A Conversation with Atelier’s Karlo Steel, Part II: The State of the Industry and Looking Forward
I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with Karlo Steel, one of the owners of Atelier New York a few weeks ago. For more than a decade Atelier has been pushing the boundaries of men’s fashion, and their carefully curated brand selection represents a very deliberate and sophisticated approach to retail. Recently relocated to a suite on the 10th floor of an office building – Thom Browne and Playboy are neighbors – the store is a must visit, and offers a look into an aesthetic that’s finding a growing audience on StyleForum. Part I
I’ve always felt that many of the brands you carry have to be seen in person to be appreciated. And when you do see them in person, it’s a very surprising experience, and showcases a very different aesthetic. Much more so then the aesthetic difference between, say, Uniqlo and Barney’s.
It is a departure, but it's interesting that you mentioned Uniqlo vs Barney's. Don't you think we're headed in a direction where these high street brands like H&M and Uniqlo may actually take on the role as the luxury brand? I wonder about that.
I could see it -- I think they have access to resources that a lot of luxury brands don't have, and the speed they can produce goods. They also have an existing consumer base. A brand I know a lot about is J. Crew, and they've started their own high-end J. Crew collection, and they're using their normal clothes as a vehicle to lead to this high-end collection. As the consumer ages and makes more money, why not step up the next level of this fast fashion brand? And then you have the internet and access. I'm waiting for the day when the Rick Owens skirt silhouette for men is sold by H&M, and it can actually permeate popular culture. I don't know if that day is coming.
One has to see... they're testing. It's not going to be everything all the time, obviously. And some silhouettes won't make it there. But this idea of a very diluted version of it will, like a sarouel pant, like when Comme de Garcons first did them in the 80s, the drop-crotch silhouette. It was a very exaggerated silhouette when she did it in Autumn 2004, and since then it's become more and more digestible. Basically what you have now is a full trouser that's tapered in the bottom with a little bit of swing in the crotch area.
I know some people think you lose an exclusivity of a product when it permeates, how do you feel about that? Personally, I think it's good that more people have access to the goods.
I completely agree. That's exactly right. Because what happens is that you want fashion to move forward, you do want these changes, albeit even if they're very slight and marginal, otherwise we'd still be walking around in crinoline, and we can't have that.
One of the things I've noticed when speaking to agents from showrooms is that they're seeing much less distinction between seasons anymore, and fashion is really approaching a seasonless model, because the delivery schedules are so skewed -- you're delivering summer in February you need to have heavier-weight pieces because people want to wear the clothes they buy right now. Do you see that with the brands you carry?
Yes, I do. But the fashion system is broken and it really needs to be fixed. It's very out of sync with reality and the way people shop. First of all this idea this idea of seasons, dressing for the seasons, is a very outmoded notion because it implies that this is only for the northern hemisphere. We simply forget that there's South America, there's Australia. Obviously there are less people living there, but there are people. Sydney is not to be discounted. So when it's summer here, it's winter there. There really should just be one collection a year, with heavier pieces and lighter pieces. That's how I see it. Having said that, yes, designers are exploring this idea of having heavier elements for Spring/Summer because they arrive very early and people buy them then, and lighter pieces for Fall/Winter.
Speaking of the industry at large, one of the criticisms of a lot of clothing is that the prices of clothes have risen a lot, could you speak to that at all?
They have. Well, almost all of the brand we carry here are from Europe. So, that's a bit of an issue in terms of the Euro vs. the Dollar equation, and also in terms of custom fees. So if you buy European clothing in America generally it's more expensive then if you're buying it in Europe. And also the discrepancy between the Euro and the Dollar, the Euro is 1.31 vs the Dollar. So that also explains the price. Also, we're living in a time where things are becoming tighter. Cities are becoming more expensive. Food is becoming more expensive. Cities are going bankrupt. This is all part of where we are today, for better or for worse. Fashion is not unaffected.
I know that while you have a web presence, you don't have a full-blown online store. Is that an intentional choice?
Yes it is. Over 70% of our sales are online. And we've noticed that over the last five years that there has been a significant increase in people buying online. This is something we've responded to, and we're going to respond to even more. We're going to respond to that by making our site even more user friendly. Doing a full-blown ecommerce site is something we're still deciding -- we're working with a developer right now, but we're just not sure it's the way we need to go. We like this idea that we can personally explain to people that are interested in what we do what these clothes are all about. I'm certain that some people do a lot of research on their own, and that's great, but if one inquires about a garment with us, we give a very personalized and somewhat detailed reply in regards to the item.
Do you think if you had a full-blown ecommerce site you'd have issues with returns?
No, fraud. But it's not out of a question -- we're just cautious.
Do you think looking forward, how do you think the store will evolve? Will you expand?
No, first off -- I don't want the headache. Maybe women's at some point.
Looking beyond the store, are there any brands that you wish you could carry, or a brand that you really appreciate?
Yea, yea. We tried to carry Comme des Garcons Homme Plus, and it just doesn't work. And I'm just very surprised. The sale through just wasn't there. It was really tough for us. I'm sure there are several reasons for it, and the primary reason is saturation. Over saturation within the city. Perhaps it's something we'll approach again. Lately I've been having a real crush on Martin Marigela's clothing, men’s.
Even though he's left?
Even more. I've thought the S/S '14 collection was great.
Would you carry Marigela in the future?
There's a possibility. Let's see what happens. There are more design elements in the menswear since the meister has departed, as opposed to the kind of reworked, understated thing he did when he was there. And I don't mind that, I like this sort of uptick in design when it comes to menswear. I think menswear needs it. It's very easy for men to get caught and to just stay where they are, because it's comfortable. There also certain cultural indications that sort of prevent men from embracing fashion too much, because they don't want to give off the signal that they're preoccupied with something that seems superficial. There are other, higher things to think about.
Do you think that's changing at all, culturally?
It is. I think people are ready for it. Time does move on, and a man does want to be well-dressed, but necessarily not like his father. Thus, an evolution.
How do you feel about the secondary market that's arisen online?
I see myself as being distinct from it. But what it says is that a lot of these clothes have an inherent value to them that does not depreciate with the same rapidity as maybe some of the more seasonal lines. It speaks to the quality the brands, which is quite great.
Is there any final thing you'd like to leave our readers with?
No, I'm just happy you stopped by.