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2011 April 21

The Retailer Files, Vol. 6: Kris Kim, La Garçonne

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(NEW YORK) Online shopping activity has doubled in the last five years—and no one understands why better than Kris Kim, founder of La Garçonne, the tomboy-friendly e-tailer whose sales were soaring even at the height of the downtown. For the sixth edition of The Retailer Files, your Daily grilled this industry original about her shop--and her first foray into design. MARIA DENARDO 

What were you doing before La Garçonne?
I earned my associate’s degree at FIT, then transferred to Cornell for a more liberal arts education. My first fashion job was working for Dana Buchman as a colorist for two years; back then, bridge was it. Then I moved back home to Korea for personal reasons. Because I'm bilingual, I was getting job offers in PR so I started working for Marie Claire as the communications person. Then Prada offered me a job in PR; I stayed for five years. I knew I could do it, but it wasn't really a passion. I always had an idea for a store, or my own line of home accessories. Before the store, I made a line of ready-to-wear in the Garment District. Doing that made me realize how hard designing was—and how financially ready you have to be. I kept thinking of the store. A few years flew by. I was pregnant with my first child, and I started shopping online more frequently. I started wondering why there wasn't a beautiful virtual space that existed for shopping. I took a job for a few years in operations and PR at Y&K, a Korean company. It exposed me to retail and gave me a broader perspective. In the end, I was able to merge what I had been doing during the last decade with retail.

Did you consider a brick and mortar store?
I was living in Tribeca at the time, and I thought it would be a beautiful location for a store...but I knew there wouldn't be enough foot traffic. New York is small in that way. It made sense to try it out online, and I had a hunch that online shopping was going to keep growing.

How did you choose the name?
I spent a lot of time with it. I knew that my customer looked like more of a tomboy--someone who was still feminine, but with a boyish spirit. At the time, the scene was very feminine; logo-mania had just passed. I went for a few names like Flare and Florette, but those didn't embody the spirit. Then I went for the French word for "tomboy." I wanted it to just be just "garçonne," but someone already had that URL. 

Do you speak French?
No, I had to ask French people what the word meant to them. People thought we were actually European, because of the name, but we've always been in Connecticut and New York. 

Why Connecticut?
It wasn't a business move initially. We started La Garçonne in New York. After a year, we moved, because I always wanted to live in a house. One of the perks of being in Connecticut was finding a warehouse space that we would never be able to afford in New York. It's a cost-effective way to build a business while you're growing. In year four, we moved back.

What's your buying strategy?
We don't buy deep, and we don't focus on the size of the label. Our price points are broad. They matter, but they don't dictate the buying.

What celebrities are repeat clients?
Michelle Williams, Kirsten Dunst, Sarah Jessica Parker...

What's trending for your site now?
Long skirts! Zuka, this Japanese label we buy out of Paris, had this black skirt to the shin with a diagonal pleat texture. That went really quickly. The focus is so much about cleaning up your closet now. Buying has been watered down. Our customers get it. Simple shapes are good, but women want more novelty pieces.

Who are your competitors?
There are so many being born each day. I'd say the big guys and the small ones. It's hard to compare with a store like Barneys because we're so narrowly focused. 

Are you as jealous of Net-a-Porter as everyone else seems to be?
I think women shop everywhere. There's not an obvious competition like you'd have with a brick-and-mortar store. Online retailers are competing with the home store that carries some scarves to the big stores that carry everything. We try to focus on what brought us to this point, trust our instincts, and not worry about what other people are doing. 

How hands-on are you?
Very. We do everything in house. We're shooting every day. We put a lot of time and effort into presenting the product in the best way possible. Beauty leads to interest, and interest leads to higher sell-throughs. Everything has to be accurate, because we don't have sales people on the floor.

Do you only wear clothes from La Garçonne?
A lot of my clothes are from La Garçonne, but I still love to shop and pay retail. I like swiping my credit card. I have to confess, I've bought things at other stores. My husband will say, 'Why did you buy that? We have that here!' There's something about the psychology of making that purchase and trying things on at a store.

What designers are you excited about?
I'm still excited about Dries. The new chapter of Rochas is interesting. I like what A Piece Apart is doing.

Where do you find new designers?
We're in a great position now—they come to us. These are picky young designers, but they believe in us. We treat them like they're just as important as the super brands. I'm constantly looking—going to trade shows like Capsule, Rendezvous, DNA, Premiere in Paris, walking around, reading magazines.

What magazines and blogs do you like?
The Sartorialist, Closet Visit, So Much To Tell You, The Gentlewoman, Rush, i-D, Dazed and Confused...

What's Fashion Week like for you?
We've been getting good seats--anywhere from front row to the third row. I understand "Standing Only." I would do it if I really wanted to see the show, but thankfully that doesn't really happen. So many people lose that little girl excitement, but I want to keep it. I'm trying to have more fun with the shows, but we're so busy. Hailing cabs during Fashion Week is the worst! I'm not the most social person so I get in and out. I mingle more in Paris. 

Has the economy affected you?
We grew during the worst times. It's a miracle. We never used the traditional methods of marketing. We've only advertised twice, with The New York Times, and we don't have a PR person. We're trying to market more.

What do you do with product that doesn't sell?
We've had a couple of sample sales, but we don't have a lot of excess stock. It's okay to have a section of sale. It's not so seasonally-driven anymore.

What's the most important quality of a retailer?
Sticking to a point of view.  

What's the most rewarding part of owning La Garçonne?
We've carved out a point of view that people understand. That drives me every day. The hardest part is being away from my kids. I'm lucky that I have the most supportive husband. When you own your own business, you work around the clock.

What's next?
We're designing a private label. We haven't talked about it yet, but it will be a small women's ready to wear collection with the same point of view as the store. The price points are up in the air. We're also looking at doing a pop-up shop. 

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