Discerning consumer palettes may scoff at having to meander through a cavernous department store, weaving in and out of racks of Garanimals, women's hosiery and then up an escalator to look for bedding. But, increasingly, they're having no problem turning to their favorite specialty retailer or apparel brand to outfit not only themselves but their residences.
As brands that managed to snag the attention of Millennials flex their niche power in a struggling retail landscape, they're now aging up and evolving to fit the needs of their audience. That's translated, in many cases, to expansion into the home category.
"The power right now is in the niche market and the people who have great ownership of their market are doing well," said Greg Armas, founder of the contemporary boutique Assembly, with locations in New York and Los Angeles. "Our business is up at brick-and-mortar 20 percent and online 45 percent from last year. It's really hard, but at the same time, the proof is in the pudding and we've been able to push the numbers and, for us, it's just fine-tuning the stores and online so that it's accurate. It's not for everybody."
Assembly is in the process of developing a very small collection of home items consisting of objects, furniture and art pieces. These include a solid marble container Armas described as having a "sacred or ceremonial quality" and priced at around $350. He's also working on an $800 folding-style chair of which he has prototypes that lend themselves more to modern art than backyard barbecue, and there's a collection of concrete bowls with a decorative marble swirling that will range from $120 on up to $600. Who would pay for such pieces?
The same person who comes into Assembly and admires a top with no sleeves and 10 buttons, Armas said.
"Two things happened that were kind of the same thing: I grew up," he said. "I opened the shop over 10 years ago and my client base grew up as well. They're now at a different place in their lives because they bought a home or are cooking for parties. Maybe they're 40 and they're not going to bring a Starbucks [gift card] to a party. It's more maturity than an inclination [to launch home]."
Trade shows have taken note on the wholesale side with Liberty Fairs bringing its Living Room home goods section to the Las Vegas show floor for the first time in August where brands such as Empire Apothecary and Kidd Epps showed. The Essentials section on the Agenda Long Beach show floor materialized in January for retailers to stock their shelves with grooming products, candles and textiles among other items.
Apparel or accessory brands that have cultivated a loyal following are operating in a similar fashion.
Australian handbag and jewelry brand From St. Xavier told WWD earlier this year it had plans to expand into small objects for the home.
Los Angeles contemporary brand Rails, which is known for its supple, rayon women's button downs, is expanding into men's and kids but also has its sights eventually on home.
The fabrications already lend themselves into doing items such as blankets or bedding, said Rails founder, owner and designer Jeff Abrams.
"I think once you establish your credibility and you have a loyal customer base, those customers want things from us because they value us," Abrams said. "They value our creative aesthetic and what we're bringing to life on the fashion side, so there's no reason they also wouldn't be interested in having us be part of their home. We're not going to all of a sudden become a home brand, but we can certainly contribute to a capsule."
Women's e-tailer Modern Citizen opened a showroom at its headquarters last year and the space prompted inquiries from customers who liked not only its apparel, but the space's aesthetic and wanted something similar for their homes.
"We felt like there were definitely a few items here and there where we could re-create that look and feel [of the showroom]. So there was a hole in the market," said Modern Citizen founder and chief executive officer Jessica Lee.
Lee's company tested home late last year for holiday with items such as table tops, coasters, vases, stationary and office items.
A pop-up at the downtown Los Angeles mixed-use project Row DTLA opens its doors in November, giving Modern Citizen the chance and space — at 1,000 square feet — to further test home, including slightly larger, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces.
While the category's sales aren't expected to eclipse the company's apparel revenue, it presents growth opportunities at certain points in the year, especially around holiday when the company plans to bolster its online assortment with more than 50 additional stockkeeping units, according to Lee. The trick is to not lose sight of the brand.
"The traditional department store, their biggest benefit to the customer is they have endless options that cut across categories," Lee said. "For customers, that experience can feel overwhelming. Where retailers like us, the newer online brands, we're really focused on a target customer. What we're offering her is not an endless breadth of sku's. We're not offering vases from $5 to $500. We're taking a focused approach."
Hedging one's bets by covering the spectrum in pricing or brand options isn't as necessary if one already knows the customer.
"Buyers are really curating products; it's more specialty," said Adele Tetangco, cofounder and vice president of merchandise and brand at Garmentory, a platform for emerging designers and boutiques. "If you think of the way [boutiques] curate their clothes, they each have their own unique point of view and that makes you want to spend a little more. The pieces are more special even if the price point is higher."
And there's the rub. Larger retailers certainly are no stranger to delving into home. H&M did it a few years ago and even opened a shop-in-shop in Selfridges late last year. Forever 21 sells home decor and then there's department stores. The difference is specialty brands, for the most part, don't have to rely on coupons, sales or any other concession to entice customers.
Last year, Garmentory, which started out with a focus on apparel when it launched it 2014, officially added the home category button on its site to be in step with more and more of its boutique partners that were carrying home. The company then began signing artists and home stores directly to its online platform, beginning with Minh's Little Pot Shop of Curiosities out of Brooklyn in the fall of last year. Garmentory currently has five artists and seven homeware stores in its fold.
"Apparel's always going to be strong, but it's important to have home because this segment is growing older, so they're nesting," Tetangco said. "That's why stores are carrying home and baby stuff. It's not the same as when we were 20. When I'm going out now, even if I'm on vacation, I'm not just looking at clothing that I could wear. I'm also looking at little things I could dress my home up with."
About a year ago, online specialty boutique The Dreslyn introduced the home category to its customers, who turn to the retailer for Raquel Allegra T-shirts, capes from Ryan Roche or any number of other carefully selected designer finds for their closets. Now they can come to the retailer for a $134 set of marble cutting boards or a $2,500 Tabula Rasa cashmere blanket. While the category was aimed at being something additive for the existing Dreslyn customer, it also brought a new, more aspirational clientele to the store. The same went for the beauty category when The Dreslyn launched that this year.
"When you have products that are pretty universal, people don't have to be sized; it's not something you have to fit into. And the prices are much easier to get into," said founder Brooke Taylor Corcia.
The buying strategy for the store is more intuitive than it is an exact science, she said.
"We are targeting a specific genre of people who share our love of certain products [and] a certain image," she said. "In the days before online e-commerce, your traffic was really localized. We're not a specialty store with a limited audience; we're a specialty store with a broad audience."
As the overall retail industry grasps at all things digital to make shopping more exciting or anything "experiential," jumping across to new categories for some brands is just as key as, say, adding digital kiosks, a food component, customization counters or any other number of services to inspire people to shop.