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2011 April 20

The Executive Files, Vol. 6: Khajak Keledjian, Intermix

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(NEW YORK) At age 19, the future Intermix founder and CEO Khajak Keledjian was far from a typical NYU student. While his fellow finance majors were busy pledging during Greek Week, Keledjian was already opening his first multibrand boutique with a revolutionary concept of styling designer duds side-by-side. Today, 17 years later, Intermix locations exist in 10 states, with a global launch (first stop: Toronto) in the works. The Daily sat down with Keledjian for the sixth edition of The Executive Files. MARIA DENARDO

So before Intermix...
When I was in high school, I worked at Benetton. After a few days there, I realized folding sweaters wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I starting selling them to all the tourists; 80 at a time to these Saudi women. The manager wanted to know about the guy who was making all this noise. I wanted commission, but they never paid commission. So they made me an exception and compensated me with gift cards, among other things. When I was 17, I got recruited by Botichelli, a multi-brand shoe store next to Benetton. I started in sales. Eventually, I became the buyer because the manager used to buy things I didn’t like to sell. So the team took me to Europe on a buying trip. Shortly after, I was managing three Bottichelli shops and studying finance at NYU. I knew I could be on Wall Street but I did better in the selling world--I spoke two languages.

How did you get the idea to start the store?
My girlfriend was wearing an Alaia dress that cost $2,000, and we got into an argument. I said, ‘How can you pay that much money for you’ll only wear once when you owe money to the school?’ She challenged me to walk around Manhattan and find things that she would like. That’s when I became more familiar with clothing, and realized there was a void in the marketplace. My brother Haro and I funded the business with the money we saved. I charged a lot on my personal credit cards. I knew if I went down, that was it. I had no choice but to succeed. We were born to retail. It's in our blood. Both our grandparents were retailers, and when I was a kid, my father started in retail. I knew I had a strong concept; our marketing was easy. Our customers marketed themselves by how their outfits were put together. In the eighties, everything was very head-to-toe, one look. We mixed brands in unexpected ways.

What other names were you thinking about?
Trendmix, Outermix, Innermix. Everything in my life is a mix, like today, with my workout—I did 20 minutes of kickboxing and core exercises, and a half hour of swimming. When I order food, I get many things to share. 17 years ago, Intermix could have been a club or a DJ. Now, people are saying, 'Oh, you're so Intermix!' 

What's it like working with your brother?
He's the COO, so there are some great qualities and some challenges. He’s more patient, I’m more aggressive. But with family members, there is trust.

Do you talk about work over family dinners?
We try to avoid it, but it’s almost impossible. A couple of days ago, I was at his house for Passover. I realized Gossip Girl was going to be on and we were on the show this week. How could we not turn on the TV? I’d heard great things, but I'd never watched it. My idea of TV is a CNBC biography about Wal-Mart's operations.

What does your week look like?
Mondays are all about office meetings—reporting, catching up with stores. Tuesdays are a little more creative, with marketing, PR, and HR. I keep Wednesdays open for my buyers. Thursdays, I use for market or traveling to our stores. I keep Fridays open for opportunities like new locations, legal licenses, strategies, competition, and reading my magazines. I wake up early—6 a.m., sometimes later. On average, I work until 7:30 or 8, but I still have events, business dinners, and emails. I made a resolution not to email after 10 p.m., but sometimes, it’s almost impossible.

On average, how many do you receive a day?
Over 600.

Could you last a week without your assistant?
She handles my emails, and she's a huge support. I don’t know what I would do without her. She’s had time off before, but it was a disaster at the beginning. Now, we’ve worked it out—we vacation at the same time.

Do you wear suits to work?
For me, a suit is like a penguin’s uniform. My typical look is Adidas sneakers, Diesel jeans, a Gucci jacket…

What magazines do you read?
Departure, The Economist, Forbes, Vogue, Elle, and the UK versions. Sometimes, I read the weeklies so I’m not embarrassed if I’m speaking to a celebrity. The Economist gives me what’s happening in the world on a macro level. I read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal online.

Where do you sit at Fashion Week?
I'm in the first couple rows. I try not to have those things get in my head. When I first started, trust me, I was in the 15th row. You have to remember where you started. 

What's the most random state that pops up in orders from Intermixonline.com?
Nebraska.

How have you weathered the economic crisis?
I'm still here, aren't I?

Do you still buy for the store?
I have six buyers now. They do a fantastic job, but sometimes, I have to make sure it all looks cohesive. Before the economy, we were selling a lot of runway pieces—trendy fashion. We still do, but we're not as exaggerated. We offer more pieces with longevity.

How does Rodarte sell?
We don't have Rodarte but I think at one point we did.

What designers are you excited about?
I love Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang, Thakoon, Olivier Theyskens, and exclusive shoes from Brian Atwood. We do a lot of collaborations; 25 percent of our store is exclusives.

What are designers missing out on that customers really want?
One of the challenges we're facing for Fall is that everything is falling right below the knee. Put that on a 5'2" customer, and it will go almost to the floor. It's a Sicilian widow's length. We need more options for everyone—more diversity.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Keeping the essence and the integrity of a smaller entrepreneurial company while we grow. Each of our stores has a different mix of designers, depending on location, but the core has to stay the same.

Were you always a strong leader?
At a young age, I was always aggressive and risky. Now, I've learned to be patient—and listen.

 




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