Sartorial Stars: Julie Chaiken of Chaiken and Capone
April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
Julie Chaiken is the kind of fashion entrepreneur I really admire. Over the past two decades, she’s built a brand by designing great product and utilizing strategic business knowledge and steady management. She has an MBA from NYU, is a mom of two, and lives in San Francisco, after many years spent living bi-coastally. She’s doing things her own way, and after a short hiatus, she’s re-established the Chaiken and Capone brand.
Her original line, founded with Pamela Capone, revolutionized the pant market. Every girl I knew coveted the company’s signature boot-cut style; they were made of a thick, stretchy cotton that was cut in the most flattering way. As she grew the company, Chaiken eventually bought out Capone, and re-named the brand, Chaiken. She hired designer Jeff Mahshie to work with her as a Creative Director. The line evolved into a full collection that was shown regularly at Fashion Week, and praised by editors. Chaiken’s look was luxe minimalist, a way of dressing that’s regained popularity in fashion in the past few seasons and with those who want to make smart sartorial investments. Per the NY Times piece on quality basics, I’m sure that Chaiken and Capone will be hugely successful at retail.
The new Chaiken and Capone is an edited collection that’s encouraging women to switch out of their jeans, and into a proper pant. The suggestion is working; when I passed the Chaiken and Capone rack at a department store a few months ago, only a single pair of pants was left hanging on it. The dreamy stretchy fabric and the classic boot-cut are back, albeit in slightly modernized form. This fall, Chaiken will introduce 9 new pant styles that will be available at stores like Neiman Marcus Cusp and cusp.com.
Julie answered some questions for Truth Plus via email about her career, her business approach and the future of her brand.
TP: First off, I want to say what a huge fan I’ve been of your career and your designs. How did you get started in the fashion business?
JC: I started back in 1994, soon after I came out of graduate school.
TP: How did the idea for those iconic trousers come about? I and countless others are doubtless thrilled for their return. What makes them so unique?
JC: It was just about making a great pant. We played with lots of different concepts, and the stretch fitted, bootcut was the clear winner. We are offering a new cleaned up version on the current line. But we are also offering 9 new pant styles for fall, mostly great trousers. It’s time to get out of your jeans, and back into real pants.
TP: I know you have your MBA, something that’s fairly unique for a fashion designer. How has that education informed your business sense? It seems you’ve always been involved in all of the facets of your business.
JC: I have always been an entrepreneur at heart. Business school just helped me to hone those skills. I am very fortunate to be in a business I love, so instinct is a huge part of what I do. When you are the owner/founder of a company it helps to know all the jobs and be able to do them. Over the years, I have been everything from boss to floor sweep.
TP: You took a break from the fashion scene. What made you decide to come back? It seems you have come back doing things the way you want.
JC: I took a break to be with my kids, now 5 and 7. Now that they are in school full time, timing was right from a personal perspective. From a trend perspective, pants are what it’s all about again. I do them well, so I’m excited to be back in the market.
TP: What are your plans for the Chaiken and Capone brand?
JC: Right now, Chaiken and Capone is the brand that we are putting into the market. Ultimately, I will make a lifestyle brand incorporating different categories to satisfy our customer.
TP: What is your view of the current retail landscape? So many specialty stores have closed over the past few years, and department stores can be tough to deal with. Will you be focusing on your e-commerce business?
JC: Yes, we will be adding an e-commerce focus, but direct to consumer is still a way off.
TP: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a designer, a business woman and a working mom?
JC: The biggest lesson is to be patient. I have gotten much better at taking my time with decisions, and waiting.
When I was younger, this was very difficult for me. My kids also teach me this lesson each day. Being a mom is a humbling experience, and I am a better person for it.
TP: What’s your advice for young designers entering the business?
JC: Take a business or accounting class. Learn the business of the business. You can’t be a good designer or merchant without understanding the big picture.
TP:What do you think of social media’s impact on the business? How are you using it?
JC: Social Media has had an amazing influence on the business. People now have access to information and trends that you wouldn’t have dreamed up when I started back in the ’90’s. We are only beginning to use it effectively, so stay tuned.