NEW YORK, United States — Stella Ishii has built a stellar reputation for successfully launching young designers in the US market — Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, The Row and Public School among them — from her New York-based showroom, The News. Now, she’s got a young label of her own to build.
Launched in September 2012, 6397 — N-E-W-S on a telephone keypad — is already on the ascent. The edited collection of tomboyish essentials — with special emphasis on soft tees, slouchy silhouettes and denim — is stocked by top retailers Barneys, Ikram and Maxfield and generating $3 million in sales revenue after just two seasons.
There would be no 6397 without Ishii’s former client Lasse Karlson, however. In 2011, the co-founder of Swedish denim line Cheap Monday became a partner in The News, bringing his business acumen to the table and enabling Ishii to launch the line — something she wouldn’t have done otherwise, she says.
Karlson and Ishii first met in 2005, when Cheap Monday was looking for a US distributor. The two struck up a professional relationship, as well as a great friendship. “We could speak for an hour, but business was always 10 or 15 minutes, very quick decisions — then it cut out to food, family,” Karlson says.
Over the years, they casually joked about partnering up, but it wasn’t until Karlson left Cheap Monday in 2011 — he had sold the brand and its parent company, fabric Scandinavien, to Swedish retail behemoth H&M in 2008, and remained as CEO for three years — that they made it official. “I called Stella and I said, ‘You know what? We talked about it, we joked about it, but now I’m actually free. So, what do you say?’” Karlson says.
Launching a label like 6397 “was probably always there in the back of my mind,” Ishii admits, “but you see the new brands and the investment it requires for them to really evolve into a healthy brand. It's a struggle.”
That’s where Karlson comes in. “Stella is the concept and the feel and touch — the creative side — and I’m more the commercial side,” he explains. “I can smell where the business is in a collection. This is where we should invest. This where we should not invest. What I added to the equation was first and foremost that Stella felt really comfortable to do 6397. And then making sure it gets the opportunity to fly.”
To start, the whole News office — “all the girls” — were involved in the line’s design, Ishii says. “I had an idea of what it should be, but I wanted to hear everyone’s input. [I wanted to know] what was always in their wardrobe, so they would bring in their favorite t-shirts or jeans. Because that was the idea — a wardrobe.”
6397 now has two dedicated designers in addition to Ishii, but “it’s not a designed brand, and it’s certainly not a designer brand,” she says. “I’m not a designer. I feel 6397 can comfortably hang between designer collections. It offers classic styles tweaked for a modern woman who probably already has just about everything necessary in her closet and yet the 'perfectly proportioned' basic t-shirt, or turtleneck or v-neck etc, is something she’s still always open to and looking for.”
The brand’s growth has been “very quick” Karlson says, thanks in part to Ishii’s longstanding relationship with retailers. It’s given her a built-in “sense for what the stores need and what price point they would like it at,” she says. Plus, “they trust us” — a great advantage “when there’s so much already out there.”
“I haven’t launched any other lines that have come to $3 million so quickly,” she notes. “It used to be, six or seven years ago, you could do that, but I think the market is so careful now when they buy something new.”
“The general public think it’s very, very important to have a show and parties and do the right press and have the products on the right people — which are extremely important aspects,” Karlson says. “But another one that people don’t really talk a lot about is you have to really materialise it. You have to be able to ship it so people get it in time and it has to look the correct way. If you’re always paying your invoices on time, as we did, everybody wants to work with you. Period. Does that make your product look better? No, but eventually, you will have more people talking about it, you will have more people wearing it.”
Ishii agrees. “A lot of the small designers I work with, with limited cash flow — when they say production’s delayed because they didn’t get fabrics on time, I’ve asked so many times, ‘but did you pay the factories?’ Usually it’s because something wasn’t paid,” she says. “So I feel really fortunate that we started this brand when we’re able to do work in a grown-up way. I can give the factories what they want and they’re able to give me what we need. You have to work equally — you’re a professional. You can’t just always think, well I’m the new designer and support, support.”
With 6397, which is self-funded by The News, Ishii estimates that revenue could reach up to $10 million, a level, she says, that would still enable them to keep their tight edit of signature pieces. “Twisted seam jeans, loose skinnies, pima cotton crewneck tees,” she explains. “When you get into numbers bigger than that, it’s a larger audience, and then you’re obliged to put things into the line that you’re kind of like, ‘cringe.’ Like a tighter jean.”
Karlson adds: “Our interest is not to explode the brand or anything. The beauty of this is that Stella works with all these awesome designers, and sometimes they grow quickly and take off. But with 6397, The News owns the destiny. We just want to build something that’s really great.”