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La Garconne's Founder On Why Smart Women Wear Smocks

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Image via La Garconne

Back in 2005, if you wanted to buy luxury goods online, you typed the name of a major department store (Saks, Nordstrom) or a mega-site (Net-a-Porter, Shopbop) into your browser and sifted through a sea of Marc Jacobs Stam bags and Chanel Black Satin nail polishes. But if you wanted to buy luxury goods with a specific point of view—one that was slightly more rumpled, and, well, French—brick and mortar was still your best bet. That is, until Kris Kim had the idea to launch La Garconne.

"Feminine, but with a hint of masculinity—'borrowed from the boys,' so to speak…I felt like that was the way modern women dressed," Kim told us of her vision for the site. And while the former fashion PR exec did go through "a pink phase," La Garconne's wares have stayed consistent over the past decade—blouses have tailored-tunic proportions, shoes are dude-confusing, bags are clean-lined, and color (usually in the form of an embroidered Suno dress or a marine PS1) feels considered.

This May, Kim finally opened the doors to her first-ever store, in Tribeca. "After 10 years, we just craved it," she says. "When you do a web search, you have to have an urge to find what you want. But shopping also means walking into a store and kind of experiencing the clothes and discovering the brands that way, too."

The spare, Japanese-inspired loft is the perfect backdrop to Kim's "Moderne" collection, a line of thoughtful basics that was introduced two years ago as a way to fill the gaps in La Garconne's offerings. "We're constantly like, 'Oh we should try to think of something new.' And then everything becomes an artist's smock," Kim jokes. "You kind of want to be that person, a little bit. Even if we're not artists in our daily lives, we aspire to be. It's about being happy, trying to find happiness in the end."

Read on for Kris Kim's thoughts on why fashion is having a La Garconne-y moment, why smart ladies choose caftans, and why casual doesn't mean under-dressed.

Congratulations on your new store! You just announced that you were opening a brick and mortar location three months ago, and it's already here. Do you feel like it happened quickly?

We kind of knew about it for a while, but like everything in New York it just takes time to get all of the permits. It was easy and hard at the same time, in a way, because we had a point of view online but translating that into a physical space was tricky at times.

We're really thrilled because we feel as though it really did translate. They look the same but different.

And you get to interact more with your customers.

One day we took a picture of this lady who was wearing a look that she bought from the La Garçonne website. She just bought it online and then she came to visit the store. We don't take those moments lightly.

When I was a little girl and went shopping with my mother, we used to sit in stores and hang out a little bit and you try clothes on, and I think it was a different time back then. With this store, I want it to be kind of like that too. Just try clothes on and be happy, you know?

You started La Garconne back in 2005, when online retail was kind of the Wild West.

It didn't happen by accident, but it kind of did. I had just come off of having a career in PR, I had been working in fashion for a long time and I always wanted a store like this. I just had my first child, so it was kind of a transitional time. I needed to find something that was similar to that idea without committing to a space and having this real store. A lot of my friends over in Asia were already shopping online.

I've always loved fashion and I thought that there weren't enough stores at the time that offered up a certain point of view. And I guess that point of view, for me and for a lot of my friends, meant being a little boyish. Feminine, but with a hint of masculinity—"borrowed from the boys," so to speak. Hence the name La Garçonne was born. I felt like that was the way modern women dressed and the name really had to point to that. It happened organically.

That was the point of view from day one and it's still the point of view. I think that's what has helped us come this far.

How do you decide is something is or isn't La Garconne? What do you ask yourself?

Well first I have to love it. I have to see myself wearing it, too. I think that's the question: "Do I love it?" It changes every season. A lot of it is emotional, I think, and the emotional part is also really important for me because I think that how I feel on that day kind of dictates my buying.

Were you into fashion as a child?

Always, always. I used to draw fashion croquis sitting in the front row in third grade. And my teacher noticed that I kept doing it and she was like, you should go to fashion school or just get into fashion. This is pretty much me, this is pretty much it.

Do you remember when your website first went live? What that day was like?

I was running it myself. My husband, who is also my business partner, still had his full time job and was kind of helping out, but it was really myself and my two-year-old. It took about a year to get it ready. It was kind of the unknown—I didn't know what to expect.

When the orders started coming through it was like "wow, this actually works." It felt really good because it was my first business, my own business. I mean, all the things I focused on back then are the same today. It's almost the same.

Do you remember some of the first things you bought for the site?

I was really excited, at the time, to have Daryl K. That was a pretty important brand because Daryl was one of the first designers to sort of tap into this boyish sensibility. I think she influenced a lot of designers and the way women dressed.

Vanessa Bruno was kind of that French idea. You know, that certain sense of effortless quality and that way that French women dress—she captured that.

I think we had Anna Sui, too. Anna Sui was interesting because to me, it kind of represented that bohemian spirit that I think the La Garçonne customer always has. Because it's not about looking like a boy.

Right. It's "La" Garçonne.

Exactly. I think Anna Sui kept with that—I remember that appointment really well.
Eventually, down the line, we had a line called Development which is now Phillip Lim. And then Alexander Wang.

Were you one of the first retailers to buy Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang?

I think so. Maybe it was their second or third season. And also, I think we bought Alexander Wang before it became Alexander Wang, when the line was just a few sweaters hanging in a showroom.

How did you decide that it was the right time to open a brick and mortar location?

Like everything we do, the timing just has to feel right. After 10 years, we just craved it. We have great, loyal customers who have been shopping with us for years. A lot of them live in New York and they would ask, "Do you have a real store?" I think women want both—online and offline.

I mean, I go shopping myself and I like to try on clothes. When you do a web search, you have to have an urge to find what you want. But shopping also means walking into a store and kind of experiencing the clothes and discovering the brands that way too.

Was there a reason you picked Tribeca?

I used to live in Tribeca. This is a neighborhood I really love, and so from the very beginning, even though we looked at other places, we knew that if we found a really nice spot here that would be it.

And as soon as I walked in, I got that feeling like, "Wow, this is good, this feels right." We didn't schedule a date and try to fit the space into that date. It was more like, let's find a space first and work around that. The location was very important. The type of space just really lends itself to all of this, and it's all about giving people a beautiful experience, whether it's online or offline.

Is there something that does very well for you, time after time?

Clothing has always been important for us. Some stores do consider accessories to be the driving business, or shoes to be that. We spend a lot of time—and we put a lot of emphasis on—putting looks together online. There's a lot to choose from, but we try to explain why this denim shirt is there, and put it in the context of a look. It's like shooting a lookbook two or three times a week.

Are there particular clothing styles or silhouettes that constantly sell out?

I think knitwear. And dresses. Simple dresses, simple knitwear.

Do you think the mood in fashion is particularly "La Garçonne-y" right now? It seems like people have really embraced minimalism and looser silhouettes.

I think women in general are so much more sophisticated. I just got goose bumps when I said that. Women know what works on them and who they are. I feel that women are more empowered and they've figured out how to dress comfortably, but still look dressed.

Casual doesn't mean you're under-dressed; it's a refined version of it. Women are busy, especially in cities like this, but anywhere else for that matter. But, we can still look good. Is that very "La Garçonne"? I think it's certainly something that we aspire to.

Your husband is your business partner! Do you work closely together? How does that work?

It's not always easy, but it's really good. We do very different things. He lets me be creative and focus on the buying and the creativity and he focuses on the business end of it. So we help each other out and we have lunch together almost every day. We stay grounded. We try to keep it very consistent—every day is kind of the same.

What is your typical day like?

It's really crazy. Having the store has made my life even busier. We have two kids also, so it's kind of a juggling act. Honestly, from the moment I walk in until the moment I leave, it's just constant—buying, editorials, meetings around styling.

I try to look at every single image that goes on the site, just to make sure everything looks consistent. There's always this fear that when you get a little bit bigger, you can't look at everything. That's still true, but we have a great team and we have a lot of fun every day because we are girls that love fashion.

Do you think La Garconne's style has changed since you started in 2005?

I think we did change a little bit, to be honest. Maybe midway. It wasn't a huge change, but I felt like it was a little bit different from the way we were buying. And since then, we have gone back.

I look at the site basically all day. Things have to look right, and certain things just didn't look right. So we had to make sure we were adhering to our point of view. Our viewpoint should stay the same, even as fashion changes. It's not easy because it's been 10 years and fashion does sort of change a little bit.

What was it that changed midway?

Maybe wilder prints? I was like, "maybe that's too wild." Someone will tell you I went through a pink phase. We still joke about that. But apart from the pink phase and the wilder prints, I think that we've pretty much stayed true to who we are.

But La Garconne has prints, occasionally! Some really beautiful prints. How do all of you decide, "this is the slightly wilder thing I'm going to buy this season."

When we're at appointments, there are certain prints where we all collectively go, "Yeah, that's it." It's pretty clear what is going to work and what is not going to work for us because we're kind of all the same people in a way. And even if the print is kind of out there, there might be something about it that fits.

It's immediate. If there's even a 10-second pause, it may not be right. Not just with prints, but with anything because all of us are seeing ourselves wearing it.

The yes and no is quick. It's this emotional thing that comes out. And it's not about saying "Okay, we did really well with that, let's get more." Which we do sometimes too, because it's something that really works for us and what women look for. But the buying is much more free-form and emotional.

How would you describe the La Garçonne woman?

I think she's pretty real. When you're a real person, you're happy or sad, you have your ups and downs. She's someone that feels a lot, and maybe she expresses herself through fashion. She is beautiful because of that. I think she's confident. But maybe she's not feeling confident sometimes. I think this is really just about the real woman.

Do you think having understated clothing—or a uniform, of sorts—helps a woman to feel more confident?

I think so. I definitely think that has an impact. I think our customer puts a lot of thought into what she wears. She wants to feel good. She wants to feel beautiful but she's doing it for herself, as opposed to doing it to make a statement, even though I think doing it for yourself, in a way, makes that statement.

For instance, in our Moderne collection, we've named a lot of the clothing after certain artists and architects. We have smocks that are called artist's smocks, we have a shirt called the writer shirt, a coat called the painter coat. It's not that you have to be a painter or a writer, I think it just points to how we feel. It's a certain sense of being an artist in your own life.

And you know, I hate to go there, but I just think this is a really good time for women. Women are just so much more confident.

This morning I was in a cab going to work and something in the taxicab came up and was like, "Can women have it all?" And I thought, sure. If that "all" isn't everything. If you picked over it, like "I want a career, but I still want to have kids."

Have you ever bought something that did surprisingly well? Or something you thought would do well but didn't end up selling?

Not really. It's kind of formulaic in a way. We notice the things that work for us, and because we're kind of all the same people, it really helps us make decisions. If something doesn't perform well, I don't think it's because we made a bad choice. It's because it just didn't work. So we don't spend a lot of time thinking "aww," we just went with our gut at the moment and we keep going forward. Stay positive.

How many people work for you now?

I think in the office, close to 30.

What do you look for in an employee?

I think passion. A real genuine sense of love for fashion. Passion. How long have you been reading magazines? I've been reading magazines since I was a kid. You have to really really love it, and I look for that love.

Do you come up with all the designs for Moderne?

Yes, and even with that we have a great team. We just had a meeting this morning. I'm big on collaborating. "What do you think? Do you like it? Would you wear it?" It's been a few seasons, we're designing Moderne Number Six now.

What are your points of inspiration when you are designing for Moderne?

Things that I love that I feel like I still don't have.

So you're sort of filling in the blanks in your wardrobe?

I think so. I love things that are simple without being overly simple. We don't really work off of a mood board or anything. It's a little bit more item-driven. "How do we make that one skirt? That one dress?"

The main point of inspiration? It's La Garçonne. I think that's what it is—the same idea, the same women, the same clothes. It's for that same lifestyle. It's just that we're making it on their own.

I notice you do a lot of artist's smocks and looser silhouettes. Who's the woman who chooses a caftan over a sexy summer dress? Why are smocks and caftans so appealing?

You kind of want to be that person, a little bit. Even if we're not artists in our daily lives, we aspire to be. It's about being happy, trying to find happiness in the end.

I imagine a woman in an artist's smock with her simple ballet flats, by a lake somewhere. I think it's the idea of this lifestyle, really—that reminds us of certain pieces that could maybe work towards that.

Because we're so busy, women are so busy. Specifically with Moderne, it's about this certain idea, this lifestyle that we aspire to be a part of. Maybe it's the artist in everybody that makes us feel better. The pieces are sort of fashion-y, but there's this nostalgia almost.

It just so happens that those pieces are loose but it's really more by accident than anything else. It's more traditional in a way, but really modern at the same time. I think some people will look at this and think, "you look like you're wearing something to go to bed in." But there's something very modern about this.

It's a certain uniform that makes getting dressed a little easier, because it's this one thing that you on. It's a little sheer, simple and very chic.

It's something you choose very carefully, but when you have it on you don't have to think about it.

I think so. It's easy. It's kind of intellectual at the same time, because it's so simple in a way. We don't really have a hard time coming up with shapes. We're constantly like, "Oh we should try to think of something new." And then everything becomes an artist's smock. That's where we are.

Time for the lightning round!

8am or 8pm?

8am

Beer or wine?

Wine

Cats or dogs?

Dogs

Beach or mountains?

Beach

Favorite vacation destination?

Sagaponack

Rap or Country?

Rap

Coffee or tea?

Coffee

How do you take it?

With milk and sugar.

Sweet or savory?

Savory

Introverted or extroverted?

Both, for sure.
· La Garconne [Official Site]
· The La Garconne Store Is Finally Open in Tribeca [Racked NY]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]

La Garçonne

465 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013 646-553-3303 Visit Website

La Garconne

465 Greenwich Street New York, NY