In a full-circle moment, retailer Elyse Walker has arrived in New York.
The native New Yorker, who started her career with a shoe store on Madison Avenue before moving west to build a fleet of multibrand luxury boutiques in California, has opened the first of those in TriBeCa.
The 3,000-square-foot space on North Moore Street is her eighth store, and a 6,000-square-foot flagship will follow in April at 926 Madison Avenue, bringing the total store count to nine.
“All my friends from college are coming in, and all my friends from Scarsdale are coming in,” she said of feeling the love during her homecoming. “And it’s a real neighborhood. We’re right next to Bubby’s and there are five schools within two blocks. Other people may look for foot traffic or hotel business..but we look for where people live, hang out and walk their dogs — where can we be part of the community.”
Walker is in her 23rd year business, and 2022 has seen the launch of Elysewalker.com and a renewed focus on the in-house designed Elysewalker collection.
“We love to be in the dressing room, we love to touch and feel, and the fact that the [chief executive officer] and president are sitting here unpacking boxes, that’s who we are,” she said during a joint interview with company president Summer Holl.
Like the other seven Elyse Walker stores, the Manhattan one stocks all the major luxury brands including Celine, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Gucci, plus Toteme, Nili Lotan and La Ligne. It is 10 to 20 percent localized to New York, with a bigger offering of Max Mara outerwear, for example.
“Architecturally, it really feels like a neighborhood store, and this is one of the only doors that in some way mimics our flagship Pacific Palisades location because it’s got several rooms,” Holl said of the space, which has brick walls, herringbone parquet floors, a chandelier and a downtown residential feel.
There’s a large shoe wall with offerings from Gianvito Rossi, Paris Texas and more, nodding to Walker’s roots. Her family started Capretto Shoes and she opened her own Capretto store on Madison Avenue while still in college at Columbia University.
“I opened my first store in October 1987 and the next week the stock market crashed,” she said. “That’s why I’m still standing today because that was my first entrée into retail and it was sink or swim and I decided to swim.”
Walker will be returning to the Upper East Side at 74th Street and Madison Avenue.
“We know exactly where our client lives. Now that we have digital, we can literally see it,” she said. “There’s a need for specialty multibrand retail in New York.…It’s not just the customers, it’s the designers and showrooms that have been begging us to open, too. I expect New York to be 20 to 25 percent of sales by year one,” she projected.
The overall business will hit $77 million in revenue in 2022, and $100 million in 2023. Just 11 months old, the website already accounts for more than 15 percent of net sales, she said. “When it comes to digital, we really see it as another store….We have sales in 46 states….We’re not expecting that the web will be bigger than brick-and-mortar. Web supports the physical stores.”
One of the secrets to Walker’s success has been her in-house Memo styling program run by a team of 21 stylists, who each have their own Instagram account and fashion point of view.
The new digital styling team already accounts for 40 percent of online sales. “The styling component continues to be the through line for us. And what we’re seeing is that we definitely have people now that are coming in and using the stores as a showcase for working with their digital stylists online,” said Holl. “But we also have people coming in with screen grabs from the website and shopping with their in-store stylists because they want to have that experience. So as we grow and expand in key markets and neighborhoods there’s this incredible synergy.”
Walker has been in fundraising mode since 2020, but has not found an investor for the business, which she owns with her husband, David Walker. “We think they should be knocking down the door,” she laughed. “We love what we do. And we have so many ideas for expansion, but we we need a partner to help us grow faster. For now, we’re going to just slow it down, make it solid, work on margins and really dive into digital.” Chicago and Texas could be contenders for stores in 2024, Holl added.
The retailer previously partnered with Revolve Group to launch the luxury website Fwrd. “That was someone who did all operations and let me build the brand,” she said. “Now we have built our own warehouse, we built an in-house photography studio, so it’s just someone [a potential investor] who comes in and understands how passionate we are.”
Elyse Walker stores generate between $3,500 and $7,000 in sales per square foot.
The performance of the 1,225-square-foot St. Helena Napa Valley store, which Walker calls her “COVID[-19] baby” because it opened in spring 2021, has been a surprise, at least to Holl.
“You mix wine and hospitality and it’s a really good combination,” Walker laughed. (Not to mention wine and shopping.) The store, which will be expanded next year, currently has sales of $5,388 a square foot.
Beyond that and the second New York store, the retailer is being cautious about next year.
“We feel that Q1 is going to be a little bit softer, that people are going to be cautious. And then by the time we roll into opening our second New York door that we’ll see some recovery, as we usually do on both coasts first. So we’re being a little bit more conservative about growth next year,” said Holl.
The company has 137 employees, including three devoted to the Elysewalker collection of cashmere sweaters, silk blouses and slip skirts, which will represent 3 percent of sales in 2022.
“We really don’t see our brand surpassing 8 percent ever…we’re both really conscious of not oversaturating the assortment because it’s so tempting from a margin standpoint. But customers know and we always want to be a great multibrand store. I have seen so many stores go under when the private label starts growing, growing, growing,” said Walker.
Her move to New York comes at a time when, since COVID-19, there has been a rise in profile and expansion of several multibrand stores nationally, such as Hampden Clothing in Charleston, South Carolina; McMullen in Oakland, California, and ByGeorge in Austin, Texas.
“People got a timeout, everyone stayed local. I think that possibly helped reacquaint everyone with local,” said Walker. “I think people appreciate that we travel the world, we’re going to shows and every showroom to find those four or eight pieces that we think are the best.”
Holl added: “The number-one thing I’ve heard at the New York store opening are women coming in and saying we love your edit. We want to do that online, too.”