Paul Lechlinski, Annette Mathieu, LAFAYETTE 148

Lafayette 148 believes its SoHo headquarters is the heart and soul of the company, and its neighborhood, which borders Chinatown, seems farther removed from the garment center, fashion week venues and department store buying offices, than it actually is.

Ensconced in the original SoHo building where it was born 20 years ago — a former garment factory at 148 Lafayette Street — the brand has been able to shut out the noise of the industry and rely on its own inner voice. When it comes to retail, it rejected the conventional wisdom of building a network of freestanding stores in the U.S. Instead, in 2012 it embarked on a retail strategy in China, opening a Shanghai office with local merchants, design and retail expertise and its first store there.

Lafayette 148 had a Chinese connection. Chief executive officer Dierdre Quinn founded the company with Chinese partners, Shun Yen Siu and Ida Siu. Manufacturing for the brand in 2002 was moved from New York to Shantou, China.

Lafayette 148 now operates 11 stores in China with more planned — two in October.

“The brand is very entrepreneurial in nature,” said Paul Lechlinski, vice president of retail. “We feel strongly about China as a market,” noting the China stores have helped the firm with merchandising and wholesale issues at home. “With a different brand positioning, we saw [the Chinese customer’s] willingness to spend more on luxe. It was done by design to figure out how to position the brand for America.”

“Our wholesale accounts were asking us for more luxury,” said Annette Mathieu, vice president of wholesale and specialty store sales. “We only dabbled in fur and mink-trimmed garments and beautiful cashmere that had much higher price points. All of a sudden, we had a story to tell. We could dress the client throughout her lifestyle, from denim to shearling jackets. She’s wearing garments that started in China.”

Many of Lafayette 148’s wholesale clients have  visited the stores in China to gain greater insight into the brand and its upmarket efforts.

“We’ll see 25 stores in China in the next three years in top tier cities in ‘A’ malls,” said Lechlinski. Its third Shanghai store opened in August. In key cities like Chengdu, Xi’an and Hangzhou, there’s the potential for opening more stores, as well as in other parts of Asia, for example, Hong Kong.

“We’re certainly looking to wholesale international distribution,” Mathieu added. “We’re launching this fall at Tsum department store in Russia.”

While Lafayette 148 might be a nonconformist in some ways, “we’re also very methodical,” Lechlinski said. “We wanted to understand what it’s like to service multiple stores overseas.”

Exploring other global freestanding retail opportunities is a priority for Quinn, Lechlinski said.

In the U.S., a Lafayette 148 in-store shop is opening on the renovated fourth floor of Saks Fifth Avenue’s Manhattan flagship. Three in-store shops are opening at Neiman Marcus units this year with four more due in 2017.

“We’re really invested in our wholesalers,” Mathieu said. “We have designated sales associates, which are co-op positions. We contribute to their salaries. We have field-to-market coordinators who are responsible for seven to 10 doors. They’re dedicated to product knowledge.”

Those close relationships with retailers could be part of the reason Lafayette 148 waited so long to open its own stores. It has a concept store at its headquarters and is opening its first freestanding American store, a 2,400-square-foot unit, this week on Broome Street in SoHo. “It will benefit all of us,” Lechlinski said, adding that lessons will be gleaned by Lafayette 148 and its wholesale partners. “We’re positioning Broome Street to be more curated and to appeal to the next generation.”

While Lafayette 148’s wholesale distribution is uptown, the company considers itself a downtown brand. “Broome Street appeals to a broader audience,” Lechlinski said. “We want people to say, ‘Wow, they’re really modern.’”

The Broome Street store will remain true to the heritage of its building, which is officially designated as a Landmark. With espresso-colored wood floors and raw-edged tables, it reflects the brand’s colors of black and white with a splash of bright red.

A second store — its first in a mall — will open at Brickell City Centre in Miami in November and will carry the new footwear collection along with the main Lafayette 148 line.

“We want to roll out seven to 10 stores in the next three years,” Lechlinski said. “We’re not looking to have 40 stores in the U.S.” There will be another Manhattan store, on Madison Avenue, and locations in Boston, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and California.

Besides department stores, Lafayette 148 has a serious specialty store business. Mathieu said these retailers get the company’s catalogue and can special-order certain items. Lafayette 148 does some 300 trunk shows annually at specialty stores across the country in markets large and small.

“We had a $200,000 trunk show in a city with a population of only 100,000,” Mathieu said. “We approach each of our clients in a very individual way. It’s not one-size-fits-all. Some specialty stores want only the luxury part of the line and others want the lifestyle.”

A 4,000-square-foot concept store on the eighth floor of the headquarters is another trick up the company’s silk sleeve. The by-appointment store caters to a professional woman. “She could be a corporate executive, doctor, attorney or politician,” Mathieu said. “Her career may be philanthropy. She walks in the door with her intelligence first. She’s very discriminating and appreciates our attention to detail, such as the inside of our garments. We’re trying to stay one step ahead of her.”

The store is closed on Sundays, but sales associates carry beepers. When a client lost her luggage recently, an associate opened the store at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The alterations team came in early the next morning so clothes could be delivered to the client’s  hotel by 8:30 a.m., Mathieu said.

By staying close to the customer, Lafayette 148 continues to collect valuable intelligence. “We know if something is a bestseller immediately and we dive into it,” she said. “We’re students of our business. It’s a humble way to approach it.”

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