NEW YORK, United States — Baja East has been in business for less than six months, but such is the demand from consumers that retailers can’t seem to keep the new American label in stock. At influential Chicago boutique Ikram, the brand’s first delivery was gone before it even hit the sales floor and the store's founder Ikram Goldman has already placed a second order. Jeffrey, in New York, saw its men’s order fly out the door, while Capitol in Charlotte, North Carolina, was depleted of Baja East merchandise within a day.
So what’s the label’s secret?
Unlike many nascent designers, Baja East’s John Targon and Scott Studenberg have been selling at the luxury level for years — Studenberg as Lanvin’s national sales director for North and South America, Targon as Céline’s sales director for North America and, more recently, Burberry’s director of wholesale for menswear and men’s accessories. Needless to say, they have a good feel for what sells.
“Our role was to try to get the product right for our market,” Targon tells BoF. “We had to look at fabric, price, colour, delivery. And so we really started to think about, how can we take this information we’ve learned [and] do something on our own?”
Launched in New York last October, Baja East is built upon the idea of what Targon and Studenberg call “loose luxury” — sporty, beachy casualwear with an emphasis on comfort and travel. “We were travelling all the time. All the clients we were talking to, they were always travelling,” says Targon. “So we wanted to do pieces that no matter where you go and how you pack, you can do brunch, you can do something more cocktail, or you can just get on the plane — things that fit into a real, everyday lifestyle.”
The label produces its entire line in the US, in both Los Angeles and New York. The brand’s bestsellers include sumptuous cashmere sweaters, sleeveless silk crepe baja tops and drawstring leather boxing pants. “I think for both of us, one of the things at our jobs that influenced us the most was fabrication,” says Studenberg. “At Lanvin, Alber [Elbaz] would always say, ‘I don’t want other people telling her that she looks amazing, I want her to feel like she looks amazing.’ So when we were choosing [fabrics], we wanted them to feel good.”
“They’re easy, wearable pieces and there’s no one I know that doesn’t want to wear it,” says Goldman. “That you could wear an incredible oversized, hooded leather sweatshirt that feels like you’re wearing chiffon is beyond to me. They do these super, super relaxed pants, but they don’t look giant — they look slimming.”
Every Baja East style is ambisex — designed so that it can be worn by both men and women. “The baja was one of our first shapes, inspired by these djellabas from a trip to Marrakech that I had cut,” says Studenberg. “I would wear them out, tucked into shorts with my Lanvin high-tops, and both girls and guys would be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool!’ That’s where the ambisex moment started happening — we’re like, why do we have to say it’s just for girls or it’s just for guys? We think of us and if we’ll look good wearing it and then we think, well what would she look like in it?”
“Buyers who are men and women come in, both put it on, and they’re a little bit mind-trippy,” continues Targon, “Because they’re like, it does actually work.” Maxfield buyer Sarah Stewart, who stocks the label, confirms as much: “It really works for both men and women, without looking like a man wearing a woman’s clothes or vice versa.”
“I love the idea that you can share clothes with a man,” adds fashion consultant and former Barneys New York fashion director Julie Gilhart. “I think it’s a very interesting concept and I like it. A lot. As someone who is conscious of the way that we use clothes, I think to have as many functions for clothes as possible is very good. I think it’s a very sustainable concept.”
“Our business is more women’s right now,” Targon confirms. “But the men’s stores that buy it, buy it in a big way.”
The designers plan to build Baja East into a complete lifestyle brand, says Targon, adding: “We wanted to be a part of something that is changing the way people interact with clothes and enhancing their lives. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Their offering expanded from 20 pieces in the company's first season to 80 in its second, for Autumn 2014. But Studenberg cautions: “We don’t want to be a brand that is coming up with something totally new [for] every runway show. We think about consistency, what’s sitting on the floor. So it’s a flow [from season to season].”
With projected growth from $336,000 in first season sales to $2.1 million by the end of their first year, the self-financed label is already laying the groundwork for the future. “We do see a touch into bags for our Spring 2015 collection,” says Targon. “It’s going to be a very small entrance and we’ll launch it with the right partner. We see our own retail — we think New York and LA could look promising — and fragrance, e-commerce.”
For now, the brand is sticking to selective retail distribution — it’s currently in 17 specialty stores across North America, including Barneys New York, Forty Five Ten in Dallas and The Webster in Miami, as well as Net-a-Porter online. “Something we’ve learned with our experiences,” says Studenberg, “[is when] you’re at a certain price point, that client doesn’t want everyone else to have it. They want to feel like they’ve discovering something new and the minute that they feel like everyone can get it, it’s not interesting anymore.”
From their days in sales, both designers have long-existing relationships with the stores where their own brand is now stocked. “We couldn’t do it without our store network,” says Targon. “We’re two people. We need the people in these key flagship cities sending a message for us. We trust in these people and they trust in us.”
With their US distribution network up and running, the duo are aiming to expand into Asia and Europe. "We will do the same strategy — it’s all about specialty retailers, bigger presentations in fewer doors and veering away from the department stores. We’re choosing our Japanese partner right now and we have a few key prospects that we’re going to do in London, Berlin, Paris,” says Targon.
But they’re flexible with their strategy. “[Our plan] changes every month,” Studenberg says.
“When we originally came up with our pricing pyramid, we thought we were going to do a lot of volume in our everyday pieces under $1,000,” adds Targon. “But our more expensive pieces — especially the cashmere — are actually making up the bulk of our business now.”
It’s been less than six months since launch, but “sometimes we don’t think about the time that’s gone by,” says Studenberg. “We were just schlepping around a 20-piece collection to Vogue [in October], doing a little presentation for them in their hallway, and we’re like, ‘Did that just… where are we?’ And we just had a show. Fabien Baron came.”