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You’ve got to love the holidays. In New York City, it’s that time of year when famous department stores like Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman build on their good will, pulling out all the stops to wow onlookers with awesome window displays based on cool and clever themes. Never fails: Gawkers are attracted to the window displays and foot traffic then flows into the stores. But the real challenge for all stores is carrying what prospective customers want to buy, and most stores don’t showcase high-flying window displays to help with that. Exceptional retail stores excel at attracting customers year round and I got the chance to talk with dynamic fashion retail entrepreneur Paul Birardi, who with his partner, Eddy Chai, founded ODIN New York, an ultra-hip menswear store known for its staff being as nice as the clothes are cool. Eight years later and three stores to date, not only is ODIN a success in the highly competitive, growing men’s category of luxury fashion, it’s cultivating its own lifestyle brand while continuously dazzling its shoppers with curated offerings from the likes of Thom Browne, Shipley & Halmos and Richard Chai to name a few. To top it all off, ODIN was a featured collection for The Shops at Target, for which Paul and Eddy delivered some twenty clothing and accessories pieces at wallet friendly prices Target is celebrated for. I spoke with Paul about the store’s origins, the role his business development skills play in ODIN’s success…and Norse Gods.
Sledge: As ODIN’s founder-owners, you and your partner, Eddy Chai, have created one of the most successful fashion retail stores in the country. I’d like to start with you sharing with MO.com readers how the origin of ODIN came about. How did you and Eddy meet? What lead to your launch in 2004?
Paul: We both had mutual friends; a mutual friend who had a store in the East Village we’d go to visit all the time (and) we realized there was no real place for any of the men over there to go and shop, and that’s originally how it all came about. We wanted to create this store where basically, Ed and I would both want to shop if we were over in the East Village. At the time, people didn’t really think the East Village was a viable contemporary price point.
Sledge: You know that old saying, “Location, location, location.” How did you guys decide where to establish your first store?
Paul: After about 2 months of going around the city and various parts of the city, we realized when we walked into this space (chuckles), as old school as it might sound, or, unrealistic, it was kind of a gut feeling when you walked into this space that it was the right space. It was the right area where we wanted to be, so, that’s pretty much how we made our determination on where we were going to open.
Sledge: Today there’s all kinds of buzz around the growing men’s category as the new frontier in luxury fashion. Major retailers like Coach, Mr. Porter for instance, have positioned their brands to capitalize on this, but you were way ahead of the curve with ODIN providing guys masculine, cool, stylish fashion choices back then. Was that just your passion, or, did you see something others didn’t far as where men’s style was going and tastes were concerned?
Paul: I think it was a combination of both. I mean I definitely think we both had a passion for it; my whole background has been within the retail environment, whether mass, or, luxury, or, mid-market – and Ed always had a design background, which is where he studied, so, I think it was a combination of: we really loved what we were doing, and we also knew that the economics behind it made sense because, there was definitely (particularly in the East village), there was definitely a change of who was living there, who was going over there, we saw better restaurants opening over there; we saw better women’s stores opening over there. But, you didn’t see any outlet for men, or, anywhere for men to shop and on top of it — if you did see something – men always seemed to be like a secondary thought for a women’s store. So, you’d have like 85% of the floor space dedicated to the women’s shop and then 15% for the men. And we wanted to create an environment that was definitely friendly to all to come shop and come see what we had, but was dedicated to men’s products.
Sledge: So you mentioned your background. You worked as a planner for luxury retailer, Barneys New York, then as a merchandising exec for Coach, and now you’re a truly authentic, bona fide fashion retail entrepreneur. How did those experiences shape the way you run ODIN’s business development today?
Paul: I think everywhere I worked definitely helped me. Prior to Barneys I was at Macy’s so, I’d done the gambit of the big, massive corporate retail; then family retail, because I was at Barneys when the Pressman family still owned it, and I was at Coach when Sara Lee still owned Coach and Coach was just leather products. So, I was there when it transitioned from that aesthetic to, pretty much what it has evolved into today. I think with anyone that does their job, you take the best from it and incorporate what you can. I think Barneys made me think outside the box: don’t just do what the natural standard is, pursue it how you see fit and who cares if no one else sees it fit that way; follow your own vision. And Coach was all about how to build a brand because I was there when the numbers were down and it was not looking good for the company. It was about how to stay focused and not just about product but about environment. One of the key successes for Coach I believe was not just the fact that they changed their product but they changed their environment for how the customer experienced that space. And I think for Ed and I it’s definitely been a critical part of how we wanted to build our stores and the fact that you should feel comfortable and have an experience being in the space.
Sledge: ODIN is such a cool, memorable name. In Norse mythology, he’s top dog, he’s Thor’s dad! Why that name?
Paul: That is totally Ed. Ed was very much into it as a child and in naming the store that was one of the first names that came into his head that he felt really passionate about. And as he explained the whole history behind it in more detail to me, it definitely made sense to name the store that.
Sledge: And in terms of the image of the store and the types of products that you sell, how does that name reflect you guys’ vibe, your culture and the type of customer you attract?
Paul: The name and also the Raven (logo), it’s like you’re almost going out to be the eyes and the sentry for somebody. That’s what you’re doing when you’re curating products – you’re curating the experience you want to show the customer, it’s kind of what we were doing – I mean – it was what we were doing. So, I think that whole logic fell into place in how we positioned the first store.
Sledge: So, tell me a little about the stores you have: There’s ODIN, the flagship; Pas de Deux, your store focused exclusively on women and DEN, your Pop-Up concept store showcasing one designer at a time every 3 months. It’s a very cutting edge business model, what’s the thinking behind it? Why does it work?
Paul: It’s all organic as the business grows. We opened the first store in 2004, we opened up the Lafayette (flagship) location in 2006 and as we were doing it, we realized retail was ever-changing and we saw how things were moving, and, we weren’t about doing collaboration because collaborations were really starting to saturate the market. So, the way we thought we could build a better platform for collections that we were bringing in that didn’t have a retail space of their own at the time, and had more product categories to offer than what we could fit in our space, DEN became a natural extension of what we were doing. So, in partnering with designers to give them the opportunity to experience a retail space of their own and create that environment, as well as, launch new product categories, it seemed to be within the same logic of how we were buying our collections and the way we wanted to grow the company. DEN became that for us – we were able to test products with these designers, as well as, test product categories that we didn’t have in ODIN. With Pas de Deux, we had a lot of female customers, whether they were shopping for someone else or for themselves, they were coming into the store, and we naturally wanted to give them something, but, not something that felt like, “Odin for women.” So, we put a totally different spin on it and Pas de Deux became the very feminine, basically ideal women’s closet, and that’s how we positioned that; it just became a different extension of the brand.
Sledge: ODIN thrives at curating a showcase for other designers’ cool brands: Shipley & Halmos, Rag & Bone, Thom Browne and Band of Outsiders all come to mind, but you’ve also done an exceptional job of cultivating awareness of ODIN’s own brand: scented candles, a hot men’s fragrance line, and a line of your own shirts. What made you realize ODIN wasn’t just a great name for the store, but a brand you could develop as well?
Paul: So the fragrances came about because we also have a grooming section that was part of what we wanted to do to offer various things to men within their lifestyle. With that being said, when we saw people trying on fragrances, it just became this immediate reaction of how a scent would make them feel and we saw this time and time again. So, instead of doing what I think everyone expected us to, which is build a clothing line around the ODIN name, we started with fragrances to build the brand. They’re unisex fragrances and right now we have eight different scents and we pretty much cover a range for everyone. It’s about timing and bandwidth and how we run the business. Don’t get me wrong, everything goes back to a financial component and how you want to improve your bottom line, but it’s also about wanting to feel good about something and that you’re in a position to do it. We’re still an independent company and I think all that plays a factor into when we make decisions about what we’re going to do and who we’re going to partner with.
Sledge: Your partner Eddy’s brother is Richard Chai, who’s a flourishing men’s designer in his own right, pretty remarkable. What would you say, knowing them both, is the greatest influence that has enabled two siblings to flourish within high fashion the way they have?
Paul: I think it’s about determination and their artistic visions as well. They’re both very passionate people and with that being said, they’re both very artistic, so, I think they’ve both taken avenues that have allowed them to express that.
Sledge: You’re a serious business development guy and this past Fall ODIN became part of a limited-time only collection showcase with The Shops at Target and Target.com. How did that opportunity unfold and how’s the collection doing?
Paul: People find it hard to believe, but it started with an e-mail from a Target executive requesting if we could please come in for a meeting. That’s how it happened, a simple e-mail, no context around it, so we had no idea what the meeting would be about, as they had not gone public yet with the concept. In August 2011, we went to a meeting in their New York office where they laid out the whole program and from there it was an entire year of very on time, structured meetings which was probably the easiest process we’ve ever had with anything we’ve done. I cannot speak highly enough about how well that whole process went for us. It was an amazing experience and we feel very fortunate to have been a part of that. The collection went very well, they were happy with the performance and my understanding is we exceeded their sales expectations.
Sledge: The holidays are upon us! What are you anticipating will become hot sellers at the stores this Christmas?
Paul: Well…everything we pick (both laugh)! I think it always goes back to classics, the go-to gifts. Cold weather definitely does well depending on people’s price points, hats, scarves go very fast. Unique gifts like personal electronics we’re providing do very well for us. GQ magazine named our No. 7 fragrance 2012 Cologne of the Year, and that’s having an exceptional selling holiday season right now.
Sledge: What’s trending for ODIN in 2013 you can reveal?
Paul: I think designer-wise, we’re seeing a lot of momentum behind Todd Snyder. I think since his launch his business has really moved on a fast trajectory for us, he’s really been a strong performer. People are getting back to suiting in a stronger way and they have for the last few years and I think that’s starting to grow. For a while you saw stores leaning one way or another, be that Americana, or, work wear, or whatever direction they wanted to really focus on, but our customers are not sticking with one specific look anymore. I think customers are breaking out of their own comfort zone and going from one look one day, to moving to a completely different look the next day. Our customers are not sticking to a specific look or aesthetic anymore and they’re taking more risks again.
Sledge: Paul it’s been a pleasure, thanks for talking!
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