Interview with one of New York's FinestInterview with Mike Kuhle by Fok, Photographs by Dan Chaparian and Albert Jose-dini During our trip to NYC, we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Mike Kuhle, who owns Epaulet (www.epauletshop.com), a men's and women's boutique in Brooklyn, located on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, along with the beautiful Adele. The Epaulet brand, which started with Made in New York shirts made in small batches, has recently expanded to include sportscoats, wool trousers, and jeans. Alright... let's get started. Styleforum: Epaulet has been open for, what, 2 years now? How different is the shop and merchandise from what you might have originally imagined it to be, and in what ways? Mike: Yes, we opened in May 2008. Oh man, a lot has changed. We started life as the typical neighborhood boutique - sourcing new products from trade shows and doing business with local foot traffic. About five months after that, the ass completely fell out of the retail market. We had been slowly developing our shirt line prior to that, but the onset of the recession made us realize that we had to work a lot faster and smarter. We had to bring our own products into the market. We had to focus on exclusives and specialty items. Everything in our store needed a story and a justification for its price. We went into overdrive to make Epaulet what it is today - a physical shop, a clothing brand, and an e-commerce destination. The virtual and real world collide as Styleforumites visit Epaulet's physical location. For many shops, the recession was absolutely murderous. We were fortunate to be very new and able to easily switch gears. It's forced us to be better and more prolific retailers. Many of the best retailers in Japan - which are some of the overall best in the world - were also forged in the hard times of their "Lost Decade" recession. Styleforum: From the very beginning, it seems like your in house line was going to play a big role. How did you go about getting your shirts (and then later, your sportsjackets and jeans) right? What have you learned, and in what areas do you still have the most to learn? Mike: Lots and lots of samples. You start with a basic idea and keep cranking out and modifying samples until you get it right. You have to source the right fabric and find the right workshop to produce your garments properly. I was lucky to have experience in Private Label production in my former job at Saks Fifth Avenue. The S5A in-house clothing would fit huge, but it was always properly made. Always done in great fabric. I wanted to take that same level of quality classic design and translate it into a slim and modern fit. And price it fairly by only selling it direct to customers. This was something that we felt was missing in the market. Since we began we've learned so much. I could talk to you about trouser rises for about an hour. It's crucial to really understand and test your product first. It takes a long time to gain your customer's trust, and we need them to feel confident spending their hard-earned money on something that we create. Right now, we're trying to learn as much as possible about denim cuts. Believe me, it's hard as hell! As you see from the sheer volume of different jeans models on the market, it's a specific science and a moving target. Our first jean came out great. As we create new models, we want to give our customer an excellent fit that they can't find anywhere else. The phenomenal denim and fair price will then be further icing on the cake. Adele, at the Mark McNairy booth, models the women's version of the Epaulet shirt. Styleforum: When I first talked to you about your shirts, you were very much about “small batches”, well below the minimums from a lot of factories, I think. How did you convince factories to make 20, 40 shirts? Mike: Ah, you can thank the recession and off-shoring for that. 10 years ago, many of these contractors would have laughed us out of their office. But the slow death of US apparel manufacturing has forced them to be more open-minded to small accounts like us. The people who we work with are all the better for it. They can create more intricate, higher-end products for people like us. And we're not trying to squeeze every last dollar out of them. They can retain their most skilled workers and do what they do best. Ultimately, it's a good scenario for everyone. The heyday of wide-scale US production is gone forever. No one here can compete with Asia on price for mass-market items. But we can compete on quality and we're blessed to have customers who recognize and support it. We have great working relationships with all of our contractors. Oh, and be sure to pay all of your invoices on time. That's the single best thing you can do when you need people to make things for you. A good reputation for forking out cash in a timely fashion will follow you around. Styleforum: We spent a good few hours following you around at Capsule NYC. I was wondering about your overall thoughts? Any lines we should be on the lookout for? Mike: I love Capsule. It's far and away my favorite trade show. The product is great, the energy is high, and the salespeople are really impassioned and knowledgeable. The music's great too. I get to hear Hall & Oates and Steely Dan every time. With the Wu-Tang clan played right after that. What more could I want? Reasonably sure that Tone Loc started up at this point Mark McNairy's collection is growing in leaps and bounds. He really understands classic style and manages to execute great Americana with a distinct sense of humor. Our Legacy is awesome. No idea how they produce such great merchandise at the prices they do, but I'm thankful regardless. Naked and Famous is always solid. Yuketen is unbelievable - we picked up our first two styles for this coming Fall. Yuketen and Mike's X-ray vision steez Mike and Adele hope that the Yuketen boat shoe does not wholesale for $500 Nope, only $300* *Disclaimer - I didn't look at the linesheet at all. I wrote the captions purely for the lulz. Styleforum: What is your thought process as you go about looking and buying for FW10, six months away? Mike: We're really optimistic and ambitious for this Fall. Our store is so new that we didn't have a whole lot of selling history for previous buys – but we've now got a solid handle on the kind of merchandise that our customer really wants. We'll expand the Epaulet line into two new categories – outerwear and knitwear. EP's will grow with new shirting, denim fits, and special editions. We're keeping all the other brands that we buy very balanced and looking for really phenomenal items – especially shirts, jackets, and accessories. And shoes. Really, really ass-kicking shoes and boots. We're going to have a ton of them. Pricing is a crucial point for us. We're very careful to access the real value of the items that we sell, and we'll pass on anything that we deem to be overpriced. I'm a conservative shopper, and I won't buy anything for the store that I wouldn't feel comfortable buying myself at full price. If something's expensive – and we carry quite a few expensive items – I have to be able to fully explain to our customer why it's worth that amount. We're always looking for new items and brands to carry. I'll sometimes stay up to 4 a.m. trying to see who can make a perfect old-school handknit cardigan (good news – I found that for Fall!) We work like hell to source unique and valuable items, and our customers can trust that everything we sell has been carefully considered. We don't just waltz into a few tradeshows and cobble together our store assortment from the most obvious sources. We spend all day and night searching for special products that few others ever think twice about. It's something that I feel really sets us apart. Mike knows that I like this but am too cheap to buy it, so he probably won't get it in. Shirts from Naked and Famous Styleforum: I’ve heard the criticism, from a lot of quarters, that Americana lacks “humor”, that a lot of people wearing and selling the stuff from, say, Michael William’s (A Continuous Lean) Pop Up Flea Market suffer from a lot of “taking themselves too seriously.” Now, I know that you are not an Americana store, but you do work with Michael Williams, and you do carry Mark McNairy. So, your thoughts on these criticisms? Mike: I'll come out and say it – Michael Williams and Mark McNairy are very funny guys. Michael Williams has far too deep an appreciation for mid 90's R&B to ever take himself too seriously. And Mark might be the only man on the planet who successfully pulls off a denim jacket, camo pants, and red brick wingtips. At least the only man over the age of 22 AND not living in Tokyo. The Pop-Up Flea was great for us. The people who attended were really smart, curious, and polite. It was great to talk with guys who are equally fixated on details and quality as we are. And it didn't hurt that we sold the freaking ass out of Epaulet flannels and Indy Boots. As you said, we're not an Americana store (despite making many things in America), but our booth was well received and we had some of the highest traffic and best sales of any vendor there. I think that the Pop-Up Flea crowd was very open-minded and receptive. There were a lot of chambray shirts and Red Wings to go around, but hey, that was the theme of the event. It attracted people who are into that style – so of course many of them looked pretty similar. That's what happens in fashion subcultures. It was pretty male-dominated though. Probably not the best place to meet a girl if you're a single guy. But at least you'll leave with an oxford shirt. And an irrepressible urge to grow a beard. Mike with McNairy - No, really, pull my finger. Mark McNairy booting Northern Soles Styleforum: You told me that you have to buy for your customer, not just for yourself. If you could buy, just one brand for yourself, that you don’t carry in the store, what would it be? And why wouldn’t be a good fit for your store? Mike: I LOVE John Smedley. Unbelievable UK-made knits and sweaters. I find myself fantasizing about their cardigans. But despite their great style and quality, the price is about 30% too high for our assortment. Not that Smedley pieces aren't worth the price, but our customers are more inclined to invest in a thick, warm, and substantial lambswool or merino sweater that doubles as an outerwear piece for the Fall. It's not a line that I feel would be successful for us know, but who knows – maybe we'll pick it up a few years down the road. If you haven't figured out by now, Mike has a thing for the Mod movement Styleforum: We’ve spoken a few times about your Brick&Mortar customer and your online customer. Could you describe them and tell me what are the main differences between them? Mike: Well, these are gross generalizations as we have a lot of different customers. But on average, our in-store customer is a neighborhood guy in his mid 20's to late 30's. He works in media, design, or law. He doesn't wear a suit every day, but need clothing that looks appropriate for work. This guy buys Epaulet dress shirts, trousers, & sportcoats, Alden suede chukkas, Wm.J.Mills briefcases, ties, v-neck sweaters, etc. He's got a bit of a European/British style. He's very New York. Our online customers come from - literally - all over the world. As you would imagine from Styleforum, our biggest online mens items are Alden boots, Chambray shirts, buttondown collars, the Epaulet & Styleforum collab flannels, EP's denim, etc. No one goes online to buy a white dress shirt. They come for something special, so most of the popular pieces are things you can't find anywhere else. Most of our customers are in North America, but we also do a lot of sales to Australia, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. Styleforum: It seems like your online customer is mostly interested in your house brand stuff, and that you don’t put most of your brands online. How about your Brick and Mortar customer? Mike: Our house brand is by far the biggest online item, but we're going to try like hell to put more stuff up from other brands this year. It's not that our online customers aren't interested, we just lacked the manpower to get it done. We've got that sorted for Spring. In our physical shop, Epaulet is also the largest-selling brand. But here we'll sell much more basic items due to being a neighborhood store. If a guy needs a white shirt, he comes to us. If he needs a winter jacket, or a pair of boots for the snow, he comes to us. What fraction of your business is online (as opposed to from your brick-and-mortar location?) This year, we're planning to do about 60% in-store and 40% online. Styleforum: Everyone is going online now. And it seems to me that a lot of people don’t know what they are doing, or what they are getting themselves into. If a boutique owner approaches you for advice, what would you tell them? Mike: E-commerce is a great resource for stores like us. But creating and maintaining a worthwhile site takes a huge amount of work and dedication. Buying a URL and putting items online is just the first step. You've got to seek out your customers, take great photos, write good copy, and tailor your assortment to the very specific tastes of online buyers. Before you spend the money on a full-blown e-commerce site, I always recommend starting with a good DSLR camera and a blog. Practice taking good shots of the new items in your store, posting them up, and communicating them. That costs next to nothing, and can be very effective marketing for a small independent shop. If you're comfortable with that workflow and you're getting decent traffic and the occasional (or frequent) phone order, then consider taking it to the next level with a proper online shop. Styleforum: Collaborations are a big deal right now, and have been for the past several years. Where do you see that going? What makes a successful collaboration? Of what collaboration (that you’ve done) are you the most proud of, and why? Mike: I love collaborations. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion with Jeff Staple and Hiroshi Fujiwara about that exact topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P33SKWhy-E Collaborations and special editions allow for a constant stream of small-run products. They give press and online media another reason to mention your brand. And they bring something new and interesting to your customers. It seems like there's more and more interest in this idea, so I expect brand collaborations to increase in the next few years. Most marketing people will tell you that the best collaborations bring together the ideas and personality of the respective brands behind them. That's all well and good, but it's crucial not to lose sight of the final product. You have to ask that first – what would the customer really like? After you determine that, then you can figure out how to represent yourself in that end product. When you work towards a collaboration, it's easy to get caught up in the details and trying to throw too much thought and concept into it. If the final product's not clean, targeted, attractive, and successful then the overall message is lost. I'm very proud of the Horsehide boot that we made with Thorogood. They're a great heritage company that isn't well known and hasn't benefited from the mainstream attention that Red Wing has received. Our product was successful in all respects. It exposed Thorogood to our customer community and press contacts. It allowed us to remake their classic workboot in our clean, signature style (and represent our undying love of heavily oiled, hard-aging skins). The resulting product got a lot of attention and sold extremely well. And most importantly, our customers got a unique pair of boots that they really love. The Thorogood for Epaulet boot And BTW – I can't forget the Chambray, Seersucker, and Flannel shirt collabs that we've done with Styleforum. Those have been some of the best-selling shirts that we've made, and it's always fun to see what fabrics people choose. Looking forward to the new one this week! Stay tuned for this Fall. We've got enough collaborations and special editions to knock you head-over-arse. Seriously, it's going to be insane. Styleforum: Could you take this opportunity to tell us a bit about the upcoming SS10 season and what we have to look forward to? Mike: We've got lots of good things coming. We'll do shirting in all manner of prints, bold colors, and textured fabrics. Our trousers will have both perfectly-executed basics and some really awesome specialty fabrics. There's going to be some serious seersucker going around. Lots of raw silk and striped neckwear. EP's will have it's first shirting and chino's. Shorts too. We're now working to create THE perfect raw jean for guys with bigger thighs. We've got collaborative products coming from Wm & J.Mills & Co and Vanson. Perfect leather jackets from Schott. Awesome oxfords & madras from Gitman Vintage and Gant. And some serious special make-up shoes from Alden (Whiskey Longwings anyone?) and Mark McNairy. Coming correct. Later.
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2/9/10 at 3:48am