An Interview with Kiya Babzani, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part interview with vintage-style menswear and yoyo impressario Kiya Babzani.  If you haven’t already, check out the first part at: http://thecrossfire.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/an-interview-with-kiya-babzani-part-one/

Sneaker Review Videos and Kiya’s Rick Owens Story

Touching back on finding about things on the Internet – with something like superfuture, you now have people exposed to designers like Rick Owens at the age of eighteen, whereas before – you read about people like Shawn Stussy, getting Italian Vogue and looking for trends to start keying off on. But now – and I have no idea how they afford this stuff – these kids are going out and buying Rick Owens jackets.

Yeah. Did you see that video of that kid?  He does sneaker reviews.

Well, I think a lot of kids do sneaker reviews, right?

OK, but there’s this one… oh wow. He’s doing a Raf Simons sneaker review and then he wears them with his full Givenchy / Rick Owens outfit – the “Birds of Paradise” shirt, you know what I’m talking about? He’s in his parents’ living room. It’s really good. It’s really, really good. It was posted to superfuture, that’s how I knew about it. You’d die if you saw this thing. It’s really, really good.

The Rick Owens quote(*) was really good – you have to work and work and work!

Exactly – you don’t have to go to parties.

No!

I think it’s a good point though. In order to do something useful, you have to do enough of it so you can throw out the bad ideas, yes?

Right, it was well said. It was funny and well said. You know he ordered a bunch of stuff from us?

Yeah?

Yeah. It was a funny story, we got an order on the online store a couple of years ago and it’s for four or five different items – a couple of Iron Heart things, a couple of Flat Head things.  And the credit card was declined over and over again… and then it went through finally – and that triggers a fraud alert for us. So I’m looking at it and thinking – OK, it’s going to Paris, it’s going to Owenscorp – I don’t know what that is! It doesn’t have someone’s name on it… so I e-mail the person, I didn’t even put it together – Owenscorp. So I e-mail the person and she says, “oh it’s for Rick – he wants these things, sorry if the credit card didn’t go through – he just wants it sent to his studio. And I’m thinking, “holy shit, this is Rick Owens.” It’s his assistant e-mailing me!

So we go back and forth and we send him his order. I remember I put in a copy of Sidney [Lo]‘s book [Taking Pictures of People Who Take Pictures of Themselves], because there’s a couple of people wearing Rick’s stuff in there. And I wrote a note – “this is a good friend of ours, I thought you would enjoy the book.” I sent it to him and never heard back.  I was kind of curious if he even got any of it – they must have, but I never heard anything.

A year goes by and I get an e-mail from the woman at his studio – “Rick lost his favorite flannel [shirt].” It was a red buffalo check from Iron Heart. “Please send another one and charge us.” Well, that was a year before and we didn’t have that flannel anymore. But then I looked and in New York or somewhere, we had it in blue. So I e-mailed her and said, “well, we have it in blue” – and she replied, “no worries, mail it.  We’ll dye it.”

<laughs>

And that was the end of it. We sent it to her and never heard back. But I thought, “dye it? You can’t dye a buffalo check flannel.” But then I was thinking, “I’m not arguing with Rick Owens.” Maybe Rick Owens has this crazy-ass way of dyeing. It’s a blue and black flannel, how are you going to make it red and black? You can’t, it’s impossible!

That’s my Rick Owens story. But I just can’t imagine him, in any way, shape or form, wearing anything from our store.

Right. In the same way I can’t imagine you wearing Rick Owens.

Exactly!

Iron Heart Flannel

Fig. 1 – Rick Owens’ Favorite Flannel?

But why not?

The entire thing was so strange that I don’t understand it. Some of my employees in San Francisco thought, maybe he wanted it for research? And I was thinking, “research? These are heavyweight flannels. It’s Rick Owens!” He doesn’t need to buy these things. He knows all about fabrics and everything! He can make a phone call and get a mill in Japan to send him almost anything he wants!

Well, we are talking about Iron Heart right?

Yeah!

I love that brand. It has this certain will to it, like “we will try to find the heaviest things that cannot be put together or stitched together, and you know what? Fuck it, we’re going to do it.”

There is a limit to that. The weight game is out of control. It’s calmed down a bit, but there’s a limit to how heavy you can make a garment and have it still be wearable. It passes the point of being functional to being a gimmick and then, all of a sudden, beyond a gimmick – it’s not even wearable and you’re just selling something based on specification. I’m not referring to Iron Heart specifically, I’m saying in general. But Iron Heart is an amazing brand, still one of our top selling brands – people love it.

What Makes a Brand a Self Edge Brand

That’s good. I gravitate to brands that have a personality, you might say? Like there’s a purpose to it.

Yeah, I agree. A brand has to have one cohesive personality. People always ask us, “why don’t you carry Oni or Momotaro?” They’re great brands with great products – but where’s the personality in the brand?

You see a theme in all the brands we carry at Self Edge, they’re goofy, Japanese vintage-style brands that have a sense of humor about them – a personality that’s apparent through everything they do. It’s like an age-old hobby turned into a clothing line. You can say that about Iron Heart, Strike Gold, Flat Head, Real Japan Blues. But you have the other side of the Japanese denim thing – brands like Oni, Momotaro, Pure Blue Japan – great brands, but the personality of each brand is Japanese. They’re about the heritage of Japan and have Japanese imagery in their artwork. I can’t relate to that, because I’m not Japanese – I just can’t relate to those things. And I have to be able to relate to it in some way.

Maybe with our customers, a part of their personality comes out and relates to something from one of our brands.

Iron Heart vs Samurai

Fig 2. – Americana vs Japanese Heritage

Iron Heart is the easiest because it’s a fucking motorcycle brand. You either have a motorcycle, had a motorcycle or want a motorcycle. So it’s an easy sell – it’s motorcycles! And even if you don’t match any of those three things, it’s motorcycles. Motorcycles are fucking cool! Even if you’re scared of them, you can’t say motorcycles aren’t cool. So the Iron Heart thing is one thing and one thing only – motorcycles. They make motorcycle-inspired clothing – that comes along with something that’s very real and today.

Yeah, you’re right – it’s like punk, a visual vocabulary that everybody understands.

With Flat Head, they’re into hot rods and motorcycles and rockabilly and music in general – records and guitars. They have this huge personality that you can somehow find something you can relate to. But then, you take all these other brands from Japan which are also awesome brands, but – what does anything in Kapital’s collection relate to my life, or my customers’ lives? And people say, it doesn’t have to relate to anyone’s life, it’s a good product – and I want to buy that indigo-dyed thermal. And I’m thinking – well yeah, it’s a cool product [but]…

Does that make sense?

Is this because, if you can’t relate to it in a way, it makes it harder…to sell?

To convey the message?

Hmmm, how should I put it? You write all the descriptions on everything you post [for sale online], right? I’ve noticed there’s always a story to it in some sort of way.

Right!

Is it more of a matter of that? Or do you just want to focus on the things that you can get behind?

When you have a retail store and you’re the owner and buyer, you have to sometimes remove yourself from the store and think, OK – I can’t only just buy for myself. But at the same time, I look at all my customers we sell to and I think, “does anything this brand from Japan says or does relate to their lives in any way?” And if the answer is, “no” – which is true for many brands – you have to think, “well, that’s not very fun.” Because otherwise we’d carry every Japanese denim brand.

Flat Head has an employee named Kyle, who’s an American – the first time they’ve had an American employee. He nailed it recently on superfuture(**), even without me saying anything. He got it – he used to be a customer of ours before he started working for Flat Head. The items Self Edge carries are Americana, whereas the rest of the brands that we don’t carry, most of them are not necessarily Americana – they’re more Japanese heritage-style brands, but inspired by Americana. So it’s a five pocket jean and a flannel, but the inspiration and imagery comes from ancient Japanese textile manufacturing and dyeing.

So more on the Visvim side of things, like the noragi?(***)

Yeah, exactly.

I suppose you could stock fifty different Japanese denim brands, but then if somebody walked into your store then you’d have to explain one versus the other, right?

Yeah – we already have so many models, so what are we really adding by adding another brand, you know? Of course, if someone wants to buy Pure Blue Japan, they can buy it – Blue in Greene carries PBJ, almost the entire line up – it’s not like it’s unavailable. There are very few Japanese brands that are unavailable in the US.

“People treat [Self Edge] as a community center and I am totally OK with that.”

SENY

Fig. 3 – One of Four Self Edge Stores, 157 Orchard St

On the subject of your stores – you have four stores and you’ve obviously put time into the way they look, and you also have online and I assume you do a fair share of online business. I find it difficult to conceive of one without the other, as it relates to you.

I do too, but there are businesses – successful ones – that don’t do business online. The online store ships out of our San Francisco store for all intents and purposes. The other three stores, the only sales that come through those stores are people who walk in the door. So we definitely see both aspects of it – a retail store that’s selling in-store and online and three stores that only sell in-store. Obviously it’s a big challenge, because once you break that one store barrier – what you’re saying is, I think I can sell product well enough to be able to open a store that is only selling to people walking through the door. In today’s day and age, it’s difficult – it’s a challenge. And sometimes we wonder, “why do we keep opening stores?”

That was going to be my follow-up question!

<laughs> Why do we keep opening stores? Why don’t we invest the time and effort into our online store? Which we have now, our online store launches soon and it’ll be completely different. I’m kind of scared, it doesn’t look at all like our current online store.  The day it launches, we’re all going to look at it and think, we no longer look like a small company. Our current online store was designed eight years ago and hasn’t been changed since then. That’s unheard of – that’s wrong in the Internet, you know?

So you do the online store out of business necessity?

Yeah, you just have to. And the other thing is – without the online store, it would be very difficult to do collaborations because there are production minimums. When you do a jean, the brand says you have to do two hundred pairs. Now we have four stores, but seven years ago we had one. So you have one store but the brand says you have to order two hundred pairs of jeans. You can only imagine that you cannot sell that number of jeans of one model that quickly in-store. So you need the online store to back that. Now, it’s a little different – we have four stores, so the minimums don’t mean anything to us anymore. But at first, we had to have the online store.

Also, with the Japanese it’s all pay up front – there’s no terms. So as a small business, you can imagine what it’s like to pay for two hundred pairs of jeans and hope to god you don’t sit on them for long.

So you can imagine not having an online store, can you imagine having an online store with no brick and mortar?

Oh, that would be terrible.

<laughs> So that would be a no?

No… for me, there’s no love in online – you’re just moving units around.  You never get to meet anyone. The closest you get is an e-mail from a happy customer. We get e-mails all day, but it’s just a name and an e-mail address. The real amazing thing about being in retail is being in your stores, meeting customers and helping them pick out a jean or a shirt or a wallet. And that personal communication between two people is amazing. Any retail store owner will tell you that. The only ones who won’t, only do online! <laughs>

Maybe I’m put off a little bit, spending so much time in New York City. You don’t get that feeling going into boutiques here…

I’ve noticed! <laughs> New York City is a very unique place in that regard. Before I started Self Edge, I had two other retail stores. I loved going into retail stores when I traveled. And part of that was like going into a record store where the people weren’t dicks. You go in and want to talk about the product – and that leads into you buying something, right? You’re not going into a Duane Reade and buying toothpaste.  It was an experience and the whole thing.

So I did Self Edge and the requirement was – I told the employees, “people are going to come in here and they’re going to want to hang out. You’re going to hang out with them.” This was before anyone got hired. “You’re going to hang out with them and it’s part of the job. People will treat this as a community center and I am totally OK with that.” I’m totally OK with people coming into the store and not buying anything, just hanging out and talking about the stuff. It’s fine. And the idea of that transferred when we opened in New York. But it wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized – what we’re doing in New York is very unique, with the vibe of the store. Because I started going to other stores in New York – I’m not necessarily talking about direct competitors of ours, just retail in general in New York – the vibe’s very different here.

I would also say that crosses over to the big ticket restaurants.

Yes!

I put together a top ten of my restaurant experiences and maybe there’s one in New York City, it’s really remarkable.

Customer service is not the top priority for a lot of businesses here.

Maybe it’s customer service towards the people who are the high rolling spenders that come in? But this is my pet theory that this is why there are no stores in the city that stock a brand like acronym and why Visvim couldn’t keep an independent, small boutique account (****)

Because you need the whole package to go along with it? You need the sales associates and the feel of the store to go along with it?

Yeah! In some ways, the best way to sell a thing is to be really passionate and really into it and in some way, communicate that.

Right, right

…and for whatever reasons, that didn’t happen with those brands in the city.

Getting It Right

With this heritage focus thing, there are a lot of brands that have come out and tried to do “workwear” / heritage. I’m thinking Todd Snyder working with Champion plus Adam Kimmel and Carhartt.

And there’s Russell Athletic being re-released by John Lofgren, have you heard about this?

No I haven’t.

It’s all made in Japan, loopwheeled sweats and tees branded with the vintage Russell Athletic branding.

Russell Athletic Archive

Fig. 4 – Russell Athletic by John Lofgren

Are there any of these brands that you’ve looked at their stuff and thought “they got it right” that you’ve yet to work with professionally?

I thought the Russell Athletic line looked good, but I never got to see it in person… I’m assuming if John Lofgren was behind it, it’s going to be great – but it’s really hard to say without actually seeing it in person.

We picked up his John Lofgren line, actually – we start carrying it next month.

Any other brands you’re looking to bring in that may be unexpected? I notice you snuck bagjack into New York and I don’t think I saw anything about it…

We didn’t put anything online about it, but they made those bags for us. When I went to Bread & Butter in Berlin, I hung out with Errolson [Hugh] from acronym and he was telling me about bagjack and how they make all the acronym bags. He told me to visit their store – it’s right down the street from the acronym offices. So I went to their store and I thought – jesus, this stuff is insane! And fairly inexpensive for the type of technology they incorporate into it. So they made us a couple of sets. They didn’t make us that many, we have them in three of the four stores in two sizes.

Cool. Any last thoughts?

No, this thing went quick!

Thank you very much for your time!

Of course, anytime.

(*) I’m unable to find this now – mostly due to my personal disorganization, but also because the Internet as experienced through a social media timeline only moves forwards.

(**) Kyle’s post is here: http://supertalk.superfuture.com/index.php/topic/10622-the-flat-head/page-274#entry2963446

(***) The noragi is a three-quarter length sleeve shirt with a front similar to a kimono. It’s traditionally associated in Japan with field workers (the sleeve length is cropped to not interfere with scything), so I can imagine it’s considered to be a “workwear” piece there in some odd menswear parallel. The greeters at the Uniqlo flagship in New York City where them, the semiotics which are probably worth a blog entry in itself.

(****) This is highlighted by the closure of Atelier in NYC. Eugene Rabkin wrote a great interview with its founder Karlo Steel for the Business of Fashion: http://www.businessoffashion.com/2013/12/op-ed-goodbye-atelier.html. The most relevant quote is below:

“I had a friend tell me somewhat flippantly that he didn’t think there was any juice left in this idea of a multi-label boutique,” said Steel. “His prediction for the future retail landscape is that we will be littered with flagship stores that are there to promote the brand. This idea of a boutique, things from all over the place, is a hopelessly oddly 20th century idea.”

“I laughed, but inside I was crying, because I felt maybe there was some validity there.”

Photo credits:

1, 3. Courtesy of Self Edge (http://www.selfedge.com)

2. Iron Heart courtesy of Self Edge; Samurai is a Crossfire in-house job

4. Russell Athletic Archive (http://russellathleticarchive.com)

Many thanks to Kiya for his time and forthrightness and many apologies to his PR company!

One thought on “An Interview with Kiya Babzani, Part Two

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Kiya Babzani, Part One | Caught in the Crossfire

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