NEW YORK — Neighborhoodies, a fast-growing firm that got its start putting the names of New York neighborhoods on sweatshirts, has opened its first store and is looking far outside the local environs for growth.
“We plan to have at least five stores by the end of this year,” said Neighborhoodies founder and president Michael de Zayas. “We have found so much enthusiasm for our concept and we intend to have stores in all the major markets by the end of next year.”
At a time when the retail world is dominated by conglomerates and mergers, Neighborhoodies is a small business success story. A poet and former travel writer, de Zayas started the company in late 2002 after he found strong interest in a hoodie he had made emblazoned with the letters “FT. GREENE,” which was where he lived in Brooklyn.
The one-man company had a simple mantra: custom-made sweatshirts with the name of a particular enclave. The concept caught on fast, and there are now 21 full-time employees. In its first year, Neighborhoodies racked about $1 million in sales, and de Zayas said the firm is on track to triple that number this year. The company’s growth so far has been organic: Neighborhoodies doesn’t have investors, and de Zayas has shunned selling his products wholesale, choosing instead to retail his apparel exclusively through the company’s online store at neighborhoodies.com.
“We want to keep our business customer focused and our margins are already small, so we can’t do wholesale,” said de Zayas.
He has been approached by a number of big-name stores that want to pick up the line, but has so far declined.
Opening a store was a natural evolution for the company, he noted. The 1,400-square-foot shop, located on the second floor of Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport, has bright paintings on the wall and a table where customers can check out the different colors and letters available. A custom-printed sweatshirt for $59 can be done in 30 minutes.
De Zayas clearly feels the firm’s future lies in retail. The company is close to signing a lease in Los Angeles and other markets he is exploring for stores include Boston, San Francisco and Cincinnati. The Neighborhoodies name has also been trademarked in Europe and Australia.
While the original sweatshirts were centered on printing a specific place and neighborhood, now customers put on everything from nicknames to political slogans — a favorite at the store right now is “Free Martha.”
In addition to sweatshirts, the company also sells products for dogs, as well as a wide range of underwear and T-shirts, and a selection of bags, all of which can be customized. The store also sells items such as miniskirts that are not available online. The Web site is going to be revamped soon with a new generation of products, including sweatshirts in different weights, and de Zayas is also formulating a new business concept with products aimed at the urban market.
Even as the company has grown, de Zayas takes a somewhat unconventional approach to the business. He finds his employees through Craig’s List, an online community network, and he fosters an atmosphere of creativity at his warehouse and headquarters in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. There are legions of followers — some of whom have up to 20 different hoodies — and fan letters are printed daily on the site.
Neighborhoodies have been picked up by a number of celebrities, such as rap artist Judakiss and teen star Hilary Duff. The company has also been commissioned to create special Neighborhoodies for each contestant in the Miss Universe pageant. “The colors will coordinate with the colors of the contestants home countries,” de Zayas said.
— Melanie Kletter