Daniella Kallmeyer is exactly what most people don’t think of when they think of “the fashion industry.” Not the woman herself. Her look is casual-urbane, and her demeanor, a combination of mindful au courant cool and old-school gracious. Kallmeyer’s business, which bears her surname, is the outlier, in perception if not in fact — tiny and off the grid of major name-recognition. It takes the notion of “small business” to its most extreme manifestation. She is self-financed, runs the company and designs the clothes solo. And by the way, she can make an arty table chic enough to anchor a small, artfully minimalist retail outpost. After being forced to lay off half of her staff last week, Kallmeyer now has an employee roster of one, apart from herself.
Kallmeyer launched her company 10 years ago. Developing her aesthetic has been a process, which she described during a Fall 2020 appointment as seeking to “explore the gender binary and breaking down the typical idea of femininity,” with a focus on polished but relaxed tailoring. Early on she found favor in Japan. That country accounted for the lion’s share of Kallmeyer’s business, until recently. Long skeptical about committing to physical retail, in June, Kallmeyer tested the notion with a pop-up on New York’s Orchard Street. Foot traffic was immediate and lively, and the store provided a place to build community, with customers and also with a broader community, as she started to stock items such as candles and jewelry from other creatives, en route to making the space “a collective.” In October, Kallmeyer signed a five-year lease on the space. Business boomed, and only weeks ago, the brand was on track to do two-thirds of its business vertically in 2020, with most of that at the store. Coronavirus changed everything, and like so many others, Kallmeyer was forced to close up shop. “I’m having a hard time,” she said.
Perception aside, Kallmeyer is not fashion’s lone iconoclastic small-business owner. There are plenty more out there, and lots of hard times.
WWD: How are you?
Daniella Kallmeyer: I hardly know how to answer that question. I’m OK. Let’s have an honest interview. I’m having a hard time.
WWD: A hard time emotionally, psychologically?
D.K.: We noticed the impact already starting very shortly after we got back from Paris in early March. We had an amazing January and February and then…
WWD: An amazing January and February in the store?
D.K.: In the store. And then foot traffic started to slow and then eventually came to a screeching halt. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. I have built a healthy enough wholesale business that we felt the right next thing to do was open this space. And I have felt so blessed every day since we’ve opened the store.
WWD: Which was when?
D.K.: We did the pop-up in June and then I signed a five-year lease in October because it just had gotten better every month. It felt like exactly what I needed as a creative was to be able to connect physically in this way, not only with my customers, but connect to the other elements of my creative soul in a space where I could provide community, I could provide aestheticism. Yes, this is very scary for me.
I have spent almost a decade building a business that admittedly is not as big as some of these other names that maybe have a little bit of power behind them. What went from literally a month ago being the best decision I ever made, that was doubling my revenue, growing my business, is now like rocks in a sinking ship.
WWD: Oh god.
D.K.: I mean, the rent alone. We were making rent in just a couple of days in the store. People would tell me that physical retail is hard, but it felt like exactly the right thing to do for my business, and from one month to the next, it would prove itself to be. Now, in a matter of a month or two, this could absolutely cripple my business. If there’s not something in place, either to freeze rents or.…We wrote to our landlord. I unfortunately don’t have five years of a healthy relationship behind us. We have a very young relationship that we’ve been trying to build. And so for me to now say, “You took a chance on a small business, you gave me the opportunity to grow into this space, but admittedly we are not strong enough to survive this if you don’t help us out” [is difficult].
WWD: You closed earlier than many brands.
D.K.: We realized even before it was becoming socially mandatory that this was coming. Friday [March 13] we put a note on the door saying if you want to see us by appointment we are happy to open for you, however ,for the safety of our community we will be closed until further notice.
WWD: You’ve retained your e-commerce operations.
D.K.: I’m having a moral dilemma, [about] really pushing our sales right now because everybody I know is in the same boat. And I don’t know who’s shopping for clothes when they’re stuck at home wondering if their jobs are even going to exist in a month.
WWD: That’s very thoughtful.
D.K.: What is the message that I as a brand I need to be portraying? So yes, we have a web site and we spent the entire weekend [after the store closed] revamping our e-comm, photographing, measuring and uploading every new arrival, even some things that hadn’t been put on the shop floor yet onto our web site. We’ve seen a few orders trickle in here and there, and we understand that a lot of those are community and customers who are here to support us. But as far as just blind shoppers wanting clothes, that has slowed to next to nothing.
WWD: You must feel good that you’ve built a community of people who want to support you now.
D.K.: Absolutely. Because this is as much a professional crisis as it is a personal crisis. Everyone is talking about what they’re doing in their 14-day quarantine but my main concern is how long is it going to take us to get out of this and what’s going to matter when we do?
WWD: The store had doubled the business?
D.K.: Doubled the business. At least. I took some time to work on my taxes the other day and if we had continued at the same pace as in the last nine months, we were on track so that in 2020, two-thirds of our business would be direct, with the majority of that from the store.
WWD: Have wholesale accounts canceled fall orders?
D.K.: Thank god, nobody has canceled fall on me thus far, but a huge amount of our business comes from Japan, and they were early on the wave. So even in late February and very early March, when our orders were due, some of my biggest accounts decreased their orders by 40, 50, 60 percent.
WWD: Your biggest accounts in Japan?
D.K.: Yes. And when we responded and said we have budgeted for more, we were hoping to keep growing, they said, “we are expecting that this coronavirus is going to take a big hit on our business; we are not expecting a lot of traffic.” Remember, the Tokyo Olympics is supposed to be this summer [on Tuesday, the Olympics were postponed until summer 2021]. A lot of these stores were buying for a huge influx in foot traffic as well, in tourist traffic.
WWD: How many people do you employ?
D.K.: I had two employees. I had to send one of them home and one is now working remotely for me.
WWD: You weren’t able to pay the one who you sent home?
D.K:. I paid them through the days that they were there, but they were hourly for the shop and once we closed the shop, I couldn’t provide those hours.
WWD: What do you think is the future of your business? How long can maintain this and then resume?
D.K.: I’ve watched a lot of my fellow business owners and friends, some in fashion, some not, sort of re-creating their business models on the spot basically. We are thinking about the same pivots.
WWD: What kind of a pivot?
D.K.: Obviously, we’re going to have to think about e-commerce a lot more. We’re going to have to think about what people are even buying things for. I’m admittedly in a moment of absolute uncertainty. Most of our customers either buy clothes to wear to work or for occasions, and a lot of functions through the spring and summer have either been canceled or postponed. I don’t know what business is going to look like when people resume going back into their offices, and if they’re buying a new power suit to wear to do so.
The majority of the people I’ve spoken to feel very vulnerable right now. I’m not getting a sense that when the fog lifts, everything will resume as normal. I don’t think we’re going to go back to normal. So we’re thinking of ideas — if people are staying home for long periods of time, how can we support them? What can we offer to people who can’t afford clothes — clothing drives and coordinating with somewhere to donate? People are at home in their apartments doing closet clean-outs. And so, offering some incentive to shop online with us, if you donate to these [organizations]. We are trying to be supportive and morally responsible, but I’m also in survival mode.
WWD: So many people are in a degree of survival mode.
D.K.: Yes. I’m speaking to you now as Daniella the creative and not just like how am I as a brand. I am finding it to be very paralyzing.
D.K.: Not just creatively. My assistant, Francesca, is amazing. Every day she sends me different ideas — what about offering this, what about doing a newsletter like this. But I really do feel paralyzed, that the news is paralyzing, the outlook is paralyzing. In some ways I’m trying to see the silver lining, like what is this going to do to our industry, how is it going to shift things, how is it going to remove certain smoke and mirrors, how is it going to bring things back to local, small, community-oriented, niche, quality production. Those kinds of things.
But my factory is closed. It’s not even like I can spend this time preparing for production for next season, hopeful that by fall this cloud will have lifted. My mills are in Japan and Italy and they’re closed right now. So I can’t be ordering fabrics or exploring those kinds of things. And I’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars of stock in our inventory waiting to be sold. It’s a little bit disheartening to be thinking about designing another collection at this moment.
WWD: Would you ordinarily do a resort collection?
D.K.: We were thinking about doing a resort collection.
WWD: But you hadn’t started it?
WWD: You talked about this possibly forcing a shift toward smaller, more niche operations. Do you think that, or that the likely attrition of independents will make the powerful even more so?
D.K.: I don’t know. Because now everybody is affected. There is nobody who’s not affected by this, so where does that trickle down to? And the people who buy things — how are they affected, and do they have that same expendable income? I don’t know.
I think that we were already shifting emotionally in creative industries towards things that are handmade, local things that are a little bit more limited. That’s the only thing that’s even inspiring me creatively in this moment, that maybe now we can explore things that are one-off or that are handmade, because when this lifts, that’s what people will know and understand and appreciate. I don’t know. We are in a hard business.
WWD: It’s brutal. Does the possibility of a shift make you at all hopeful?
D.K.: It is hard to find hope. I think we are very resilient. I’m very inspired by all the people around us who are [looking ot help]. A while ago, Pyer Moss, Kerby [Jean-Raymond] posted two incredible posts. One noted that the medical industry is short of supplies right now and so they’re going to help collect and donate toward supplies. The second thing, that they understand that minority-owned and women-owned creative businesses are hurting, and that they’re going to put some money aside to support that. I wrote them a letter. I don’t know what kind of influx of letters they’re receiving or how dire the situations are that they’re assessing. There are small business services out there but it’s overwhelming. Even to fill out the paperwork and hope that you’ll get some sort of small business support is — it’s overwhelming.
WWD: No one has ever lived through anything like this. It’s terrifying and very strange.
D.K.: I’m sorry that my tone is so bleak. I wish I could say more [positive] things for your piece. The only thing I can say is that I hope that with people like Kerby and others, that there is some sort of togetherness and unity, and we find ways to collaborate and help and support each other. That’s what’s on the top of my mind.
In addition to being the flagship for my brand, I opened that space on Orchard Street to be a collective and a community for creatives. That is what has my brain spinning — how can I now take what that energy was and what that community was and shift it digitally, and continue to empower and be empowered? What’s scary right now is that everyone is trying to make this shift so immediately because there’s so much panic. I’ll be interested to reassess in like a month; maybe we all just need to slow down. I saw that France is freezing rent. I think that that could be one of the most helpful things that we could receive right now; that could at least get us to a more innovative and collective place of productivity.
WWD: Talking honestly is a major step toward working together in search of solutions. Thank you for talking to me.
D.K.: I appreciate it. I think that stories of all sizes are equally important. This reminds me that if you have a team of 30 that you’ve had to send home, it’s as disheartening as if you were an individual with, in my case, one employee. I’ve worked my entire career to get to this point and [I fear] I’m watching it crumbling overnight.