Karen Murray is at the point in her career where she can indulge her passions. And she’s done just that by purchasing Fivestory, the luxury women’s fashion store on New York’s Upper East Side.
In a surprise move, the former chief executive officer of Sequential Brands Group revealed that after a chance meeting with Fivestory’s co-owner, Claire Olshan, she decided to leave the corporate world and rework the specialty store into an experiential, curated concept with an updated business model intended to address how women shop today. That will include a continued focus on emerging brands as well as exclusives and a new iteration of couture rental.
In an exclusive interview with WWD at the store at 18 East 69th Street, Olshan said the two women met when they were both honored with fashion leadership awards by the UJA Federation of New York in June. “The whole night we were buddy-buddy and I didn’t even know her last name,” Olshan said of Murray with a laugh.
But they hit it off and decided to meet for coffee shortly after.
Olshan had conceived and opened Fivestory with her father, Fred Distenfeld, in 2012. It is located in a townhouse and offers an assortment of emerging apparel, accessories and jewelry lines selected by Olshan and a team of buyers. But over the past year, she had been focusing more on her next entrepreneurial project, a healthy snack food company named Dada Daily.
So her father, who had sold his family’s exotic skin import/export business and was ready for his next challenge, has been running the store day-to-day. “What you see is Claire’s vision and dream — curated luxury,” he said. The store is credited with introducing a number of designers including Brandon Maxwell, Cult Gaia, Peter Pilotto and Rosie Assoulin.
“But the industry has changed so much so fast,” she said. “We spent nine years building and tweaking, and it was very tiring to keep taking on new initiatives. It’s our baby, but it needed someone fresh to come in.”
Enter Murray, whose enthusiasm for the store mirrored that of Olshan’s when she created the business nearly a decade ago.
Although the bulk of Murray’s experience is in men’s wear at large corporations — she has been president of VF Sportswear overseeing Nautica and has also worked at Gant and Liz Claiborne — she’s eager to put on her entrepreneurial hat.
She said she will continue to “have a direct line” to Olshan to bounce ideas off of, has retained the store’s 13-person staff and even brought back a couple of former merchants who had exited the business.
“I don’t have that experience, but I’ve been a brand builder for over 35 years,” Murray said, “and I’ve touched on women’s in every job I’ve had.” That includes her most recent gig, Sequential Brands, which was around 75 percent women’s.
“I’ve always loved fashion and helping people put outfits together and I think it’s time that I do something I have passion for,” Murray said. “I wanted out of corporate — I don’t love earnings calls. This literally fell in my lap after the UJA honor and I believe in specialty retail that is experiential, luxury, curated, with a new business model that incorporates the way women shop today in a neighborhood that has an established clientele.”
She said even though close to 50 percent of Fivestory’s business is online, many women today, especially high-end shoppers, still “do not want to buy luxury fashion from a laptop. They will be treated special and serviced impeccably in store. That’s the way I shop and that’s what I want to bring to this store.”
Plus, with the Barneys New York flagship going out of business a few blocks away, “this is the only multibrand store within a 10-block radius,” she said.
To capture that business, Murray said, “We’re going to keep the new and emerging designers and get rid of any brands that are overly distributed.” The mix will be tweaked to be “more mature” as well. Among the brands that will be highlighted are Giambattista Valli, Brandon Maxwell, Victoria Beckham, Rosetta Getty, Alejandra Alonso Rojas, Markarian, Khaite, Joseph and Proenza Schouler.
Additionally, she said she will bring back home merchandise which had been discontinued. “Even if can’t buy a $2,000 dress, you can still buy a $90 candle,” Murray said.
She will enhance the number of collaborations including nontraditional partnerships, such as one with the store’s new next-door neighbor, Paintbox, a luxury nail salon. The existing shoe salon will be moved upstairs and the current space converted to a café-like area where drinks and snacks —including Dada Daily — will be served.
“We will be making this a place to spend an afternoon,” Murray said.
And she’s also come with a novel idea that she believes speaks to the way women shop today. Fivestory will begin a limited rental program where a certain selection of special-occasion and couture pieces — that women generally only wear once — are purchased at full price. If the customer opts to return the piece within 30 days, they receive a store credit for 75 percent of the original purchase price. Those dresses are then put in a special section on the second floor and offered for sale to someone else at a discounted price. That floor will also offer a specially curated selection of “one-of-a-kind” consignment and vintage apparel and jewelry pieces.
“We’re not starting a rental company,’” Murray stressed, saying that it is in no way intended to compete with Rent the Runway or The RealReal.
Instead, this is a way to offer women the opportunity to purchase a couture look to wear for a limited time and then use the money they get from the return to purchase something else.
Murray said she purchased Fivestory with her own money and has no other investors, but she does plan on bringing in a strategic partner to help roll out the concept. If it is as successful as she hopes, it will be “duplicated and scaled to 10 major cities.”