MR Q: Steven Alan

Spanning the retail/wholesale spectrum.

As the owner of eponymous retail stores, a sales showroom and his own wholesale lines, one might imagine Steven Alan to be a little arrogant. He is, in fact, the opposite—gracious and humble. Alan admits he doesn’t even feel like he “fully gets” the design part yet. “I never considered myself a designer; I was just making a private label line for my store.” His men’s and women’s collection is now wholesaled to over 300 stores worldwide including Barneys, Ron Herman and United Arrows. He owns and operates six stores in New York, three in California and sales showrooms in NY and LA that represent 21 brands. Internationally, he has franchised stores in South Korea, as well as collaborative shop-in-shops with retailers in Japan. His classically styled Americana collection comprises well-made basics with subtle detailing and is adored by tastemakers and everyday guys alike.

How did you get into the business?
I grew up in New York City. My parents are in the jewelry business and have a store in New York. I worked there and went to trade shows with them, so I learned the wholesale/retail business at a pretty young age. I opened a kiosk in their jewelry store selling collectible, limited-edition watches. It sounds kind of crazy, but I’d buy them for retail and sell them for more. After some time, the watch business got much more competitive: we were laying out a lot of money up front for little profit. What I really wanted to do was open a store. In 1994 I found a space on Wooster Street in SoHo and sold women’s clothing and accessories. I wouldn’t go to trade shows—I’d find designers through friends of lines we sold, or if a customer came in wearing something really great, I’d ask about the brand.

Why did you open a showroom?
I sort of built up this reputation of being a pioneer and discovering new brands, but the designers I carried didn’t know who else to sell and asked me to handle their wholesale. So in 1996 I opened a showroom.

How did your own line come about?
The store on Wooster was really small (about 500 sq. ft.). Within six months we outgrew the space and needed to get a real showroom. That left us with an empty space in the mezzanine, so I decided to fill it with menswear. All of the men’s brands I liked seemed really expensive for what they were. It was a shame that there wasn’t an American designer doing contemporary well, so I started making clothes. The buyers I worked with liked what I was doing. In my mind it was a private label project, not a wholesale line, but I was flattered that they wanted to sell it, so I started wholesaling it. The collection launched with shirting and trousers and we’ve grown into a full collection of bottoms ($148 to $198 retail), wovens ($178 to $188), knits ($65 to $134), blazers ($475), ties ($68) and outerwear ($348 to $448).

What have you learned over the years?
In retail, I learned the importance of having a good store manager. As for the showroom, it’s difficult when you’re representing new designers because a lot of them go out of business. It doesn’t matter if they’re talented and have strong sell-throughs; they can still close. It’s important for me to interview prospective designers and look beyond their talent to make sure they or someone in their organization can run it responsibly.

How have you seen retail change since you opened in 1994?
E-commerce has changed the nature of retail. Before someone even goes into a store he’s going to check out the website. And it’s all integrated: you want people to shop in the store and then go online and vice versa. I’ve also seen fast fashion grow exponentially, which makes it that much more important to stock great quality product that differentiates you and tells a story.

What’s selling in your stores?
We’ve seen the biggest percentage increases in suiting since last season. Right now we sell separates but are getting into nested for fall 2012. Other than our own line, brands like Levi’s Vintage, RRL and Acne do well.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Personally, my children: I have a 10-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl. In terms of business, the most significant thing in retail was opening the store in Tribeca. After 9/11, SoHo and Tribeca were like ghost towns. Today, it’s still not a heavily trafficked shopping destination, so having a successful store there is a great accomplishment.

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