TOKYO — As a child growing up in San Francisco, at about age 8 John Elliott decided he wanted to start his own company. After sketching sneaker designers in class, his mother encouraged him to send them to Nike. Surprisingly, he received a written response from the company, which serves as “hallowed inspiration” for his streetwear brand now that he has collaborated with the activewear giant — something that he dreamed of for more than 20 years.
In a Q&A session with WWD style director Alex Badia, Elliott discussed his brand’s evolution.
WWD: How was it to collaborate with Nike?
John Elliott: That was pretty incredible. I think being a kid that is basically a swoosh lifer, having the ability to now tap into both their heritage and their performance, it’s been a dream come true. They’re an incredible partner. I think 2018 will actually be our biggest year yet with them. We have a lot of projects in store.
WWD: Moving back a little bit, when and why did you decide to launch John Elliott?
J.E.: I had worked in the industry for about 10 years, and I was leaving one job and I moved to New York and from New York I actually ended up going back to L.A. This all happened in about a two-and-a-half-year span, and in the process of packing all my stuff up, I realized that I had so much stuff that didn’t resonate more than a couple months, a couple wears. And I had this hypothesis that if I could build a wardrobe for myself, solve my own problems, then I might have a proposition that could work. So we started with three categories: French terry, jersey and denim. I felt like those were the essential building blocks for my own wardrobe. So we started out as a little bit of a basics brand, started to build the brand up, which took about two years, and then just as I was probably so naive to think that Nike would accept one of my designs, we went to New York fashion week and started to present our collections on the runway.
WWD: So your first show was in 2015?
J.E.: Yes, and like I said, I think we did not truly understand the stage that we were entering, but at the same time it paid off. That particular show kind of strapped our business to a rocket ship, so to speak. I think we grew by more than 10 times after that first show. It changed everything from logistics to new hires to the product assortment. It all improved, and it drove us forward. So it was a huge milestone for the brand.
WWD: Kanye West was at your first show. How did that happen?
J.E.: I had met Kanye about a year earlier and we kind of just had, I hope, mutual respect. I obviously had respect for him, and I was kind of working on some stuff with him when he was launching Yeezy season one, and I wasn’t expecting it, but I got a call about 20 minutes prior to the show saying, “Kanye’s on the way, would you mind holding the show?” I think the coolest thing about that is that we didn’t truly understand what we were doing in terms of launching on the runway, but then him coming to that first show, it brought along with it the world’s attention. And that put us on a platform where it was like, OK, you can make this a legitimate business now, or you can just be one of those brands that had a really interesting proposition for one season, and boom, they’re gone. And I’m happy to say that we really worked hard and grew from that.
WWD: Can you define the ethos behind your brand?
J.E.: Our brand is a brand that makes clothes for both men and now women that literally can be worn every single day. I want to own your whole wardrobe. It started with me solving my own problems with my own closet, and now we’ve expanded into footwear, we’ve expanded into women’s. But the ethos is the same: make products that matter, make products that people will wear every single day. It’s unbranded, for the most part we try to use super high-quality materials and beautiful manufacturing facilities, and really try to give a value proposition with a fashion element.
WWD: How do you engage your consumers?
J.E.: This is something that I’m very proud of. When we first started the business, we started with a very small amount of money: $30,000. So my business partner and I — I was actually sleeping on his floor and I was saving every check that I was making from my job — we came up with this business plan and we cobbled together $15,000 each. And we basically went out and started to look for sample facilities and when we started to talk to people, they were like, “You are crazy. This will not work.” I mean, they were kind of right, we needed more money. But to go from that, I think we’ve always kind of been in survival mode. So from season one, it was adapt or die. When we delivered those first products, we couldn’t wait six months to collect from wholesale. So we had to launch online, and we had to have products that would sell. So from season one we had to figure out a way to engage our customers, speak with them, excite them and sell product. Right now our breakdown of our business is probably about 70 percent through our own channels and 30 percent through wholesale. And I think it’s in huge part because of the conversation we have with our customers every single day. We made the conscious choice that we didn’t want to focus on every social media channel. We weren’t going to try to do Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and own them all. We said, we’re going to focus on Instagram, and then we found this outlier that was a little bit interesting. It’s called Styleforum, and it’s like old-school chat room stuff. So these forums where guys discuss how they wear our products and what is fashionable, really became an avenue for us to engage with them. We actually speak directly to them in the forums, we have a direct discussion with our customers through Instagram and this forum on a daily basis.
WWD: You took your engagement a step further in spring 2018 when you decided to launch the collection on Instagram, but you did it differently. Can you explain how?
J.E.: I had this idea that if you could take something like Instagram, which is so mundane at this point and you spend so much time on it, and you could excite someone by introducing something new, then you might have a big idea that people will remember. The other thing I thought about was, when you do a runway show, you’re doing it for a fashion community and you’re banking on certain outlets to get the brand exposure that you hope to achieve, but you can’t control it yourself. So we came up with this concept of, what if we could take a person that has a high follower count, have them do look one, and then have them tag the next person. So in order to see the whole collection you have to go through each person’s profile and essentially follow along. So in about 10 minutes we could say without a doubt that we made impressions on more than 20 million people, which was kind of a novel idea, considering that you like to think you have that kind of power when you do a runway show, but it’s not guaranteed.
WWD: Do you have any plans to open your own physical stores?
J.E.: I am excited to say in the not-too-distant future we will have created our world in three dimensions, which will be the project of my lifetime. Not only do I think we can make brick-and-mortar successful from a monetary standpoint, but I think the experience of shopping is still very important, not only for brands, but for consumers as well. I think Tokyo is a great example of that. The shopping here, in my opinion, is the best in the world. And I would love to try to create a world for myself in LA and introduce our customers to an even deeper view into who we are as a brand.
WWD: This past fall 2018 season, you took a major step forward and launched women’s wear. Can you tell me why?
J.E.: About a year and a half ago we started tailoring, and when we launched tailoring on the men’s side, I realized that was a new area that we needed to learn about as a development team. And with that realization I also realized that I was also very curious as to what the John Elliott girl would be like. And it’s just such a different skill set developing a women’s collection. Their bodies are more three-dimensional, patterns are different, fabrications are different. So the curiosity was there, but to start the collection we basically had to burn down what we thought it was going to be. Twenty percent of all of our sales right now online are actually women buying the men’s collection, so we knew that the customer was there.
WWD: And how was the reaction to the womenswear?
J.E.: I’m so thankful and I’m excited. It was an incredible response, and we think that the women’s side of our business could quickly become just as meaningful as the men’s side in a very short period of time. So we’re excited, I think we’re anticipating a lot of growth.
WWD: So what’s next?
J.E.: Next is probably just more growth. Continuing to hone the business on the tech and e-commerce side, while also pushing forward and continuing to hone the craft and get better with both men’s and with women’s.