Helen Wang in her new SoHo store.

Designer Helen Wang, marking her 10th year in business, is playing by her own rules.

NEW YORK — Designer Helen Wang, marking her 10th year in business, is playing by her own rules.

Wang’s contemporary sportswear and dress company is relatively small, bringing in about $4 million in annual wholesale volume, but having opened her first store at 69 Mercer Street here two months ago and with more product launches in the works, Wang may soon have something larger on her hands.

Next spring she will launch a small line of shoes, mostly wedges and ballet flats, to work with her collection. They are being produced in-house for now, and she will sell them only in her store. Wang said she is also thinking of launching a fragrance and a bedding collection, which would most likely be licensed. In addition, Wang is planning to launch a higher-end collection of dresses in the spring, also to be sold exclusively in the store.

“I’d love to make more expensive pieces to satisfy my hunger as a designer,” said Wang, 39. “But they wouldn’t be too expensive, I’m thinking between $600 and $800 retail. The dresses in the store now range from $180 to about $400.”

Ten years ago, Wang’s mother gave her $20,000 in seed money and she introduced her first collection at the Fashion Coterie here, launching the business. At that show, she only had five velvet burnout dresses, four short, one long. They sold out almost immediately.

“There we were, at our first Coterie at the Plaza Hotel, and we were selling like crazy,” she said. “We opened accounts at 60 stores during that show. When I say we were selling a lot, we really were.”

At that Coterie Wang found the signature piece that would be an anchor in the line each season — the cute little dress. The first line was velvet and she changed the fabric to cotton for the spring months. Stores couldn’t get enough of her dresses and she was soon selling to almost 1,000 specialty stores.

“We used to sell every store that wanted to carry the line,” Wang said. “But now I realize that I really don’t want to be in every store, but in those stores I feel good about.”

This story first appeared in the October 4, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Wang sells in Neiman Marcus and in about 460 other specialty stores in the U.S. and in Asia. In a few weeks, she will launch Helenwangny.com, an online store. And she is still celebrating the opening of her first freestanding boutique here. The 2,500-square-foot space is on two levels and serves as a ground-floor retail spot as well as office space. On the lower level there is an office for Wang and her husband, Hiro Yamanaka, who runs the business, along with the sales showroom and some design space. Wang closed her former showroom in the Garment District a couple of months ago, so she could be in the store every day.

“It’s really important for me to be here to interact with the customers, see what they like, what they don’t…that’s the whole point of having a store,” Wang said, adding she expects the store to generate about $1 million in volume by the end of its first year. “I also like that when the buyers come in they can see how the merchandise looks in the store and then go down to the showroom to order.”

Wang is hands-on with the customers. As an added service, she will work one-on-one with shoppers to make sure the item fits right. Even in the store on Saturday afternoons, the designer will shorten a hem or a strap at no extra cost and do more difficult alterations for $15 to $25.

“I used to work at Barneys here, when I was attending Parsons,” she said. “Working there, I really learned a lot about retail and providing good service. Offering alterations is key when it comes to good service. But while I alter it, I educate the customer on how it should fit them.”

In addition to Wang’s women’s collection, the boutique also offers her children’s line, Mina (named after her two-year-old daughter), her men’s shirt line called Stripe, as well as an array of items for gift-giving like costume jewelry, candles from Seda France and a few books.

“My goal here is to have a store where a woman can come in and buy something for herself, but also things for other members of the family,” Wang said. “I want this to be a very family-oriented store.”

She has begun looking at real estate for her next store, which she envisions on Madison Avenue, and also has her eye on locations in Greenwich, Conn., and Los Angeles.

“I have a loyal Upper East Side customer and will most likely open that store next year,” she said. “L.A. will be a real challenge for us, since we do so well on the East Coast and have less of a presence on the West Coast. But I do see us doing really well there, and it’s a challenge I want to take.”

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