Op-Ed | Goodbye Atelier

Eugene Rabkin sits down with Karlo Steel, founder of New York boutique Atelier, for over a decade a beacon of avant-garde, largely European fashion, which is set to close at the end of the year due to mounting financial pressures.

Karlo Steele | Photo: Ellinor Stigle

NEW YORK, United States — After eleven years in business, Atelier, an independent, New York-based menswear boutique that was a beacon of avant-garde, largely European fashion, is shutting its doors at the end of this year due to mounting financial pressures.

Following a quiet opening in 2002, the store quickly earned a following amongst the fashion cognoscenti for its dark, severe and uncompromising aesthetic. At the time, I remember reading a few lines about Atelier’s opening in a magazine. The article gave no address and the store, back then, was simply called “A,” making it difficult to Google. I pounded the pavement to no avail, until one day I happened to glance across the street as I was walking out of Housing Works, a bookstore and cafe on Crosby Street. When I saw a discreet shop window with two dress forms clothed in black and a copy of a large-format Andy Warhol book with a giant “A” on the cover, I knew that my search was over. I bought a Xavier Delcour sweater, which I still wear today.

What I came to like most about the store was that Karlo Steel, its co-owner, and his team clearly loved fashion. Steel, especially, seemed to know it all. Behind his impervious demeanor was a keen, observant mind. He and Constantin von Haeften, his partner, saw fashion as a critical part of culture, symbolised by a Joseph Beuys felt suit that Von Haeften, whose first love is art, hung on the shop’s wall.

With the explosion of Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme and the ascent of Rick Owens, the sleek, dark aesthetic that the boutique championed became the talk of the town. And Atelier rode high on its success, moving to a gorgeous, much larger (and more expensive) space on Hudson Street in West Soho. Indeed, the store seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Sure, Atelier made mistakes in shying away from e-commerce and maintaining an image that some people found intimidating. Nonetheless, its closing came as a shock.

“The price discrepancy between the United States and Europe has always been bad,” said Steel. For a long time, the brands that we carried worked for us despite the price differences between America and Europe, because there was a lot less transparency. Nowadays, every store advertises everything they have online. Retailers have been popping up with an Atelier-like model as a template for a while now and the world could see that we were more expensive than Europe.”

“We spoke with our vendors insistently about this problem as far back as 2008,” said Steel. “But they never got together to fix the problem. Essentially, they left us out in the cold.”

Europe’s tax-free shopping schemes for non-European Union visitors created additional problems for Atelier. “The Europeans are making an extreme effort to push into the American market by basically advertising this idea that if you buy from the Eurozone, you get to deduct the VAT. Depending on what country you’ve talking about, that can be anywhere from 18 to 21 percent, which is considerable,” continued Steel.

“Ultimately, we decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to pull the plug.”

Steel has always seen himself as someone who might help propel fashion forward. That took considerable effort, and investment, while allowing Atelier’s imitators ride on its coattails. “We put a lot of energy, time, and, it goes without saying, money into the way we presented ourselves. But now we know that, at the end of the day, appearances didn’t really matter so much. What mattered was being able to get the goods at the lowest possible price.”

And as prices for certain European fashion goods soared, with leather jackets by some of the designers carried by Atelier routinely breaking the $4,000 mark (and sometimes reaching to as high as $6,000) it became increasingly obvious that a New Yorker could fly to Paris and back, buy the same jacket, and still have a few bucks left over for a coffee in the Marais.

In a way, it’s ironic that Atelier is closing now, just as the dark, goth aesthetic it helped develop is finding its way into the mainstream. “It’s probably hard for people to imagine what life looked like on the ground in 2002, but you had, for women, the Sex and the City market, popularised by Marc Jacobs. And for men, you had a sea of streaky, blue, boot-cut denim,” said Steel.

“That skinny, severe look was by no stretch of imagination new, but Atelier introduced a concentrated version of it. It’s what Raf [Simons] and Hedi [Slimane] were doing, but there was no place where you could see it all in one. Then, there were some other elements in there too; the severe tailoring of Carol [Christian Poell], the washed leather experiments of Carpe Diem. At the same time you had the rise of Rick Owens, who was on the similar tip of this washed-leather thing. It was very rough, very dark, very rock and roll, very goth, or whatever you want to call it,” Steel continued.

“But like any fashion, eventually what you have is a recipe, and that aesthetic recipe has become fossilised. People knew how to ‘get the look’ and it’s become a paint-by-numbers exercise. About 2008 to 2009, when I realised that this is something that you can really get out of a can, I wanted to turn the page.”

Steel turned the page by veering into a longer, looser, almost priestly silhouette, which looked wonderful on his tall frame, but was hard to pull off for many people. “I loved this idea of movement and volume which, to me, looked surprisingly fresh after so many years of black skinny jeans,” he said.

In retrospect, Steel admits this might have been a mistake. “Ultimately, I should have been a bit more detached from my business. For a very long time, there was no [strategic] thinking about the buy; I was simply behaving and responding. The edit that came out at the end was what I felt, whereas it should have been counterbalanced with a more realistic approach in terms of pure salability. Maybe it should have been not as dressy, more casual. For example, I’m not into sneaker culture, for lack of a better term. Buying sneakers would have been counter to what was purely an instinctual exercise,” he continued. “There came a point where analysis was recommended, and probably needed, and I was resistant to it because it felt like pouring a bucket of cold water on one of the few aspects that I felt very positive about.”

“I had a friend tell me somewhat flippantly that he didn’t think there was any juice left in this idea of a multi-label boutique,” said Steel. “His prediction for the future retail landscape is that we will be littered with flagship stores that are there to promote the brand. This idea of a boutique, things from all over the place, is a hopelessly oddly 20th century idea.”

“I laughed, but inside I was crying, because I felt maybe there was some validity there.”

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine and the founder of stylezeitgeist.com

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 3 December, 2013. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Atelier’s founder. It is Karlo Steel, not Karlo Steele.