Menswear designer Ernest Sabine Alexander's family history includes not one but two seamstress grandmothers—something that's had a lasting impact on his life direction. "I grew up in house filled with their samples and sewing machines and patterns and dresses and colorful thread spools everywhere," he explains. "That had a big effect on me subconsciously of wanting to start my own label."
In addition to opening a flagship on Thompson Street in the summer of 2012 (and renovating it this year), other milestones notched in his belt include winning GQ's Best New Menswear Designer award in 2013. As the brand approaches its fifth anniversary, we caught up with the man behind the label to learn how his shop became such an integral part of the New York menswear retail landscape in just a few short years. —Mikelle Street
What made you pick Soho for your flagship?
I just love the energy of the neighborhood. It's a real mix of New Yorkers and people from other countries, especially on West Broadway—you have a lot of tourists that are just walking around. I just really love this part of Broadway, particularly Thompson Street, because it's one of those last-hold-out streets where you have specialty boutiques.
So you were just walking along and found the space?
Yeah, you know how life can be random like that? I had my eye out and was thinking about the first location for the store, and I was literally walking up the street and saw the "For Rent" sign. Sometimes you just see a place and you feel it, whether it's an apartment or a store. I just felt a good vibe from it, so I called the number and the rest is history.
You just renovated the space—it looks great. What was one of the most important things to you when renovating?
I definitely wanted to maintain the look and feel of the brand: the colors, the richness, the heritage of it. We make everything in the U.S., so I wanted to make it feel kind of "crafted" and also refined. I actually had done the first store myself. I built it by hand, so things were starting to get a little crooked. As we're growing and expanding our brand and our line, I wanted it to have more polish. We spent the time and the money to actually do custom built-ins and put lighting on the products, because sometimes it's the subtle things that help make the shopping experience.
Is there another location in the works?
We're looking at opening another location and also considering some other cities, but that's all in the works.
Has your customer changed since you first opened?
I've definitely seen more international customers come in now, [from] Japan and Europe. Every time they're in New York they come in to visit, so it's nice to see our customer go from a New York customer to really more of a global customer.
Is there a big difference between the guy who comes to your store as opposed to someone who shops the brand at one of the retailers you work with?
Well we definitely have the guy that walks by, but people who are coming here normally have heard or read about it somewhere and they are really seeking it out, so a lot of the time they know exactly what they want, which is kind of nice. I think guys really research investment purchases, so if it's a really nice bag, they've really thought about it and looked at it online first and now they're coming to see it in person and finally pull the trigger.
Do you have a favorite item in the store right now?
It's kind of seasonal, but this wool puffer vest with the leather gun yoke on the back—I wear this thing all the time! We did a super-limited edition run of only about 30 of them. We have our classic bags that I love—those are my bread and butter—but then doing these really limited-edition pieces, sometimes that are in-store only, is kind of fun and nice. It makes it really special to know that you can come here and get something that you're not going to find everywhere.
You're definitely known for custom, limited-edition runs. How'd you decide on that strategy?
We started as an accessories company about five years ago. That's still a big part of the business, a core thing, and for clothing I really enjoy doing it, but it's a little faster and more seasonal. We're still developing as a brand, so it's nice to be able to experiment with things by doing 30 or 50. It just makes it feel so much special.
What pushed you to have your bags made in the Garment District, and your clothes made in the U.S.?
When I started the label it was during the big economic crisis, so I really wanted to do something that would help rekindle the Garment District in New York. To me, there was a specific value and purpose to consciously making things here, so that was a big part of the reason. It was just through luck that I live in New York and you can still get things made here. The first bag I designed, I went around the Garment District through the 30s off Seventh Avenue knocking on doors.
Are you ever going to try to move all into the Garment District?
I think Made in New York could be done, but I think there's a balance with finding the best quality. If someone in Connecticut can make the best belt, then we're going to do it, because at the end of the day it's about putting out a good product.
How was it working with Gap for your collaboration with them?
You know that was a big thing for me, and I was a little torn by that. GQ named us as one of the best menswear designers of the year [in 2013], and as a part of that we do this collaboration with Gap. Of course, they have a global supply chain and they are making things all over the world like Asia, Europe and wherever, so I felt very torn. Obviously it's great publicity and exposure; to be carried in Gap stores worldwide is insane, but the tag said "made in wherever," and of course they're trying to hit a much lower price point. So we got a little flack for that.
Is womenswear in the future?
We actually did a mini womenswear collaboration a few years ago with Club Monaco and it did really well. I'm really tempted to bring it back as a full part of the line, but we're a really small team and I want to stay focused on men's for the time being.
You've been in the menswear game for a few years, what's the biggest change you've seen?
Five years ago everybody looked like they stepped out of the woods, which is great; it's a really classic look. But I think in the last year, two years really, guys really appreciate heritage, but they're going for something that's a little cleaner in terms of patterns and silhouettes. Things are becoming a little more elevated instead of crunchy. That's always a nice balance.
What's the biggest change you've seen specifically to men's retail in New York?
There's definitely a lot more options! There's Crosby Street with Carson Street Clothiers and Bonobos opened their guideshop. I think that a lot more is happening in regards to men's specific retail, which is really exciting and good for us as a business.
· Ernest Alexander [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]