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CHICAGO — Theirs was an atypical fashion résumé. Jon Cotay worked as a nurse in a local hospital, Eric Hsueh tended bar and Erikka Wang pursued a career in the entertainment industry.
This, of course, was all prior to launching Akira, a women’s boutique along Bucktown’s North Avenue here, in July 2002.
But that was then. Now the trio operates a mini-retail empire, boasting four Akira stores and one ground floor of office space, totaling about 17,000 square feet on one block of North Avenue alone, not to mention high-profile locations on State Street, Clark Street and in Water Tower Place on the Magnificent Mile.
Just last month the retailer opened another Akira women’s store, a 6,000-square-foot unit, on Diversey Parkway just west of Clark Street.
So how did these, at the time, twentysomething friends from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with no retail experience launch one of the more successful local retail enterprises this decade?
They fused fast fashions à la H&M (before H&M came to town) with the personalized service of a boutique, made quick decisions, and were at the right place at the right time.
When Akira set up shop, Bucktown was not home to Marc by Marc Jacobs, Intermix and Nanette Lepore as it is today. It was far grittier. Akira’s block housed a liquor store and currency exchange, both with bulletproof windows, and it wasn’t uncommon to find women working the streets late at night. By day, Akira attracted its fair share of 20-ish singles, many of whom worked as hostesses, waitresses and bartenders at nearby clubs, bars and restaurants. Cotay remembers women coming in with a wad of tip money, ranging from $25 to $50.
“We made them a deal,” he said. “We made sure they walked out with something.”
The trio relied on its house brand, Akira, as it does today for fun, trendy and inexpensive fashions.
“It allows us to explore different styles,” Cotay said. “We’re very price conscious and if it’s a very fashionable piece we’ll do it in our private label.
“Then people can experiment with it,” he said, noting that in recent seasons Akira introduced metallic leggings and bubble skirts that way.
Whereas other city boutiques’ price points seem to start at $200, “we wanted someone to find a top for $34 and walk away happy,” Wang said. “We were able to target the masses.” The trio declined to reveal Akira’s overall volume.
Today, top-selling lines at Akira, aside from its private label, include French Connection, BCBG and Salvage.
Denim ranges from $49 jeans from Wax or Akira to popular styles from Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity to $250 Rock & Republic denim. Dresses range from a $44 cotton print ruffled Akira dress to a $1,200 Vera Wang style.
In the beginning, they didn’t have the fashion cred to land designer accounts.
“We were at the bottom of the ladder and you climb up one rung at a time,” said Cotay, who recalled that BCBG was one of the first designer labels carried at Akira. “We started off as a party store where people would find something to go out in.”
Enjoying its initial success, Akira launched a second women’s store on Lincoln Park’s Clark Street in November 2003, opened Akira footwear on North Avenue in October 2004 and launched Akira’s first men’s store, also on North Avenue, in August 2005.
As Bucktown gentrified and prospered, so did Akira, and so did its clientele, who moved on to better-paying jobs, got married and had kids, a few of whom are named Akira after the store, Hsueh said.
The momentum continued in February 2006 when it launched its Web site, akirachicago.com, opened an accessories store on North Avenue, and unveiled a shoe store on State Street in May 2006. Last October, the company opened a 4,000-square-foot women’s boutique in Water Tower Place.
Over the years, the trio learned to trust their instincts and assume their roles. Cotay handles marketing, men’s and women’s buying; Wang also does women’s buying, and Hsueh oversees operations.
Their ability to move quickly won them the space in Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue.
“When they called us, I thought it was a joke,” Hsueh said. But the prominent shopping center’s landlord didn’t want the key space vacated during the holidays. A national chain would have taken months to inhabit the unit. Akira struck a short-term lease, just in case, and opened within one week.
“If he doesn’t know in five minutes,” Hsueh said, referring to Cotay, “we don’t do it.”
They let each manager dictate the vibe and look of each store, meaning no two locations are alike, outside of various snapshots of clients and events lining walls, columns and dressing rooms in each store. They tailor their inventory to each neighborhood, constantly moving pieces around individual stores and into other stores if need be.