How 3 Independent Brands (Chrystie NYC, Machus, Alumni of NY) Are Adapting To 2020's New Reality
2020 has been quite the year, to say the least. The pandemic set off a disastrous chain of events, from unemployment skyrocketing to record-breaking numbers to businesses closing indefinitely left and right. Like many other sectors, the fashion industry, as we know it, no longer operates the same. Countless retailers are scrambling to figure out how to navigate this new reality, with many brick and mortar closing for the foreseeable future. Millions are working from home, and for those adapting to a new "office" environment, that means a new, more comfortable wardrobe was put in place, too.
For many of these retailers, a pivot needed to happen to survive this unimaginable catastrophe. These brands no longer depend on their brick-and-mortar stores to drive in a massive chunk of their quarterly sales. E-commerce is now the focus. But how does a small shop, one that strongly depends on in-store foot traffic and in-person community support for financial success, prevail during such unprecedented times? In light of Small Business Saturdays, we spoke with three brands—all featured in the Complex SHOP marketplace—who are navigating this new world and how they're adapting to the times.
MACHUS - Portland, Oregon
"We've been in business for 17 years and haven't seen anything like this," says Justin Machus, founder of MACHUS based out in Portland, Oregon. For Justin and his crew, they took a step back to take two steps forward. A carrier of John Elliott, PLEASURES, Brain Dead, and Comme des Garçons to name a few, MACHUS is a staple on the west coast. He first opened his namesake in 2011 after running another store called Local35, a shop he founded in 2003. As supply chains began to crumble left and right as soon as the nation went into lockdown, the MACHUS team looked at their offerings and found a few solutions keeping their core customer base engaged.
"For us, the biggest savior was our private label," says Machus. "Doing our own product eliminated the middle man, and we were able to rely on ourselves for a product rather than brands and the now crippled supply chain." Their Private Label is based mostly on cozy washed cotton t-shirts, sweatshirts, and sweatpants. What was initially offered as basics is now a collection that everyone feigns for due to stay-at-home orders. "The other brands in the store have been decent, but unless they are more relaxed, comfortable, and classic, they aren't selling as fast." The retailer was just beginning to ramp up their raw denim selection and dressier clothing options from Japan. Before the pandemic, MACHUS had its own studio space next door used for photography, doing pop-up events, and occasionally, filling online orders. But due to gatherings being a thing of the past and high rent costs, they consolidated, and now, the MACHUS premises entirely runs out of 1400 square feet in their main store. What's next for Justin and his team? They plan on focusing on their private label product and will choose to safely stay open as long as possible.
Skateboarding culture, both domestic and international, is at the root of Chrystie NYC's foundation. Because of the pandemic, they've been forced to develop new strategies to keep their audience engaged. "The most challenging part has been adjusting ourselves in a different rhythm and work environment," says Pep Kim, Chrystie NYC's Brand Director. "But we are small enough to be very flexible depending on the situation, so we acted quickly to fix each problem." When faced with pivoting, Pep says their focus went to "improving production quality, creating good visual content, working with contributors overseas, and strengthening their online presence."
Chrystie NYC first started off as a passion project in 2016 between Pep, a photographer, and his friend, professional skater Aaron Herrington. The NYC-based clothing brand came to the scene to create something new based on the infectious energy of downtown NYC skate culture. Their clothing selection consists of branded sweatshirts, pants, outerwear, headgear, accessories, and more. In a changing climate, Pep and his team still remain optimistic despite the ever-changing environment. "Everything will be different in the future, but what's been important will be the same."
Alumni of NY
"At the end of the day, we're a retail business," says Jaeki Cho, partner, and creative director at Alumni of NY. "This was the year where we were planning to pivot into digital, holistically as a business. But due to the pandemic, that whole process had to be expedited. So that was definitely a significant challenge at the beginning." Alumni of NY is home to three brick-and-mortar locations: one in Crown Heights, another in Flatbush, and a third located in Flushing, Queens. Like many businesses across the nation, they had to close their doors for some time, but luckily, the city of New York had their backs.
The brand, established in 2014 by Gene Han, sits at the epicenter of diversity. Their stores are located primarily in Black and brown neighborhoods that, throughout the years, have been victims of gentrification. Still, Alumni of NY made it a point to give back to these communities during this year's unfortunate events. "We worked with a brand that we sell called On Running, and we were able to donate nine hundred pairs of sneakers to a local hospital. We also worked with New York Nico, where we did a t-shirt contest called Best Best NY Shirt contest. We helped with the production and ideation, as well as the order fulfillment." Because many non-essential businesses are still shut, for the most part, Alumni of NY locations are operating at a minimal capacity, and they're taking advantage of their spaces to fulfill online orders.