THE BUZZ ABOUT LORD OF THE FLEAS
THIS TRENDY NEW YORK RETAILER IS ABOUT TO GET BIGGER.
Byline: Melanie Kletter
NEW YORK — Tucked into a busy strip on Broadway between 75th and 76th Street in Manhattan, Lord of the Fleas is easy to miss.
The young woman’s store’s black and white sign hangs sideways and the tiny shop can barely be seen even from across the street.
But inside, the store is buzzing with activity. A wide range of apparel is packed in tightly, jewelry and accessories dangle from racks on the counter and socks hang from behind the register. Hat boxes, bags and knickknacks of all sorts fill in any other available space. While the store is small in stature, the decade-old retailer is becoming a bigger player on the New York retail scene.
Lord of the Fleas will open its fourth store later this month adjacent to Barnard College on Broadway and 115th Street, and the company’s founders would eventually like to bring their concept to other locales.
“We think we would eventually like to be in Florida and maybe Los Angeles,” said Carol Archer, who founded and owns the company with her husband, Jeremy.
A veteran of the New York flea market scene, hence the name, the couple opened their first store downtown in the early 1990s after trying their hand at wholesale.
Carol, a Trinidad native, was initially a clothing designer, and Jeremy, who was born in Belfast, Ireland, cut his teeth at flea markets in London, such as Kensington market.
After finding the experience of being a small vendor frustrating, the Archers decided to manufacture some of their own garments and spent much of the Eighties selling their wares in area flea markets and street fairs.
The couple opened their first store in 1991 on Bleeker Street in the Bowery after they had to cut expenses and moved out of their manufacturing area in Chinatown. At the time, that neighborhood was rundown, with alcoholics and drug dealers lining the street corners, Jeremy recalled.
“I thought we were going to get robbed when we first opened,” he said.
The company eventually moved out of that spot and opened in two locations in Manhattan’s East Village area, one on Ninth Street and one on Twelfth Street, both of which have tapped into the trendy, downtown fashion scene.
The company’s owners feel they have made their mark by carrying trendy merchandise that captures the most recent styles.
“We don’t like to buy more than a month ahead so we stay close to the trends,” Jeremy Archer said.
Despite their tiny size — the Broadway store is 600 square feet and the Ninth Street location is only 300 square feet — Lord of The Fleas stores carry a wide range of apparel, including tank tops, sweaters, jeans, pants, dresses, an array of T-shirts and outerwear. Much of the offerings are fitted, short, cropped, open-backed or otherwise meant for someone who doesn’t mind showing some skin.
The majority of the offerings retail for about $20 to $150. Currently, the firm is carrying a large amount of sweaters, ranging from chunky turtlenecks to cropped styles and long sweater jackets, which have been a particularly hot seller. Pleather is another key element of the fall mix.
Echoing many apparel retailers, the Archers concede that business has been particularly rough in the last several months, and Lord of the Fleas brought fall merchandise in earlier to generate excitement in the category.
While Lord of the Fleas did at one point carry some men’s merchandise, now the chain only caters to women. Its target audience is a woman of about 20 who goes out a lot and likes to have the latest looks.
Most of the firm’s trend direction comes from observing street life in New York, Carol said. The couple’s 17-year-old daughter, one of their three children, also assists by helping her parents key in on the hottest trends.
“We want to be first to have the trends,” Carol said.
The majority of the merchandise it carries comes from small design firms that can’t be found in department stores and specialty chains. Some items are from streetwear names such as Bubblegum, Illig, Free People and Bulldog, and there are a few leather pieces from Steve Madden, but most of its offerings are from largely unknown labels such as Flyby, Juno and Zoom.
In any given year, the couple work with as many as 70 different vendors.
“We love to work with new people and smaller firms,” said Carol.
In addition to a wide range of apparel, the stores carry a healthy dose of accessories, including such items as toe rings, stick-on body jewelry, headbands, handkerchiefs and eclectic handbags, such as a pink, furry bag that says Diva. The stores also carry a wide range of hats, including the super hot Kangol hats that have recently made a big comeback and are now selling well, the Archers said. Other merchandise includes collectible items, gift boxes, lamps, notebooks, socks and tights, and a sprinkling of intimate apparel.
The Archers said their main competition comes from youth-oriented specialty stores, such as Urban Outfitters and to a lesser extent the Canal Jeans concept and other streetwear stores.
While it would seem that the concept might have a harder time uptown, since it is heavily rooted in streetwear and “downtown” looks, Lord of the Fleas has found wide appeal above 14th Street.
“There are so many stores downtown now and it is so crowded that we are actually doing better business up here where there isn’t as much competition,” Jeremy said about the 75th Street location.
The newest Lord of the Fleas unit will allow the Archers to go deeper into some categories. The store has a mezzanine with about 200 square feet in addition to the 600-square-foot selling area, and the firm plans to broaden its apparel offerings.
While the concept is expanding, the Archers stay close to the action and they do all of the buying themselves. The couple attends the standard industry trade shows, but they also go beyond many of the usual methods and they try to avoid traipsing up to showrooms during the big junior market weeks, where major department and specialty stores receive much of the attention.
Carole focuses on apparel and accessories and spends a lot of time in the stores, while Jeremy shops the markets and scours the garment district and NoLIta looking for new designers. He also works with jobbers who specialize in carrying off-price and discontinued brands. The company does not have backers, and the Archers declined to break out their annual sales.
The small size of the store and the company also makes it easier for the owners to know all of their salespeople, and the Archers mingle freely with their employees.
“We are close to our sales people, and we also like knowing our customers,” she said.
Unlike many retailers, Lord of the Fleas does virtually no advertising and sticks to grassroots efforts to get its name out. The couple’s oldest son is a music promoter, and as one unique way to get consumer’s attention, he hands out condoms which carry the store name, and are also available in the stores. The company also has a Web site at lordofthefleas.com, although there is no apparel for sale on the site.