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Shop Class – Steven Alan

Steven Alan runs a multi-tiered fashion empire. He opened his first store in 1994 in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and three years later began representing independent designers in a wholesale showroom. Around 2000 he began designing his own line, which is stocked primarily at his own stores.

With all three branches of his business still thriving today, the New York-based entrepreneur now operates 23 Steven Alan multibrand retail boutiques in the US and four in Japan (two more will be added in Japan by next March), wholesale showrooms in New York and Los Angeles and an ever-growing online business, which at this point does more sales than any of the physical stores.

He recently talked about his shops, which truly are retail meccas for contemporary, casual mens- and womenswear, his loyal customers and his picks for guys’ must-have clothes this fall.

How would you describe the overall vibe of Steven Alan stores?

I guess “informal” would come to mind. When I think about going to SoHo and going into stores you feel like you’re afraid to pick anything up or mess anything up. You don’t have that feeling in the store. It feels very friendly and open. It’s really kind of a discovery place.

What are your current men’s bestsellers?

Our line is the bestselling line in the store because we are for the most part one of the only places that you can get it.

Do you have a typical male customer?

I would say our average customer is probably a guy 35 to 45 who has a kind of urban sensibility. Whether they live uptown or in Brooklyn or are based in Portland or Chicago, they stay in touch with what is going on in music and food and are culturally progressive.

Does your guy buy for himself or do you get a lot of girlfriends and wives buying for their men?

We have guys buying directly for the most part.

What is best thing about being an independent retailer?

The best thing is just being independent. It’s fantastic and that word sort of says it all–not having to follow suit with what everyone else is doing is very significant. I think that for the most part a lot of department stores’ selections look very much the same and I think the end consumer is the one who is suffering. There are great buyers who have taken chances with interesting new brands but a lot of department stores are selling a lot of the same brands and there’s no diversity for the customer who is coming in. The best part is being able to discover new brands and being able to promote them and get their name out there. It’s always fun finding people first and we’ve been fortunate because we’ve been able to do that quite frequently.

What are this season’s must-have pieces for men?

Other than shirting we have been selling a lot more sweaters and pants so I’m excited about that. Our blazers are really good.

What do you think your customer is looking for fashionwise right now?

For us it is very casual. Our shirting can be washed in the machine and worn with a sweater or worn over a T-shirt or just kind of rolled up. That’s kind of the vibe of the collection. It’s casual but it is also something that you can wear to work if you want.

What are the prices in the store?

The average shirt is around $170. The average pair of pants is probably $180 and then we make our own T-shirts that are probably around $50. And sweaters are $250 to $300.

Is there a secret to your success?

I think for me it’s really just that I love doing it. I think that anyone who really puts their heart into it and really enjoys it is going to keep doing it. I know very few people who are able to dive in and say, “Oh, this is great.” It’s really a long-term commitment because you are constantly improving and constantly getting your name out there. There’s a tremendous amount of designers who are out there as well. So if you don’t really love it you are going to get sick of it or bored of it pretty quick or you run out of cash. It’s really something you have to have a love for because it’s not the easiest business.

What’s the best experience you’ve ever had as a store owner?

It’s very fulfilling and exciting for me that when you make, design or buy something to have people come in and love it and buy it. And then they wear it and you’re out at a party and you see people wearing it and they talk to you about how much they like it. Things like that. They’re all great to hear.

You wear three different hats: retailer, designer and sales agent. Do you like any of them better?

I started with retailer, then I switched to rep and then I switched to design and there is not one that I would like to give up. I really enjoy the whole process. For me it’s being able to incorporate buying with designing and making sure that we are designing into an area where we are not covered and finding these niches is very valuable. As far as representing designers, finding these designers and putting them into our stores and helping to promote them and grow their business is tremendously satisfying as well. But they are all very much complementary businesses so the business is really this amalgamation of all three working together. I feel like it would be lacking if any of them were not there.

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