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 Rebecca Dale Adler
Jay Kos' namesake Nolita boutique isn't for the faint of heart, nor is it for the man who's most comfortable shopping at Levi's and J.Crew. Prices run high, fabrics run wild, and colors teeter-toter the line of flashy eccentricity and all-out dandy. Jay, however, is mostly concerned with fit, and argues the impeccable tailoring of his collections justifies the dollar signs.
We met up with him right before Fashion Week to talk about who his typical customer is (it ranges from hedge fund managers to Andre 3000), what it means to be a "constipated shopper," and how women often make or break a sale.
Let's talk about the decision to move from Park Avenue to Nolita. What prompted that, and has your customer base changed?
I moved downtown because I felt like the Upper East Side was stuck in a time warp, and it was killing me creatively. I don't find it interesting uptown. I find that it's becoming like a mall, catering to Middle-America rich. By that, I mean that some of these people are very wealthy, but they still have a Middle America mentality. They all walk around with the same logo handbag and each person has the same shoes.
As far as if I like it better down here, yes, it's much better. I'm much more inspired, I'm much more creative. The people down here are much more interesting and accepting, and my uptown people that are cool still come down, and they still shop. The same guys that were buying solid navy blue and grey suits are still buying those navy blue and grey suits, but they'll also walk out with a pair of leather jeans or a fun cashmere sweater.
I feel like those guys may have occasionally gone downtown when you were still uptown, no?
Nah, before these guys had thought that 57th Street was downtown.
Had you considered a different area before you chose this one?
Yeah, I looked in Soho, I looked in the West Village—I kinda looked everywhere downtown. I wasn't so concerned with the exact location as I was with the physical space. I still feel that way. I believe in that saying, "If you build it, they will come."
Who do you think your core customer is? What do they do for work?
My customers are everyone from hedge fund managers to hip-hop moguls to lawyers to celebrities. My customer is very secure, but still knows how to have fun. And most importantly, they have style. I don't sell style. Most stores try to sell style, in the sense that they have clients that are convinced that if they buy something from that store it will magically give them style. I'm different—I'm under the impression that no one can purchase style. You either have it or you don't.
We don't get a lot of celebrity stylists, but we get a lot of celebrities who shop for themselves. So, when Andre 3000 comes in he doesn't shop with a stylist, he shops by himself.
Your price points can get pretty high. Is there a range you try to stick to, or can you price things more freely?
I don't really think about prices. I think about how much it costs me to make a piece, I see what the fabric costs me, I put in my creative expense, and I price it accordingly. I don't have competition, so I don't feel that I need to be priced competitively. I'm priced appropriately for each item.
I remember reading Critical Shopper when you opened, and Jon Caramanica said something like, if you only buy one pair of alligator loafers for $3,500 this year, these are them. Are there any specific items that you can think of that are priced high, but your customers love them and keep coming back in for them?
Maybe sports jackets. For instance, there was a guy who came in this week and he lives on the Upper East Side. He told me that he had a couple of suits made uptown because it was just easier logistically, and they turned out to be a disaster. He came back because no one makes a shoulder like I do, and that's true—no one does a shoulder like us.
Although our sports jackets are expensive (I have three kids to put through school), they fit beautifully and they last a long time. My clients know that. For people who complain about price, I am uninterested. I'm uninterested in the bloggers who blog about it. Lawyers charge what they do per hour, and I charge what I have to. I never get scared of high-pricing.
I've never thought about it like that, but it's an interesting point.
It fascinates me that, aside from not questioning what lawyers or mechanics will charge per hour, people are willing to walk into stores like Louis Vuitton and blindly pay top dollar for something that they aren't even sure where it was made or how much it cost. It doesn't matter to them. If they can do that, then I can too. I don't price it out of its worth, but it's not going to be cheap.
If you are paying a $100 to make a jacket, let's not sell it for $3,000. If the average customer were to see the cost of what most men's stores pay for one sports jacket, and what I pay for a sports jacket, they would be blown away. Our cost is more than their retail. They are going to be paying a lot for our stuff, but they are getting a quality product.
How much of your business would you say is custom?
And what items generally do people ask to have made?
Everything—Suits, shirts, ties...
I imagine you get some traditional guys who aren't into your elaborate pieces, but still want to buy something.
For sure, some of them don't get it. Some guys walk in and they really are too afraid to step out of their comfort zone. But that's usually guys who don't really have any style. For instance, there was a guy in the other day who came for a custom suit. Very classic, traditional, WASPy guy, but he had style. He was like, I want these pants and I want these pants.
There are some people—I call them "constipated shoppers"—that are so stiff in life. They come in with their blue suits and white shirts, and then they walk out and go to Hermès to buy their ties. Those guys will never change. They will be like, "I cant pull this off," or "My wife won't let me." We know that when we have a client who walks in and says, "I have to ask my wife," then that's it. We are done.
Do you have any plans to expand?
I'm looking for a space in L.A. I'm also working on the launch of a sneaker with somebody.
Are you thinking of ever doing wholesale?
I'm not interested in wholesaling clothing per se, but maybe a sneaker, a fragrance, or jewelry.
What are your thoughts on the difference between LA style and New York style for men?
LA style is definitely more casual, and I think that LA in a way has more style. A lot of people are more fashionable and have more style, but yet it's never presented to them in the correct way. Because in LA, you have two types of guys: you have flip-flop, tee shirt, jeans wearing guy who shops on Robertson, and then you have the guy decked out in Tom Ford. Neither to me looks so great—both look too contrived. No one has really introduced them to a store that is not pigeon-holed into one of those categories.
Do you still cook for customers on occasion?
Yes, if we like them.
Do you have a favorite meal. I know you like to make omelets.
I do love to make that special omelet dish.
What's your trick for keeping the ingredients from spilling out the sides?
Oh, you'd have to watch me make the omelet. I don't make the traditional American omelet. I learned how to make a special omelet from this chef in Florence.
Alright, time for the lightening round. 1920s, 1930s or 1940s?
8am or 8pm?
Whiskey or Tequila?
Neither. I don't drink.
Favorite travel destination?