Kelly Cole can add another occupation to his long résumé: partner.
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Cole, a bicoastal presence with extensive experience as an actor, disc jockey, club owner and sportswear and even interior designer, in July opened a store under his own name on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, and his playful approach to jeans and both solid and graphic T-shirts quickly attracted the likes of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and singer Christina Aguilera.
It also drew the attention of numerous retailers, including Maxfield, American Rag and Fred Segal Santa Monica, which became the business’ first wholesale accounts. Cole, sensing an opportunity and needing assistance to capitalize on it, turned to Sean Hornbeak, who’d been responsible for putting both J Brand and Current/Elliott into the men’s business, and the pieces immediately fit.
Cole and Hornbeak are now 50-50 partners in Kelly Cole and are working together to build a meaningful wholesale business and take it beyond the emphasis on unisex knits and jeans that has distinguished the company’s efforts to date.
“I’d been helping Kelly with a few accounts and ideas after leaving Current/Elliott but began to think it was time to move on to my next collection,” Hornbeak said. “But it began to dawn on both of us that our aesthetics and personalities meshed really well, and it hit me that Kelly was already in some of the best stores on the West Coast. Why not build on that and grow? It all seemed to make sense. It’s fine with me if the label says ‘Kelly Cole.’”
The partners’ paths had crossed numerous times before, including during Cole’s operation of his Lo-Fi fashion/art boutique while Hornbeak pursued his love of vintage denim through Denim Doctors.
“It was clear to both of us that our aesthetics complemented each other and we had fun working together,” said Cole. “And Sean had the experience working with some of the larger companies we’d need to build on what was pretty much an improvised start.”
Hornbeak noted, “I knew design and the creative aspect of things, but working with the brands I have opened me up to sales and p.r. And working at J Brand taught me the importance of making a core basic program the foundation you need to build on.”
That philosophy of expanding on a solid core is apparent in the collection the two have assembled for fall. “We’re taking what’s working with our core clientele in L.A. — our blank and graphic Ts and our jeans — and adding more cut-and-sewn pieces as we grow. We want to keep it as simple, narrow and deep as we can.”
For fall, that means a line that, while gargantuan perhaps by Kelly Cole’s earlier standards, is tight and sharply focused, numbering just 55 stockkeeping units that, with few exceptions, wholesale at under $100.
There are two jeans fits for men and two for women, with a new boyfriend fit executed in raw denim. The Ts remain unisex but have been supplemented with crewneck and V-neck knits, a crewneck sweatshirt and a fleece motorcycle jacket. Accessories offerings currently are limited to five leather belts and two messenger bags.
The two are particularly enthused about a group of printed chino bottoms that are a modification of a project Hornbeak started at Current/Elliott. “The feedback on these has been terrific,” he noted. “Our retail accounts are telling us these are bottoms that their customers ‘live in.’”
Everything is produced in L.A. “As long as we can control that, that’s how we want it,” Cole said. “We come from working-class American families, and we know that, at least at a certain price level, there’s a capacity to manufacture in the U.S. and make it cost effective.”
Hornbeak noted, “Consumers are starting to finally make that an issue, something they’re paying attention to.”
Although they expect their business to continue to revolve around specialty stores, the partners are looking to build relationships with a handful of department stores. To support the growth they believe is ahead, they’re exploring additional sources of financing as well.
Trained as an actor and well known for his work as a DJ, Cole long had a sense that fashion, so often tied to music, was somehow calling him, whether through his friendship with the late designer Stephen Sprouse or what he described as an “unbelievably inspirational” gig he had as a DJ at a party thrown by Barry Schwartz, Calvin Klein’s business partner.
He said he wants to produce “a graphic [T-shirt] story that’s thought provoking every season, something that sparks a dialogue between people either because the person seeing the shirt is curious or, like with rock ’n’ roll T-shirts, sees that he’s got something in common with the person wearing it.”
“Our story will not only be aesthetically pleasing and cool and incorporate responsible washes and printing process, but something timely and relevant that can spark that dialogue,” he said.