John Elliott is still in the “I can’t believe it” phase, and rightfully so. The slight and incredibly polite designer — he referred to his acquaintance Kanye West as Mr. West — only launched his line three years ago as a basics brand, but he’s been able to maintain momentum and awareness by innovating on top of his core and offering up streetwear pieces with subtle but impactful design nuances.
This story first appeared in the March 30, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In a conversation with WWD men’s fashion director Alex Badia, Elliott talked about how he has developed a cultike following, his less-than-ambitious wholesale plans and what he’s doing to answer the buy-now-wear-now mandate that’s touching everyone in the apparel industry. Here are some of the highlights.
What year did you start the company?
I started working on the company in 2011 and we formed the company in 2012. In January 2013 we delivered our first products. So it’s been just a little bit over three years that we’ve been in existence.
How did you get Kanye West to come to your first show?
He and I had become mutual acquaintances. We actually met at a gym and rode a stationary bike for like an hour and a half and just talked. It was awesome. But the thing about that show that was really cool was that there was great energy. I liken that show to a music analogy. That was maybe our first EP and I felt a lot of pressure because Mr. West is such an important cultural figure and there were a lot of people that came to that show and there was a lot of buzz around it. I felt a great responsibility to validate that buzz.
You told me you not only started an apparel company but also a technology start-up. Can you elaborate?
I think from our first season onward we’ve been in a little bit of a survival mode. Not so much right now, but I can remember when we were first starting with only $30,000 and it forced us to really learn on the fly. I saw this interview with Bernard Hopkins, a boxer from Philadelphia who had served time in prison, and he discussed prison innovation and how prisoners innovate with nothing. So Aaron [Lavee, Elliott’s business partner] and I really took this to heart. We started with three fabrics: jersey, French terry and denim. We tried to create products that matter out of those three fabrications. The goal has always been to keep our business at a very balanced level. So in order for our business to run we need to basically maintain a balance between about 40 percent brick-and-mortar wholesale and 60 percent online. We’ve been forced to understand, utilize and grow our direct-to-consumer base.
What about communication with your consumer?
When we first started we got looped into this forum. A forum is a little bit of a fashion faux pas. That doesn’t sound cool at all. But what it actually did was it created a layer of transparency between the brand and our customer and it also helped cultivate a cult. Now we communicate with our customers on a daily basis through Instagram and also a forum where we have a moderator and can basically explain decisions that we are making. It’s been extremely effective for us.
What’s your wholesale strategy?
To stay exactly where we are at 50 stores. I think right now we are in some of the best retailers in the world and I think that basically our goal is to work with experts that can tell a story. I’d rather go deeper with the best stores in the world than spread out and really risk having our brand just be on a table or on a rack without a story behind it.
Talk about your delivery schedule.
One thing that is kind of an advantage that we have is the fact that I basically live in the factory and I’m the consumer. I’m growing with the product just like our consumers are growing with the product. About three months ago I wanted to create an oversized cropped sweatshirt with a rib that could frame my face. I sat there and I sketched it. The next day we worked on the tech pack. The following day we had the sample and two weeks later we had the sweatshirt and we tested it on our e-commerce site. It sold out in about three minutes. That’s the speed at which our customer is reacting to product. If you have an idea and you can get it out fast and it’s something that’s culturally relevant and seasonally relevant you can take advantage of the market.