NEW YORK — It all started in 1993 when Parke Lutter and Ronen Jehezkel met under a disco ball at the Sound Factory nightclub here. Four years later, the duo joined forces to create Parke & Ronen, and eventually transformed their brand into a successful label in the men’s fashion swimwear market.
To mark their two decades in business, the designers will unveil a special 20th anniversary capsule of some of their signature pieces during their spring show at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Skylight Clarkson Square for New York Fashion Week: Men’s.
But while the brand has built its business on colorful men’s swim and casualwear, it actually started out quite differently.
The Israeli-born Jehezkel arrived in New York in 1991 after graduating from the Istituto Europeo Di Design school in Rome with a degree in haute couture design and starting making unisex vests that he sold at street fairs around New York. Lutter, a design student at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, started interning for him in 1995 and by the next year, they collaborated on a collection of contemporary women’s party dresses.
They showed that line at the Boutique show in New York and then took a space of their own at 176 Ninth Avenue at 21st Street. By this time, they had also started making men’s ready-to-wear and the store showcased both collections.
In 1997, that neighborhood was rough and Jehezkel joked that, “You needed a helmet to survive. It was scary.” Check-cashing shops, drug dealers and hookers were all part of the scene, but by letting the local pimp use their bathroom, the duo never had a problem. “It gave us protection,” he said. “They kind of adopted us.”
Although it took a while, Jehezkel had a gut feeling that the neighborhood would eventually turn around. Chelsea Market had just opened a few blocks south and the London Terrace apartment complex three blocks north was home to actors, artists and others creative types — just the customer Parke & Ronen was hoping to attract.
Fast forward two decades and the hookers are gone but the duo is still in the same location — and the store now accounts for more than half of the brand’s business.
While the location has remained the same, the mix has changed. They started producing men’s swimwear in spring 1999, using a variety of fabrics that included everything from printed microfibers and stretch cotton twills to a lining with a jacquard pattern.
“We had to be super creative to meet the fabric minimums,” Jehezkel said. “And the customers didn’t mind,” his partner added, saying that it didn’t take long for the men’s wear to begin outselling the women’s. “So we said, let’s just focus on that.”
Not only were the fabrics innovative, so were the silhouettes. “Back then, everything was either a Speedo or big, baggy shorts,” Jehezhel said. Parke & Ronen’s slim, body-conscious styles soon found a following among guys looking for sexy swimwear that was just as appropriate for walking around the city.
Today, 60 percent of Parke & Ronen’s business is swimwear with complementary shorts, knit shirts, Ts and tanks, pants, sweatshirts, underwear and accessories making up the remainder.
Lutter noted that although the brand obviously does best during the spring and summer seasons, the collection sells year-round as customers seek out something fresh to take on vacation. Case in point, resort is one of the brand’s largest deliveries. “Fall is a smaller collection — about half the size — but it works for us,” Lutter said.
For their show this season, the duo selected about 16 of their most-popular pieces — around 10 swimwear styles and six sportswear selections — and reproduced them. These include the Espana, a model from spring 2012 with a heavy print; the Ripley, which was inspired by “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and has a capri feel, and the Stella, which offers a retro graphic print. The models are available in a variety of lengths and fits ranging from the original four-inch boardshort to the two-inch Barcelona and the best-selling slim-fit stretch Angeleno.
The collection will be available in the retail store and on the brand’s web site around November at which point it will be marketed via the company’s social media channels. Because of the handsome, buff models that have become a hallmark of the Parke & Ronen brand, its Instagram feed is especially popular.
Although the designers admit that it hasn’t been easy to maintain a business for two decades, they’re determined to remain independent. They still do everything themselves with Jehezkel shooting the brand’s marketing images and Lutter serving as the art director. Operationally, Jehezkel is head of retail while Lutter is in charge of production and web marketing. They work on the branding and creative together.
Although the line is also carried in like-minded specialty stores such as Citizen in San Francisco, Parke & Ronen is slowly “pulling back from wholesale distribution,” Lutter said, in favor of focusing on its own direct-to-consumer business on its e-commerce site and store. Those channels have grown 30 percent over the past two years, he said. They have also opened a pop-up in Fire Island, N.Y., for the summer, a popular spot with its customers.