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Boy Wonder

With a keen eye for fashion thanks to a decade of design experience, Kapital K’s young founder Spencer Sujjaporamest helped usher in a new era …

With a keen eye for fashion thanks to a decade of design experience, Kapital K’s young founder Spencer Sujjaporamest helped usher in a new era of dapper apparel for little dudes.

By Audrey Goodson Kingo

Browse the aisles of any children’s boutique, and it’s hard to imagine a time when boys weren’t bedecked in dashing herringbone blazers or retro graphic tees. But just a decade ago, the kids’ market offered far fewer choices for trendsetting little guys. Before the success of brands like Andy & Evan and La Miniatura, the conventional wisdom held that rough-and-tumble little boys, unlike their stylish sisters, simply weren’t interested in fashion. Give ‘em a T-shirt and athletic shorts, and let ‘em go play.

Boy, were we wrong.

If any brand illustrates the fallacy of that line of thinking, it’s Kapital K. Before Andy & Evan shook up the boys’ world with their shirtzie and before Project Runway winner and La Miniatura Founder Jeffrey Sebelia blazed into boys’ with skinny jeans and tuxedo jackets, Kapital K Founder and Designer Spencer Sujjaporamest quietly came on the scene in Spring ’09 with a boys’ brand that was anything but subdued. While Sujjaporamest’s first collection certainly offered traditional staples, like hoodies and T-shirts, it was the brand’s sophisticated details, like trompe l’oeil ties on classic tees, that put Kapital K on the fashion map—and helped Sujjaporamest pick up his first few retail accounts.

“I did a lot of research before I launched Kapital K, and I found that the market was pretty saturated with girls’ lines—there are a lot of pretty dress lines with sequins and all that—but it really lacked a cool boys’ brand that looked like it came off the menswear runways in Milan,” Sujjaporamest recalls. “I came from high fashion, and I thought it was the right time to bring that fun, sophisticated and really cool look to kids.”

At the time, Sujjaporamest was working as the founder and designer of his own semi-eponymous women’s label, Spencer Sirichai. But the young designer and Parsons grad had previously racked up years of design, production and merchandising experience at an array of children’s companies, including Rashti & Rashti, Children’s Apparel Network and Kids Headquarters (now owned by apparel industry giant Li & Fung). Not to mention, he grew up in the garment industry, helping with his family’s manufacturing factory in Thailand. Add it all up, and it’s no wonder that Sujjaporamest was perfectly poised to spot a gap in the boys’ market, and to design, produce and merchandise a collection so well suited to filling the niche.

And that’s exactly what happened. Now, Kapital K is carried at more than 200 retailers, including online giants like Amazon and Look.com, as well as in a number of overseas boutiques in Japan, Australia, Korea and Kuwait. Following the success of its core collection, available up to size 6, the brand also introduced a baby line last year, as well as a capsule collection, dubbed Mr. K, with a more formal touch. And thanks in part to his experience in the character licensing arena at Children’s Apparel Network, Sujjaporamest hints that he’s not afraid to look into licensing deals down the road, particularly in the footwear category.

It’s all part of his master plan to turn Kapital K into a lifestyle destination for little dudes—a goal that definitely seems achievable with the recent spike in style-conscious kids of both genders. Nowadays, trend-driven boys’ apparel is almost ubiquitous, thanks in part to designers like Sujjaporamest, who helped foster the notion that boys could be comfortable and cool at the same time. It’s also helped that menswear has become more refined, and that parents are increasingly seeking dapper looks for dads and dudes alike. (Think bow ties, boat shoes and cardigans.) Sujjaporamest also credits the growing demand for stylish boys’ looks to fast fashion chains like H&M and Zara, whose affordable price points have introduced high-fashion trends to an untapped slice of the consumer market. “Even Target is doing the same thing,” he points out. “You go into Target now, and it’s not the traditional stuff you found five or 10 years ago. It’s all high fashion.”

There’s also, of course, the irresistible lure of the web, where shoppers can browse everything from the latest couture looks from the runways of Milan to grungy-chic street style in London’s East End. “Everyone wants to look cool, and thanks to the Internet, information is passed on to consumers so fast now,” Sujjaporamest points out. “You can look up #coolfashion right now [on Instagram] and start getting inspired by how people are dressed—and it trickles down from adults to kids.”

It all adds up to a boys’ market that’s more competitive than ever. But Kapital K’s intrepid designer isn’t discouraged by the number of new brands on the boys’ fashion scene—quite the opposite, in fact. “It’s great that we have more and more competition,” he asserts. “It makes us want to be better and better.”

UPCLOSE with Derrick Veillon

What superpower would you love to have?
I would love to be able to talk to animals because a lot of times I don’t know what my two dogs, Cosmo and Bailey, are telling me.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a wonderful young adult novel called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

What’s your favorite way to spend a free afternoon?
This is bad, but I like to binge watch Downton Abbey.

What three things could you never live without?
The first one is easy. I never leave the house without Chapstick. Netflix is my second pick, then frozen yogurt.

How does Kapital K stand out from the competition?
Price point is definitely one way. Everything is pretty affordable, especially for the looks that we offer. We’re always a little offbeat, a little downtown and very high-spirited. We’ve always known that we want to offer high fashion shrunk down, and that’s our calling—offbeat but very versatile fashion. But our main goal was to do it at a very affordable price point.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere! A lot of time it surprises people where our inspiration comes from. Sometimes it’s from watching people in the street, but a lot of times it comes from fashion shows, trips we take, books we read, art work, fabric—it’s everywhere. Sometimes we even get inspiration from women’s shows. For Spring ’14, we got really boyish with the collection, and the two themes we ran with were bugs and nautical. I don’t want to say we went crazy with all the bug stuff, but we definitely went over and above. There are even ants crawling over the pockets, and that’s one of our bestsellers. We never get too literal, but when we have an inspiration we try to find a way to make it fun, unusual and one of a kind. When you look at our collections, people usually tell us they have never seen anything like it, and we take that as a great compliment.

How did you grow the brand in the beginning?
The very first time we went to ENK Children’s Club was back in 2009, and that’s how we got our first accounts. But even before we went to the show, we did a lot of research. And we had a lot of helping hands from our friends and family in the industry that I’m grateful for. After a couple seasons, we started working with showrooms, and that’s been a great help. From there we started having stronger strategies and marketing plans. In the beginning, we didn’t really have a social media presence. We didn’t start that until a few years ago, and that has helped tremendously too.

Tell me about your social media strategy.
Right now, we’re on Facebook and Instagram. We’re pretty active on Facebook. Our efforts on Instagram are really, really light, but we’re going to amp it up a bit. We don’t do every outlet. We pick a few that work for us, and we stay there. Facebook has been great for us, and we think Instagram will be, too, once we get that going. Social media is like fashion—you have to keep evolving with it.

Did your previous stint in the fashion industry help in the beginning?
My past professional experience has helped a lot. My design experience helped me tremendously in merchandising the line—how to plan it out at the beginning of every season so everything works at the end. From how many colors we offer to how many tops or jackets or pants, it’s all a big math equation at the very beginning. It’s a puzzle, and we have to put it all together. And my production experience helped a lot because it gave me a really good understanding of how things are made and to keep costs in line with our margins and with the wholesale prices we offer. It really gave me a good clear plan of how to launch the line. When a lot of people start out they’re so focused on design and sales, they forget about production.

And overseas production can certainly be a challenge!
Definitely. I would say 95 percent of our merchandise is produced in Thailand, and Thailand increased the minimum wage by 35 percent in the last few years, so that became a big challenge for us to overcome. Another challenge with importing goods from overseas is timing. You have to boat it, and that takes at least a month. But if you work backwards and plan smartly, you can almost always get it done right. It’s certainly not without challenges, but we try our best to get it done right.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a designer?
You have to stay true to yourself. If you have a point of view, you have to stay focused on it. At the same time, you have to listen to feedback and try to make your collection better every time. Fashion is such a business of evolution—you have to evolve every season.

Do you incorporate feedback from retailers?
Definitely. We always get very helpful feedback, sometimes from smaller boutiques and sometimes from big retailers, and it all helps. Every season, we gather all the feedback and try to determine what’s the most important and what works best in terms of staying true to being Kapital K. At the end of the day, our name is on everything we do. So feedback is important to us when it’s applied right.

Kapital K is carried at hundreds of retailers across the country. How do you please everyone?
That’s why we have a lot of SKUs in our line. Not everyone is going to buy the same items, but there’s something there for everyone, depending on how you want to put your assortment together. For Los Angeles, the look is more laid back—T-shirts do well over there, and a couple of our light jackets. On the other hand, I don’t want to say New York is more fashionable, but it’s more thought out. Kids in New York tend to get into fashion more than in Los Angeles.

But comfort is key for boys everywhere, right?
Boys just love to run around—T-shirts are always their go-to item. For everything we design, we always have that in the back of our minds. Is it comfortable for boys to wear? Is it easy for mom to put on and take off? That’s a big factor.

Kapital K is sold everywhere from small boutiques to Amazon. What’s your take on mass e-tailers?
We look at Amazon as a way to promote our brand, a self-driven PR machine. We always think of it as a nice way to be in the same arena as other brands. At the end of the day, it benefits our boutiques as well, because customers can go online and they can shop competitively. They can come to the store and get the customer service that they might not get from the big retailers, or they might be able go to Amazon and get an incentive, for example, a sale or something the boutiques might not be offering at that time. We think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship—for us, for the big retailers and for the boutiques. It promotes competition, and I think everyone benefits at the end.

What made you decide to branch into the baby arena last year?
We kept getting requests to go into bigger sizes, but we went lower, and we did that because we knew there was a void in the market, and we had a really clear vision of what we would offer in a newborn collection. It’s still very fun and sophisticated and high fashion, for baby boys to look as cool as their big brothers and dads. We do all kinds of fun coveralls, with a lot of details you don’t necessarily see in the market, like printed sneakers on the toe caps, so it looks like he’s wearing shoes, or wing tips, so it looks like he’s going to work. I think little details like that set us apart from other brands, on top of the quality we offer. Last time we even did a line within the line called Mr. K, offering blazers for baby. It was more of a dress-up line, but nothing for us is really dress up—you dress it down with a pair of jeans, but the items are there for you to mix and match. We paired them with really nice knit denim pants that were super comfortable but looked like real denim.

How did it perform?
Really well. It keeps getting bigger, and this fall, we even added a section for layettes that’s more gifty and more precious, but still has those cool, fun Kapital K touches.

Any other areas of expansion in the pipeline?
Right now we’re happy with what we’re offering, and we’re trying to make it better and better every season, so we’re focused on that. However, we are going to look more into distribution overseas. But no other big plans right now. We’re just doing what we think we do best.

What’s been the biggest challenge of late?
It’s definitely the market climate. A lot of times you hear unemployment news, and then the market goes up and down. Maybe it’s too much news. Maybe people have to stop watching the news and get to the stores. [Laughs.] It’s been like that for quite a few years now—I don’t want to say it’s been unstable, but it’s definitely been up and down.

That’s one reason why retailers are watching their dollars more closely, and buying more immediates.
Absolutely. Retailers who would normally come to ENK two shows ago to buy for the next season now show up for immediates or maybe one show ahead of time. They don’t want to buy so far in advance anymore. It all goes back to what we discussed. In fashion, it’s so fast now. You can’t predict what’s going to be hot in six months or a year. And with the economy the way it is, many retailers want to come at the last minute when they know their budget and know what people want. So the landscape is changing a little bit.

Have you shifted your business at all as a result?
We’re still showing our collection in advance, in a slightly traditional sense, and then when you’re ready to come, we’ll take care of you.

Looking ahead, how do you feel about business in 2014?
We always have a positive outlook, and we do the best we can, but nobody has a crystal ball. Hopefully if we talk again next year, I can say to you that that we had a good year. We stay positive, and based on everything we’ve seen so far this year, I feel like it will be a good year.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love interacting with people, but I’m always going to be a designer at heart. I love getting ideas in my head, putting it on my computer, drawing it out on paper, getting it made and making it come to life, from 2-D to 3-D. I personally fly to the factories to get the samples made so they come out correctly, and every time I get so excited. It went from what’s in your head, and now you’re holding it. Of course, then you have to sell it. [Laughs.]

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