NEW YORK — It was 1983, at Los Angeles’s incarnation of the MAGIC show, when Joe Nadav first laid eyes on Pelle Pelle. “This guy was selling turquoise and lime green leather jackets,” recalls the owner of Philadelphia’s preeminent streetwear specialty chain City Blue. “I never saw those colors in a leather jacket before!”
At $275 a pop wholesale, Nadav was taking an expensive chance on an unknown label. But just two days after his first five leathers arrived at the store—before Nadav had even paid the bill for the jackets—“they sold out,” he says. “The market had never seen anything like it!”
Fast forward to 2008: Pelle Pelle last month celebrated its 30th anniversary—an incredible feat in a young men’s urban market that rarely tolerates brands for more than a handful of seasons. “You can’t fool our customer,” says Pelle Pelle founder Marc Buchanan. “You either get their approval or you don’t. It’s an honor to have gotten that approval from our customer for 30 years.”
It certainly is an anomaly to survive the often-tumultuous young men’s market—even for many of the brands, like Pelle Pelle, that helped found the industry decades ago. Labels such as Cross Colours, Karl Kani and Fubu made their mark, then disappeared, at least from the mainstream eye. But Pelle Pelle’s bread and butter—Marc Buchanan’s luxurious leathers—have earned the brand a niche audience, and one that won’t buy leather from anyone else.
Buchanan was already a seasoned leather veteran when he founded Pelle Pelle; in 1971, he created the leatherwear firm Gandolf & Co., and sold it five years later. After toiling as a consultant for several years, Buchanan recognized a gap in the market for what he describes as “high fashion” in the leather business, “at an affordable price.”
From its inception in Detroit in 1978, Pelle Pelle centered around incredibly detailed—borderline outrageous—leathers, combining unconventional colors and over-the-top accents. “Every jacket is like a piece of art,” explains Buchanan. “Our stuff is not for the faint of heart.”
Buchanan’s unique leather creations quickly earned the affection of the young, style-conscious urban customer, a yet undiscovered market for much of the mainstream apparel industry. “The urban customer provided a lot of excitement in the marketplace,” says Buchanan. Pelle Pelle and other young urban brands, he continues, “addressed a marketplace that had never been addressed before.”
Celebrities helped to enhance Pelle Pelle’s popularity. Arsenio Hall, for one, sported a Pelle Pelle jacket during a seminal episode of his talk show in 1991 when Magic Johnson discussed his HIV diagnosis. And the upscale prices of the line—the sweet spot for Pelle Pelle’s leathers was upwards of $700—only made the outerwear more desirable.
In fact, the leathers become so well recognized that, in the early ’90s, Buchanan expanded the label into sportswear, joining the many other urban brands taking a stand as full apparel collections. By 1999, Pelle Pelle’s denim business surpassed that of its leathers.
In 2002, Buchanan’s business hit a volume of $60 million, following several years in the late ’90s of 30 and 40 percent growth. But thanks to a denim glut, increased competition and a general slowing of the urban market, Pelle Pelle now hovers just north of $40 million—a neighborhood in which, Buchanan attests, is a more comfortable place to exist.
“The explosive urban market of the last 10 years is an aberration,” he says, thanks in part to the bandwagon approach that many of the young men’s buyers at department stores have taken. Buchanan eschews most business with big-box players, and instead services small, specialty retailers, many of whom—like City Blue and Donna Sacs in Detroit—have been on board with Pelle Pelle nearly since its birth.
He also points to small, strategic growth, including upping the brand’s sportswear quotient with new categories like men’s footwear, for which Pelle Pelle just signed on a new licensee. The brand also has licenses for business in Japan, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as children’s apparel in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Pelle Pelle’s signature jackets will remain exclusive, he says, a no-brainer thanks to the time it can take to make each jacket. The intricate processes involved—from embroidery to printing to appliqué to studding to neoprene to rubbing, just to name a few—mean one jacket can take over a month to produce.
Buchanan realizes that with the limited attention span of the young customer, Pelle Pelle has to “wow” him. “You have a window of opportunity of about five seconds when that guy is looking through the rack,” he explains. “If you don’t grab him in that five seconds, he’s going to move onto someone else.” And there are plenty of “someone elses” out there.
Instead of being threatened by the heightened competition, though, Buchanan praises “the new young guys that are nibbling away at the market shares” of the more established names in the business. “Hallelujah!” he exclaims. “These labels are bringing fresh and innovative ideas to the market.”
Of course, there is the possibility that new brands could nibble away at Pelle Pelle’s more established business as well. Not so, insists City Blue’s Nadav, who is Pelle Pelle’s largest retail customer on the East Coast. “No other company can sell leathers for such a high price,” Nadav says. “They know their customer, but they also know the direction of the market and update their sportswear every season. Nobody can touch them.”