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Six Things to Know About Selling Clothes in a Tough Market

Recently relaunched Alex Mill has enjoyed enough early success to open its first retail store ahead of schedule. But even with the backing of retail guru Mickey Drexler, startup life isn’t always easy.
Alex Mill will open its first store in New York on June 13, 2019 | Photo: Courtesy
By
  • Lauren Sherman
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — Something a little weird has been happening at the Soho offices of Alex Mill, the men's shirting label revamped and relaunched earlier this year as a men's and women's essentials business by entrepreneur Alex Drexler and designer Somsack Sikhounmuong.

"Once a week, we'll get a knock on the door, and it's random customers thinking the office is a shop," explained Sikhounmuong, a 16-year veteran of the once-hot, now-troubled J.Crew Group, where he last held the role of chief design officer.

While there’s nothing for sale at the Alex Mill showroom, the spontaneous visits allow customers to touch the clothes and also talk, sometimes, one-to-one with the label’s founders. Their parting gift? A free tote.

“It’s a way of meeting people and hearing feedback,” Sikhounmuong continued. “And it’s been interesting to see that people want an Alex Mill retail space.”

So, four months after relaunching the label online, Drexler and Sikhounmuong decided to follow the feedback. On June 13, with the backing of their investor, Drexler Ventures — the fund founded by retail guru and former J.Crew Chief Executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler, Sikhounmuong's former boss and Alex's father — the team will open a physical store at 63 Greene Street, just a few blocks away from their office.

When BoF first revealed the relaunch of Alex Mill, plans for brick-and-mortar stores were far from cemented. Instead, Drexler and Sikhounmuong aimed to focus on e-commerce and building out their wholesale business, which includes partnerships with Nordstrom, Mr. Porter and Barneys New York. And while these channels remain essential to their growth plan, like more and more early-stage ventures, Alex Mill are betting on the importance of owning the in-real-life experience, too.

When an opportunity for a short-term lease in Soho — something that wouldn’t lock them in for a decade — presented itself, they decided to take the risk. (The store is slated to remain open through the fall.) It also helped that sales have outpaced projections, surpassing revenue goals each month across both the men’s and women’s categories, according to the company.

“We saw good early traction in the business, and there was a good opportunity for the right sort of lease,” Alex Drexler said. “It made sense.”

But despite having Mickey Drexler as both financial backer and advisor, not to mention significant know-how of their own, the team discovered pretty fast that building a startup brand without the support of a big corporation comes with a degree of freedom — and plenty of limitations.

Here's what they’ve learned so far:

There's a lot more to do. Both Mickey Drexler and Sikhounmuong spent their careers to date in the corporate world, and the lack of resources associated with growing a start-up has been a major adjustment.

“I’ve always had enormous assets of people to do stuff. In a startup, you all do stuff, then you do 10 other things at the same time,” Mickey Drexler said. “You don’t have the big bank with you to pay...everything is spent as if you’re writing your own check. That’s different.”

For Sikhounmuong, a tiny team has meant changing the way he manages his time. “If you need something done, it’s you who has to do it,” he said. “You’re the layers.”

You can execute more quickly. When Alex Mill released its collaboration with Brooklyn vintage shop Front Street General store, it was able to sell the resulting products (reworked vintage army pieces) on Instagram via direct message, something independent retailers often do but would be harder for a big company to pull off.

“The items launched at noon on Wednesday and everything was sold out within a few hours — like a trunk show, but via the Instagram account,” Sikhounmuong said. “The scale of what we’re doing allows us to do that sort of smaller, scrappier stuff, which has been awesome for me.”

The future is (mostly) direct. While Alex Mill plans to maintain its partnerships with multi-brand retailers for the long term, the focus is on driving direct sales in order to maintain healthy profit margins. While multi-brand retail is useful as a marketing tool for smaller labels, it isn't necessarily the most advantageous way build a lasting relationship with the customer. "Ultimately, this is a direct business," Alex Drexler said.

Physical retail can be powerful. While data from e-commerce and retail partners has helped to steer the label, it's not enough. The Drexlers and Sikhounmuong believe that opening a store — where customers will be able to try on the clothes and experience the physical manifestation of what the brand stands for — will allow the team to cull deeper insights.

“Because it’s so early, we don’t have tons of data to go off of,” Alex Drexler said. “We’re still learning.” He and Sikhounmuong are both eager to fit the clothes on more people, and to use the space as an additional marketing tool, showcasing the entire line alongside collaborations with brands like Marais and Bata Heritage.

“The risk was worth the potential reward,” Mickey Drexler said. “Whether it works or doesn’t work, we’re willing to deal with that so that people can see what Alex Mill is as an alive business.”

Algorithms only get you so far. Many young startups are fixated by the notion that data will improve everything, from sell-through rates to forecasting consumer demand. But while artificial intelligence and predictive analytics can give merchants and designers an edge, the team at Alex Mill says they still rely on instinct to create hit products.

The label's flight suit, which is utilitarian in style but more tailored than the traditional version, was a runaway success, far exceeding sales projections. Months before it was available to purchase, editorial publications were already featuring it — including US print edition of Harper's Bazaar. By the time it hit stores and e-commerce, it sold out immediately, generating a near-instant waitlist. For summer, Sikhounmuong designed a short version, and the brand has bought heavily into the style for fall.

“No computer will tell you what the future life is of a good style,” Mickey Drexler said. “You’re always guessing at the quantities you’ll sell.”

The popularity of the piece, a version of which has already been done by virtually every one of Alex Mill’s competitors — including Madewell and Everlane — helps to prove out the reason for the brand’s existence, which is to make the best version of the items most people already own. Along with the jumpsuit, the men’s work jacket and pleated chinos also nearly sold out within two weeks.

"Despite all the clothes out there, we felt there weren't the right clothes at the right prices, with the right fabric and the right fit," Alex Drexler said.

Emotional design still matters. When Alex Mill pivoted from a men's shirting label to a men's and women's lifestyle line, it wasn't really offering anything that was already available in the market. But unlike some so-called "Instagram brands" that have popped up in recent years that aim to fill a white space with box-ticking items, its focus on quality and specificity around details and fit has differentiated it. (Even the consumer who lives in basics is looking for the next better thing.)

While it’s too early to tell whether Alex Mill will succeed in today’s increasingly challenging retail environment, damaged by discounting, the flood of product and the mounting weight of all the “stuff” we own, it’s interesting to see that intentional design can still be a hook.

“Emotional design will always get me as a consumer,” Sikhounmuong said. "The brands that have emotion and the level of integrity make me stop and double-click.”

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