NEW YORK — Julie Chaiken remembers launching her sportswear collection 10 years ago knowing simply that she wanted to get into the top 50 stores in the country.
“We would call Barneys [New York] and say, ‘If you won’t see us, then we’ll come see you,’” she said with a laugh. “It was one of those things where you’re just too young to know any better.”
As bold as her approach was, it may have been the right strategy: Barneys New York placed the first order for the debut collection, then called Chaiken & Capone, in 1994, and it hit shelves in January 1995.
“That was really impressive. It was like someone put a giant stamp of approval on us,” Chaiken said on the phone from her San Francisco home.
What began as Chaiken & Capone, the sportswear collection, evolved into Chaiken (following Pamela Capone’s departure in 1998), a lifestyle brand with sportswear, swimwear and maternity collections, and accessories, jewelry and optical lines expected to follow. Ten years ago, the company had only four deliveries per year. Now it has 12. Industry insiders place the privately owned company’s revenues at $25 million.
Chaiken maintains the longevity of her brand can be attributed to building consistency and staying true to her consumer. “Our customer is and has been that urban working woman who probably works in the creative side of business and is someone who knows designer, but is more practical than that,” she said. The brand has evolved to reflect the growth of its customer.
“I think our consumer is starting a family, which is why we brought in the maternity collection,” said Jeff Mahshie, creative director, who joined the company in 1998 as head designer after Chaiken bought out Capone’s share of the brand. “Before I started at Chaiken, I saw the clothes around and knew the kind of person who wore them. She was a downtown, groovy girl,” said Mahshie.
“Chaiken & Capone made the hottest pant,” said Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of the Scoop boutiques. “The company was really born with that stretch, twill, ‘2001’ pant. It made you look taller, thinner, and it was the most comfortable thing out there. It was like wearing leggings,” Greenfield said. She has carried the brand since Scoop opened its doors in 1996.“The business all started with that pant,” said Terence Bogan, vice president of the Women’s Co-op at Barneys New York. “We sold tons of them. It just seemed to fit everyone.”
The success of its great-fitting pant established the brand in the industry and created an instant following. “Julie is very smart. She had that loyal customer and knew, in order to keep them, that she had to follow them and constantly romance them,” said Bogan. Today, he said, novelty tops, jackets and dresses are big sellers at Barneys. Other accounts include, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, in addition to more than 200 specialty boutiques worldwide.
In addition to her retail success, Chaiken has another legacy: Every actress Chaiken has dressed for an award show — from the Emmy awards to the Golden Globes to the Tony awards — has won. Stars such as Cynthia Nixon, Idina Menzel (twice) and Mary Louise Parker (twice) all walked away with top honors adorned in gowns by Chaiken.
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