The definition of the physical store is becoming increasingly elastic. Take Big Lives. Neither pop-up shop nor temporary store, Big Lives is a way to discover new brands in new places. Big Lives events are ephemeral, lasting no more than two days. Each has a well-developed theme and attention to detail that requires months of planning.
Big Lives is the brainchild of Sam Alston, who built a career in retail at Louis Vuitton, starting as women’s accessories merchandise manager, before taking a job in corporate client development, and later moving to the Manhattan flagship as client development director. Alston’s aha moment came when she realized the top clients Vuitton sent to fashion shows were more interested in those experiences than in shopping. “It became clear that transactions were just a consequence,” she said. “They would buy something almost as a souvenir.”
“Louis Vuitton went from being a transactional traffic-driven brand to one based on experiences,” Alston said. “That was life-changing for me. I ended up in the flagship working in client development and client services.”
After recognizing that many clients treated purchases as an afterthought, Alston took stock of retail as she knew it. “I was in a strong brick-and-mortar business,” she said. “I started to pick apart what parts worked and didn’t work.”
Locations are as important as the brands Alston assembles. Big Lives in September took over Willem and Elaine de Kooning’s former studio in Manhattan’s Union Square, a Civil War cast-iron building, which in 2017 was designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A fireside chat between Alston and Nadia Burgess, cofounder of TRIBE was held there.
“I curate exceptional spaces,” Alston said. “There was the remarkable backdrop of 272 Jefferson Avenue, a classic 1889 Stuyvesant Heights brownstone restored by Dixon Projects. We had another event in the Columbia Street Waterfront District in Brooklyn. They’re spaces that prime people for expecting something different.”
Events typically feature eight to 13 brands. A Big Lives event on Saturday from 7 pm to 9 pm at 94 DeGraw Street in Brooklyn is themed Women’s Day, in honor of International Women’s Day. LOLI Beauty, which stands for Living Organic Loving Ingredients, will be the first beauty brand at a sale. Bloomist, a new direct-to-consumer home furnishings brand with a natural bent, works with artists, artisans and makers to sell recycled glass vases, ceramic vessels and dried flowers.
House Dress focuses on materials such as linen and raw silk and Akoya shell buttons with a one-size-fits-all approach. Combien de Filles, a Brooklyn-based designer by way of Senegal and Paris, creates only jumpsuits such as the 100-percent wool twill Le Marlene number, $458. Lagos, Nigeria-based Odion Oseni designs the Odio Mimonet collection. “It has a very loyal following for occasion dresses in patterned fabrics,” Alston said. “It’s very special.”
After Althea Simons’ New York apartment building burned down and she lost all her belongings, she had difficulty replacing her wardrobe, so she started from scratch and designed a white button-down shirt. Her collection, Grammar, consists of variations on the theme, such as the Adverb shirt, a short-sleeve classic for $195. Jewelry by Maison Daviel, priced from $2,000 to over $10,000 will also be featured.
Alston, who attended Harvard University, got her first job at Village Maternity in Seattle. “I fell in love with retail,” she said. “I had a dream of opening a store one day. I went to New York University to get an MBA and worked at Urban Outfitters as a buyer.”
Alston resigned from Louis Vuitton in October of 2017, about a month before Big Lives’ first event in November of that year. Before leaving the Parisian brand, Alston enrolled in Tacklebox, a six-week accelerator program that helps founders validate their startup ideas.
The company, which is self-funded, “required a big investment at first,” she said. “The first year was about buying tiny capsules of products.”
Big Lives draws 100 to 200 people per event, about half are existing clients. “They’re women coming up in their careers who have an interest in the stories behind brands,” Alston said.
Designers keep 90 percent of their sales. Alston said events do about $10,000 in a couple of hours. “I’ve pivoted to a pay-to-play model that could scale. Designers pay a flat fee. Big Lives is providing them a platform to engage with customers. I’ve built a playbook to go to other cities. People in New York are busy and there are so many designers.”