, what was worth it to buy, and on top of that learning from the customers—that's how I picked up buying skills. Customers are looking for the same style all the time. They love the A-line skirts. They always want to buy the same thing, no matter how fashion goes. I'm not an edgy store. I do have edgy styles, but I have girlie stuff, I have modern stuff, I have older customers, I have younger customers. Every single one can come in my store and find something they can buy.
I try to help out younger designers. Like 3.1 Phillip Lim, I've been buying that line almost since the very beginning. Those kinds of brands, we grew up together. I've seen so many designers up and coming, and I think "Why do some succeed, why do some fail?" I've been noticing so many patterns. Like Alexander Wang, nobody knew about that line when I started buying it. Think about right now, everybody knows him, everybody obsesses about his sweaters. He only made sweaters, and now he's making so many categories. He's beyond popular.
If you were going to give a young designer advice about how to become an Alexander Wang, what would you say? What do you need to do right to survive?
Kay: I get so many young designers coming to me to get advice. Right now we have a corporate office, but before that, when we opened the West Village store, in the back I had a small office. So designers would just walk in to show their lines. I always welcome them. First, I want them to experience what customers want. Of course, they need the creativity, but we are retail, commercial, selling clothing, you know? It's not just a piece of art.
Also, what I've been seeing is a lot of people, they don't know fit. If you design, you have to go to fashion school. How you make the clothing comes first. A lot of people say, "Oh, I'm a stylist, I'll do my line." Come on. They need to learn the basics first, rather than, "I'm very cool, I'm very stylish." That's not working.
Nancy: I think a lot of times the mistake that young designers make is they're not paying enough attention to the smaller details. Once I bought a sweater that had magnetic buttons, which is great in concept and looks wonderful hanging on a rack, but when you're wearing it, the buttons keep falling out! And it causes major wardrobe malfunctions.
Kay: And they need to have the aesthetics. I don't like copies. Designers have to get inspiration from somewhere, but I see that people knock off like a Jil Sander or a Celine. We're a young, contemporary store. Of course they got inspiration from the high-end designers. But when they start designing, they need their own aesthetics. They need their own input, too. They can't just obviously copy an Alexander Wang jacket. Come on. You have to find a way to do it your own way.
And then the third part: price point. They're all really high! I mean, I buy so many other brands, well-known brands. Let's say it's $400 blouse. I have a $400 blouse from 3.1 Phillip Lim. Think about it: Which one are you going to buy? So that's key.
Nancy: We launched our own in-house label last year, too. We were just testing the market because we weren't sure how people would accept our line, but it was actually hugely successful, so we've expanded it. We started with silk basics, and now we're doing sweaters, a beautiful line of cashmere sweaters and chunky knits. Because we've been in this business for so long, we know exactly what our customers are looking for in terms of fit and in terms of specific styles. Our customers like luxury basics. So it's things that are 100% silk, or 100% cashmere, but it's very basic fit, very nice fit, nothing too edgy, something you can just keep in your closet and have multiple colors of.
We do specific kind of key bodies for various types of customers. Some customers like tanks, so we have a silk tank specifically. Other customers are self-conscious about their arms, so we have a cap-sleeve tank top. Other customers are a little more edgy and fun, so we have these more directional dresses with long, flowy tails.
In terms of price points, we're very cautious about picking the right materials and using the right vendors in order to get our price points to be very competitive and easy to swallow. Having 13 years of retail and design experience, we're ready to move forward with that line, and our customers love it, so we're very excited about the fall.
You now have stores in West Village, and Tribeca, and then two around here.
Kay: I opened in '99 in Williamsburg, and then two years later, I opened in the West Village. After that Madison Avenue, then after that Tribeca. Basically I closed Williamsburg and moved to Tribeca. And then opened this new one.
So how did you choose each location?
Kay: I've had luck with the locations so far. Williamsburg it just happened to me by accident, and then it became so popular, it's crazy. West Village, oh my god, I think that was my best luck in my life, actually, because that totally changed my business. It was my dream, and so many vendors want to sell to my West Village store. I was debating opening where the Christian Louboutin store is on Horatio, that one or Greenwich Avenue. I picked Greenwich Avenue and I think it was a success. It's near my home, it has big gigantic windows.
As for Madison Avenue, I didn't plan to open on the Upper East Side because I'm not like Upper East Side style. But randomly a broker contacted me and said, "Hey, I have a small space on Madison Avenue." I said, "Madison Avenue, wow." I mean, it's a dream, it's a luxury shopping destination. Soho and Madison, Meatpacking now, those are the three locations that mean luxury.
So I went there and I saw it. It was such a small space, really cozy and nice and manageable. Next to Blue Tree, Phoebe Cates's store. And actually when I went there, it's like a different world. It's not a luxury shopping destination, actually, it's like a fairytale area. The people go from 86th to 96th, ten blocks back and forth. They don't go anywhere else. The people have so much money. They're great customers, and they're happy not to have typical East Side style, not too lady-lady-like. They're all, "I'm sixty years old, but I want to be like thirty, forty years old! I want to look young." And that concept, in that small area, hit. So now we have very constant, regular customers there. And some of those 60 year old ladies spend like $100,000 a year.
Nancy: On leather leggings! I think something that Kay is very very good at is she has an eye to the neighborhood, and then she translates that feel into the store. So if you go to our stores, each one has a completely different feel, even though it's consistently the same merchandise and same look. She very much puts her own touch into the different locations so that it feels very neighborhoody. I think our customers like that. We get lots of customers who are very very loyal, and they live within a few blocks. That's really our bread and butter. We're not well known enough yet—yet—for people to be coming out just for the store, but people who know the area think we're a little gem. As we expand, I hope we keep that touch for every store that we open.
Where did you initially come up with the name Otte?
Kay: Everybody asks that! I knew you were going to ask that. It's spelled O-T-T-E, right? I was born in South Korea and I came when I was only twenty with an American dream, which sort of came true! [Laughs.] In Korea, you name things after origins, where you come from. Claire from Spiritual America, she's my friend, she's French, she's like, "I'm from France, I should have a name that's French, but I didn't do it," and I know what she means. I want to keep a name from my roots, but one that not many people recognize, so "oh-tee-tee" is clothing in Korean, or "oh-tee," phonetically. So I just put the E on the end to balance the letters.
And that makes it feel a little French.
Kay: Exactly, or Dutch. Some people say it's German. I kind of like that. It's noticeable. People are like "What does it mean?" It's a little mysterious.
Nancy: We have these creation myths where people say "Oh, it means the number eight in Swedish," and we're like "Whatever you think!"
Is there anything that you really want to carry and you haven't found the right version of it yet?
Kay: I've pretty much found everything. It takes time. Vendors or big designers, it's not easy to get them when you're new. You need more experience. But if you have strong aesthetics, you have to keep pushing for what you want to do. You like the big brands, just keep going for it. For example, we started carrying Isabel Marant in December. In order to get line, it took me eight years. I kept pushing. I had to contact as many people as I could. Literally, you know. So I'm very excited about the line.
Do you want to do the lightning round? Let's start with uptown versus downtown.
Mountains or the beach?
Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram?
Kay: Yeah, Pinterest. Instagram is not easy to use.
Jay-Z or Kanye West?
Kay: [Starts laughing.] Oh, Jay-Z, Jay-Z.
Breaking Bad or True blood?
Kay: True Blood.