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Private Label: When Boutique Owners Become Designers

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While runway trends may dominate what goes on in fashion globally, it's the carefully edited boutiques that lend so much style credibility to New York. From all the collections that designers both big and small present each season, boutique owners and their buyers are the ones who whittle down what's been created into a unique offering that speaks to a store's particular vision. And oftentimes, that includes a private label from the boutique itself.

A private label can consist of basics (think white tees and black pants), items that complement other pieces in the store, or anything else that an owner thinks the [insert store name here] customer needs to have right now. While the concept of a private label isn't groundbreaking for 2014—both department stores and small-scale shops have had them for decades—the frequency at which they can be found in boutiques has been exploding in recent years. It's a way to further brand its vision of styling, they say. But should customers buy into this approach—and, literally, buy the label?

In short, yes. Boutiques know their customers better than any department store or mass retailer ever could, so each piece is created with the shopper in mind. And with the owner involved from conception all the way through sale, they know they're presenting a quality product. If you trust a boutique to pick your pieces from other designers, then you should trust them to create wearable items as well.

For many store owners, the idea of creating a private label was in their boutique's blueprint. "The Swords-Smith collection was planned from the beginning alongside the store," said Briana Swords, who had previously worked as a womenswear designer before opening the Brooklyn store with her husband. "It's an integral part of our offering and our overall identity."

Scoop NYC felt the same way. "It was just part of the original owner's vision of doing exclusives and creating product that was special to Scoop," said Heidi Hoelzer, the chain's vice president of women's buying.

Even Carson Street Clothiers, a menswear store founded by former corporate attorneys (read: no design background), knew the importance of offering their own brand alongside other designers. "We always wanted to do something with our name on it, and take pride in the craftsmanship and vision of how we wanted to dress the gentlemen that eventually would make their way into our store," said co-owner Brian Trunzo.

But for Otte founder Kay Lee, she saw a store label as a way to trudge through the recent recession. "After we started in 2009, the economy was really bad," she said "Everybody was buying on sale price, unless [an item] was very special or exclusive. So we figured we have to have or make something different that other designers aren't carrying."


Two looks from Otte's spring 2014 collection

That led to Otte's first piece: silk tank tops. "We made a whole bunch of different colors, and we coordinate with the other merchandise," Lee said, "and the customers were loving it. [They said] Oh my god, this is exactly what is missing in my closet."

"Now, I have to develop a full line," she continued. Her customers have told her, "I want to see some other things. I want to see more novelty fabrics, besides the silk. I want to wear your sweaters, I want your pants, I want to see your jacket. They're very high demands and high expectations."

At Carson Street, the owners put those high expectations on themselves. "One thing that was really important to us was being able to provide exactly the kind of product that we wanted to wear," said Trunzo. "And while most of our vendors do an excellent job of making those garments, when you have your own label, you're able to control that 100 percent."

And with that control, they can offer exactly what the customer is looking for. "Fit is what our customers really gravitate towards, especially when it comes to tailored clothing," said Trunzo, adding that their label has "a modern fit, but it's not too slim, not too aggressive. It pays respect to yesteryear—the way a classically tailored garment should fit."

"We have the best materials and the best actual hands touching your garments," he added, referring to their carefully selected manufacturers. "The time spent on the garment, and the care that goes into it, really shines through. There's no half-steps taken in the approach to designing a Carson Street product."


Photo by Driely S.

At Condor, owner Loriann Smoak is putting her Parsons design degree to good use and conceptualizing the Nolita boutique's first-ever line, which currently doesn't have a launch date. "It's really driven by that idea of having pieces that you can go back to again and again—an everyday piece that can become part of your uniform."

As she does when selecting pieces from other designers, Smoak turned to her own closet, noting that high-quality items in a neutral palette are what have endured in her wardrobe. "When thinking about a line specific to what I would be creating for the shop, that would be the inspiration behind it," she said.

"My intention is to do the production locally," Smoak continued. "Having a small store, I'll have the capacity to make very small runs of production and see how the consumer responds, and then be able to allow that response to guide how it develops. I'll really let the customer be a part of the evolution of where it goes."

Items that you'll find in Scoop's line are there "because we couldn't find something in the market that we liked, or we're taking something that is [in a collection] and tweaking it for what we felt better suited the needs of our customers," said Hoelzer.

Their designs were so well-received that the chain sold their line in other stores—but only for a year. "I think it was a bigger business than we had imagined it to be," Hoelzer said, so now it's only available at their stores. Other boutiques have also pursued the wholesale route—Otte's label, for example, can be found at Intermix and on Shopbop, Lee said.

Meanwhile, other store owners-cum-designers are considering their options. "We would be open to wholesale the line now, if it was the right partnership, said Swords, but "it's nice to have the Swords-Smith collection exclusive to our store for now, as an extra bonus for our customers."


Swords-Smith; Photo by Rebecca Dale

A bonus that they clearly appreciate—many store owners reported overwhelmingly good feedback from shoppers. "Working with customers directly, Matt [Breen, my co-owner] and I get a lot of feedback, and it's all been very positive," said Trunzo. "Fit reigns supreme, as well as the fabric, the quality, the construction. A lot of customers are very interested in that, and they want to engage and talk to you about it and learn more."

Looking ahead to the next season, everyone's in expansion mode. "We're developing fall/winter 2014 at present, as well as planning collaborations with other designers and artists," said Swords. "Accessories are next on my list in terms of new categories to develop. It's a very exciting time for us."

Scoop introduced shoes "for the first time this year, and that was a great success, so I believe we're going to continue with that, and we've started dabbling in accessories as well," said Hoelzer. However, the brand is mindful of how much they're offering. "It's not something that we want to overtake the other pieces of our business, but it's definitely something that will always be a part of Scoop."

And Trunzo said his store is looking into sportswear. "Those are some chances that we'll be taking with the Carson Street label," he added. But regardless of what Carson Street or any other boutique's private labels produce, customers can count on the same high quality they've received from their favorite stores that made them favorites in the first place.
· Condor's Store Owner on Local Designers, Eccentric Accessories [Racked NY]
· Swords-Smith's Owners on Building a Creative Hub in Brooklyn [Racked NY]
· Carson Street Clothiers: From the Blogosphere to Brick and Mortar [Racked NY]

Carson Street Clothiers

63 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012 Visit Website

SWORDS-SMITH

98C South 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 347 599 2969 Visit Website