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Eckhaus Latta, Beyond the Fringe

How Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta are turning an 'art school' brand into a budding business.
Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta | Source: Michael Bailey Gates
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — "We will always have a [do-it-yourself] heart," says Mike Eckhaus, one half of the duo behind the esoteric six-year-old label Eckhaus Latta. The underground darling of the New York and Los Angeles fashion communities has become a favorite of editors and creatives alike, who will head to East Williamsburg on Saturday afternoon for its latest runway show.

Known for its art world inspirations and connections, Eckhaus Latta distinguishes itself from its peers on the schedule by encapsulating many of the core values of a shifting fashion culture. The designers reject gender binaries and the traditional rites of passage in this industry, choosing instead to rethink the system and their place in it. The label is beloved by a tight-knit community of creatives that is as authentic as it is influential.

The line is often described as an “art school brand,” which grates the founders who met at Rhode Island School of Design and graduated in 2010. “We are tired of that mentality,” says Eckhaus. “We have grown a lot in a public space.” Case in point: the wide-shouldered and cropped grey suit that opened the Spring 2018 show. Odd but simple, it marked the beginning of a deeper exploration of formalwear.

While the founders didn’t start with a formal business plan and still approach their work rather conceptually, they have spent the last three years building the foundations of a legitimate operation that is growing continually. They’ve avoided the typical incubators and, with one exception, competitions — and don’t play the celebrity dressing game. Instead, they collaborate with artists and curators while investing in their “bread and butter” categories (jersey tops and denim) and expanding to new ones, such as tailored suits. Prices range from $140 for a t-shirt to $2,200 for outerwear.

Eckhaus Latta 2018 denim campaign | Source: Hanna Moon

The bicoastal brand — Zoe Latta moved to California in 2014 to be closer to family and oversee production there; Eckhaus remains in New York — count 44 stockists around the world, including Nordstrom, Ssense, Opening Ceremony and a new exclusive capsule collection that launched with MatchesFashion on February 7.

After a transformative 2017 that saw the brand well more than doubles the previous year’s sales and pick up a major retailer in Nordstrom, the founders are ready to raise their ambitions. The label is actively looking for a partner with the know-how and capital to scale. It has been profitable for two years, but Eckhaus and Latta declined to share their turnover.

The founders, despite being superstitious about setting specific goals, have serious ambitions to diversify their categories and reach new markets. But do they have what it takes to rise above their peers? It is a transition that has felled many a young brand as they confront the realities of a capital-intensive industry, a disrupted wholesale market and the challenges of reaching new customers while maintaining the loyalty of their first supporters.

Rewind to 2011 and the designers, then 23, might have balked at the question. Eckhaus was working as an accessories designer at Marc by Marc Jacobs and Latta was selling prints to designers and designing knits for Opening Ceremony. Both felt restricted by the commercial environments in which they worked, and decided to design a collection together that reflected Latta's education in textiles and Eckhaus's in sculpture.

They mixed mohair with plastic used on outdoor furniture or elastic in the mostly knit collection: one ankle-length skirt featured an orifice-like opening at knee height. “From the beginning, we knew we wanted it to be business, but we didn’t necessarily want to focus on how that would happen,” says Latta. They financed it from personal savings and New York boutiques Opening Ceremony and Maryam Nassir Zadeh placed orders right away. They remain partners.

“Mike and Zoe have always had their own approach,” says Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony. “I think there’s a rawness to what they do that people gravitate towards, and it’s now become their signature.”

“It just felt very new and very familiar,” says Maryam Nassir Zadeh, who also represented the label at her multi-brand showroom in 2012 and 2013. “There was something sensual. There was a lot of mix of fabrics and it was quite tricky, but then it was a piece of art on a hanger.”

Meanwhile, the label built a reputation for innovative runway shows on shoestring budgets, dependent on the generosity of talented friends paid in trade. For Spring 2014, they staged a presentation in the parking lot of a grocery store chain in Berlin and live-streamed it at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. The Autumn 2016 collection was shown at MoMA’s PS1, where their designs were part of an exhibition of the city’s artists. Later that year, they were part of a Hammer Museum exhibit, too.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BJYxD84huWI

“We enjoy the gray space [between art and fashion],” says Eckhaus. Along the way, the label has formed a close-knit community of collaborators including casting director Rachel Chandler, stylist Avena Gallagher, art director Eric Wrenn, show producer Erica Sarlo and filmmaker Alexa Karolinski.

“I love the way they have embraced their own friends and community in their runway shows and presentations, they truly stand for diversity and inclusivity,” says Nordstrom’s Olivia Kim. “It all feels authentic, these are clothes that they want to wear and their friends want to wear.”

Then in 2016, the label opened up a shop in the front part of its studio space in the Little Armenia neighborhood of Los Angeles. The space is a gallery boutique hybrid that sells Eckhaus Latta as well as friends' brands and one of a kind garments from Sophie Andes Gascon and Susan Cianciolo.

Direct retail through the store and online, which launched in 2014, accounted for 20 percent of Eckhaus Latta’s revenue in 2017. (Wholesale represented 70 percent, while the rest came from special projects and collaborations.) Not only has the fast cash flow been “saving our lives,” says Latta, but it has revealed something unexpected about their shopper: online, a significant amount of their customers are men, even though the brand exists mostly in the women's wholesale market.

As the brand expands into suiting, which like their denim is bought by men and women, tailoring to specific anatomies has become a priority, especially because Eckhaus Latta has not always had the best reputation for fit. "There is a certain level of make and finish that we care about so much, and we've really spent a lot of time in the past year implementing that," says Eckhaus. The focus on refinement also reveals their commitment to growing more sustainably.

To that end, Eckhaus and Latta started working with European fabric mills for the first time in 2017. Deadstock fabric has its limitations, especially for a brand trying to scale, though they still use it. To handle the increasing volume of orders, the label took on a silent partner at the beginning of 2017, who offered them a private line of credit for production and other support. He owns less than 10 percent of the business. (Eckhaus and Latta remain majority owners.)

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In early 2017, Eckhaus and Latta were finally able to make their first three hires as they left their showroom and brought sales in-house. The label's five-year mark could have been a point to reevaluate and step back, but the designers doubled down and added pre-seasons.

Its first Pre-Fall for 2017 had a 98 percent sell through. “It obviously makes everyone way more excited about a pre-collection and showed us the importance of that,” says Latta.

Despite the record sell-through, the pre-season schedule was constricting.

"The more pieces that we love making and that we cherish deliver the latest and therefore have the shortest selling window," says Latta. "And for us, that is just unfair." The solution they've decided on, with approval from their retail partners, is to combine Autumn with Pre-Spring and Spring with Pre-Fall. (Other brands such as Proenza Schouler have also combined pre- and main seasons.) This way, a coat that delivers in November, for example, will be on the sales floor through May.

It is these kinds of strategic decisions that Eckhaus and Latta hope to bounce off a future partner, someone they think of more as a chief operating officer who can help them gain access to capital. “They could be a young person who you know got an MBA a couple years ago and really is wanting to cut their teeth, or they could be a retired garmento that wants a fun project,” says Latta. But they also need to understand the designers’ forward-thinking energy.

“Our brand is very specific and our goals, although often unclear — once opportunities present themselves, Mike and I are very intuitive and clear are what we do and don't want,” she says.

So what does Eckhaus Latta want? Both are hesitant to lay out specific goals, but diversifying their categories and their audience is top of mind. “We’ve done shoes on our own a couple of times, but it's not worth it unless we really invest in it,” says Latta. Eckhaus is also thinking about “suiting and dresses and outerwear that are a bit more luxe.”

“We both just turned 30 and there is a different sense of things we are interested in wearing and making,” he continues. “It’s about inside out first.”

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