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Shop from the comfort of your own home. Or on the go, phone in hand. Search, browse, click; front-door delivery tomorrow. It’s the modern way. But is it always the best way? Two women who know a thing or two about soothing the fashion-acquisition beast would argue no. They’re about to do something about it.
This story first appeared in the July 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch, longtime friends, longer-time fashion junkies and new business partners, want to renew the personal shopping experience. Not personal as in we’re-tracking-your-online-searches personal, but as in come in, talk, browse (the old way), meet designers, try on and, most importantly, discover personal. They’re about to launch Suite 1521, a shopping concept set to open in a graceful 4,000-square-foot former gallery space at 980 Madison Avenue. The concept is part trunk show, part in-person flash sale, presented with an aura of exclusivity — members only, with annual dues of $500.
“We were thinking that it should feel very intimate and private and special, like you needed a key to get in,” says Tisch. The name was chosen to suggest intimacy, and was inspired by a conversation with her husband, Jonathan Tisch, “who’s in the hotel business,” she says. “Jon and I had to go to something at the Regency, and we walked out of Suite 1521. He said, ‘Why not?’ I called Kim said, ‘Why can’t we use Suite 1521?’” (The actual suite number of the showroom is 305.)
Exclusivity lies at the heart of the business model. The partners know they can’t compete with Saks, Bergdorf’s and Barneys, nor do they want to. Both drawn to the arcane, the unusual, the difficult to obtain, their goal is to present in their entirety collections that have no or limited exposure in traditional retail and even online. “It’s about establishing new designers,” Kassel says, “designers who don’t have their own stores, [who] can’t get the representation to show their full vision to a clientele here. They have a rack or a T-stand, and by the time you get to it, you can’t find your size.”
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The partners’ conversation is laced with the names of designers they’ve secured for their launch — Preen, Todd Lynn, Rodarte, Tabitha Simmons, Jonathan Saunders — and with references to their own fashion soul-mate status. They mention showing up somewhere in the same Prada leather coat — “there were three made,” says Kassel — and offer a charming anecdote about a charming item: In a rare online purchase, Tisch bought a Markus Lupfer sweater. “I e-mailed Kim and said, ‘He just put up the cutest sweater; you should go get it too!’ And she said, ‘If you tell me it’s the one with the bunny ears I’m going to kill you.’” Turns out, Kassel has already purchased the sweater, not for herself, but as a birthday gift for Tisch.
Most of the launch designers are British, a group Tisch and Kassel were drawn to out of personal taste, prior relationships and the fact that many are underrepresented in the U.S. Mary Katrantzou, she of the artful pictorial prints and slightly out-there sensibility, was an early recruit. Tisch became aware of Katrantzou at Colette a few years ago. The store didn’t have a particular dress in her size, so Tisch Googled and “stalked” before making contact with the designer; the two ultimately became friends. Tisch credits Katrantzou with being “the one that sort of moved us forward,” putting them in touch with other British designers.
Katrantzou calls Suite 1521 “the perfect platform for young designer brands based in the U.K. who do not yet have their own retail outlets in the U.S. I see it as a stepping stone to opening a store.”
Another key commitment: Giles Deacon, of whom Kassel has been a private client; he’s made her last two Met gala gowns. A spunky client-enthusiast, Deacon sees in Suite 1521 a path to a robust U.S. client base. His “event” (Kassel and Tisch prefer the more celebratory term to the ho-hum “appearance” or impersonal “sale”) will focus on what he calls “couture and demi-couture,” the part of the collection made in his atelier in London. “I can come over, I can meet the client base, which [sounds like] all the right women I want to be getting involved with,” Deacon says. “The thing that super appeals to me is meeting them. That’s how the business has developed for us in Europe and in Asia and Russia. It works really well.”
Creatures of the Wind will have its first event for fall. “We often get asked why specific styles aren’t in stores, if other colors are available, etc.,” says Shane Gabier, who designs the line with Chris Peters. “So it’s great for people to have the chance to really get their hands on the pieces that may not be available otherwise.”
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Suite 1521 will host collections in trunk-show-style shopping “events,” typically two days each, with the designer in attendance. These events will occur on the wholesale buying schedule, with designers presenting their collections soon after the runway or resort pre-fall showings. Members will access the calendar and register via a Web site that goes live late next month; there will be no e-commerce element. Sessions will run for three hours, with limited openings. Some early events include Rodarte, Jonathan Saunders, Wes Gordon and Edie Parker. Shipments will be made on the traditional retail schedule.
Returns are allowed, but not with the latitude given by top traditional retailers. “You can’t keep it in your house for a month,” says Kassel. “You’re getting a special privilege here that you’re not getting at Neiman Marcus. You have to make a decision about whether you want to give it back.” Rather than full refunds, customers will receive “Suite 1521 points” to be used toward future purchases, whether at upcoming events or from “The Closet,” where returned merchandise will reside. There will also be an incentive program based on dollars spent.
Kassel and Tisch met through fashion. Kassel worked in high-profile public relations (Calvin Klein, Jeffrey) until its irritations won out and she quit. Eventually bored and having become friendly with Tuleh’s Josh Patner and Bryan Bradley through Jeffrey, she called and said, “I’ll do anything.” Two days a week led to seven years.
The trek from the Upper East Side to Tuleh’s studio on Chrystie Street was definitely another world, one in which Kassel learned the nitty-gritty of the fashion business outside the realm of p.r. She loved that the collection was “being designed right behind me; you could see every aspect of it,” and that she worked within a fun, fancy-chic circle including Amanda Brooks and Lillian von Stauffenberg. Among the tasks she embraced: private clients. Enter Tisch.
She had long been fashion-obsessed, a condition nurtured on European vacations with her parents as a girl. At one point, her mother suggested a job “in an industry where maybe you can buy the clothes versus working in the clothing industry.” Tisch worked in the insurance field, and moved on to private banking.
“I’ve always loved finding the new designers and brands,” says Tisch, “loved when someone would stop me on the street — ‘Where did you get that? I love what you’re wearing.’” At Tuleh, Tisch and other private clients would come in, try this or that, Bradley would give his opinion, and suddenly it was a social event.
Post-Tuleh, the two women kept in touch. “What we kept coming back to was that we missed that atmosphere at Tuleh,” Tisch says. At the same time, they would lament the lack of specialness they found in stores, other than at “Colette or places like that,” says Tisch. “I’d come back here and say, ‘Kim, there’s got to be a better way!’”
Suite 1521 is set to open with a membership roster of 300 comprised of friends and word-of-mouth recruits. Tisch and Kassel want to expand their own list via a relationship with a strategic partner who has access to such a client base. “Our target is someone who doesn’t want to walk into a cocktail party and see [someone else] in the same dress that she’s just paid $4,000 for,” says Tisch. “Somebody who’s fairly social and goes to a lot of things.”
Suite 1521 will be open Monday through Friday with no planned weekend hours, though flexibility is essential to the focus on customer service. Similarly, July and August should be “dead months for us,” according to Kassel, for two reasons: because by early July, the resort wholesale season is pretty much over, and because a good percentage of their initial clientele will be leave town for the summer — “You know, school vacation.”
Yet this is no wealthy women’s vanity project. Kassel, Tisch and their tight staff (four in total) will spend their summers receiving, packaging and sending the merch off to clients, while also staffing The Closet. There’s something else they expect to do right away: make money. “We’re self-funded, but we had to go through a lot of approval before either of us could take that money and put it into something,” Kassel says, noting that their business plan forecasts profitability by the end of year one. “Not fabulously profitable, but profitable.”