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Stephen Kayne, president of Chaser, on how the rock-infused label keeps cranking out the hits in the face of epic market turbulence.
Chaser made its bones in a contemporary adult fashion, having launched in the late ’80s and earning a loyal following through fusing a love of music and a vintage-inspired aesthetic that’s produced a steady stream of ultra-cool, comfort-driven styles. Phrases like “Support Local Bands,” “Vinyl Junkie” and “Woodstock—Peace, Love, Music” have been top sellers over the years, as well as album graphics from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers like Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Journey, Grateful Dead, ACDC, Styx, David Bowie and Tom Petty. In fact, the Los Angeles-based company’s name comes from the album, Straight No Chaser, featuring jazz great Thelonious Monk. From its inspiration to its design aesthetic to its roots in Los Angeles, Chaser is all about the music.
“Our customer is anyone who loves classic rock and hanging out,” says Stephen Kayne, president. That list includes plenty of celebrities. (It is an L.A. brand, after all.) Recent sightings include Lisa Rinna, Kristin Cavallari, “The Bachelor’s” Colton Underwood and Disney recording artist Maddie Salute, as well as the celebrity offspring of Matt Damon, Mario Lopez and Nick Lachey. Chaser styles also make regular appearances on TV, like “Grown-ish,” “Black Lightning” and “Real Housewives of Orange County” most recently. The brand nails that sweet spot of fun retro yet fresh, making it accessible to a broad demographic of men, women and kids. Chaser is one of those rare brands that has achieved such bandwidth without selling out somewhere along the line.
Chaser has repeatedly found ways over the years to adapt and evolve to stay on top of the fashion charts. It has expanded to incorporate more trend-driven silhouettes—like printed rompers and patterned dresses beyond its range of casual, cotton-based core tees, sweats and denim. And while the brand’s easy-going identity rings true as ever, Kayne says its approach to fit, fabrication, hand-feel and construction is hardcore. The design team regularly experiments with new yarns and dyes for an art-meets-fashion look that’s uniquely Chaser. The team is not content to rest on it greatest hits.
When it comes to Chaser’s kids’ collections specifically, a category it entered in the late aughts, the focus is on color and variety. That’s what has set the brand apart from the competition, according to Kayne. “We’re very good at forecasting colors and are not afraid to try a variety of silhouettes,” the exec says. “Even our basics remain a top-seller in kids’, because our core program is enhanced each season by different trend-driven design elements—from ruffles to anticipated hot colorways like pastels and neon accents. We’ve also incorporated several elements of athleisure in response to today’s streetwear-inspired market.”
It wasn’t long after Chaser’s entrance into the kids’ market that Kayne joined the company. He’d been working for a few years for the private label maker Fortune Fashions when he was brought in as a partner, circa 2011, by an old friend who launched the company. It was a good fit from the get-go. The kids’ division was still relatively small, and Kayne applied his background in children’s production to grow its market presence. The process was relatively seamless, and success quickly followed. “It just seemed like a natural extension of the line because we were able to incorporate some of the graphics we used for our adult line and tie them into kids’,” he says.
But like any good musician, expanding the playlist has been Chaser’s key to long-term success. Kayne’s decision, for example, to dial down the brand’s focus on graphic assortments and expand into more neutral So-Cal themes has helped earn a much wider following. Chaser has since pared down its offering of classic graphics, and the assortment now consists of almost 50 percent new styles each season. “We still like to revisit and update successful graphics from the past as there are some evergreen designs, but we’re always trying new trends to keep the assortment fresh,” Kayne says.
For Fall ’19, that means a mix of heavier knits and long-sleeve looks featuring playful prints as well as a few signature nods to rock and roll. “We’ve seen growth in tossed all-over prints in the last few years,” Kayne says, noting that much of the line’s inspiration has been drawn from the women’s market. It then gets “kid-ified” with whimsical accents like lollipops, popsicles, rainbows, unicorns (of course) and other G-rated graphics. Recent hits include the girls’ tees, “More Tacos,” “One Love” and “I’m a Triple Threat.” On the boys’ side “Power to the Pizza” and “Wingman” are examples of the brand’s “cute enough for kids but cool for parents” vibe. Kayne says the overriding theme of late, and expected again for this fall, is nostalgia. “Kids are picking out our clothes because they respond to the comfort and colors, while parents are responding to nostalgia,” he says, adding that parents also want to coordinate with their kids more than ever. “They want their kids to associate with experiences from their youth—games, movies, TV shows, bands, etc.,” he says.
To further meet that demand, Chaser has partnered with Disney to introduce Star Wars licensed apparel for the whole family. Kayne says parents respond especially well to nostalgia-driven licensing. “It’s a perfect example of something our adult customers and their children can enjoy together,” he says.
Despite a difficult retail climate overall, Chaser’s business has been on an upswing of late. The brand is now distributed in hundreds of stores in North America as well as a few locations in Europe and Asia. The consolidation, however, has hit Chaser’s department store partners especially hard, Kayne says. “There’s an alarming shift in how people are buying product,” he says, noting why a diversified distribution portfolio is key today. “We distribute on all channels, while being conscious of the fact that our backbone comes from our wholesale distribution.”
The upheaval at retail means all bets are off on what might come next. Many of the old rules simply no longer apply, and stalwarts once thought invincible are crumbling in defeat. Meanwhile, upstarts operating under new business models are bursting onto the scene. How many industry insiders saw, even three years out, the apparel rental business catching fire like it is, or the subscription box service exploding in popularity? Technology is enabling consumers to change how they shop. While disruptive, it also provides plenty of opportunities. Companies that are agile, quick and smart will be suited best to deliver what retailers need and consumers crave. Kayne believes Chaser possesses all those qualities. At the same time, he says the recipe for success today demands listening closely to what the market is saying. It can’t be a one-way conversation. “One of the best things we can do is listen to what our retailers want and incorporate it into the line as effectively as possible,” he says, noting the importance of respecting retailer boundaries. “We can’t dictate everything and expect it to be a successful, long-term partnership.”
Fortunately, the apparel business has some built-in strengths that even the so-called Retail Apocalypse can’t shake—starting with the average consumer not likely to walk around naked anytime soon. How clothing is being manufactured, shipped, marketed and where it’s sold is rapidly changing. But Kayne believes the demand overall is as robust as always, you just have to chase it down. “People are still going to shop,” Kayne says. “You can’t digitally download your wardrobe. Well, not yet at least.”
Any advice on how retailers can survive this tough time?
Every retailer has a different point of view—something that’s unique about them. They must play up that strength and tell a story as to why you’d want to come shop at that particular location. As a retailer or a brand, if you can’t answer what makes you special, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
What has Chaser been doing to assist its retail partners in getting their stories across?
We always put our retail partners first. For example, we ship to them before we sell it on our website, and we won’t go on sale until well after they’ve had an opportunity to sell the product. We’ll also do special cuts for them. For Chaser to succeed, our wholesale efforts must remain our priority.
What has been the biggest challenge facing your business of late?
The cost of acquiring a consumer is getting increasingly expensive as more and more brands come into the space. There aren’t that many platforms to reach your customer, so all your competitors are there bidding for the same set of eyeballs. The competition is tougher than ever. What’s more, everything is instant and with global reach. There is no room for error. If you miss out on a trend, it’s already too late.
Chaser has found a way to survive and thrive through 30 years of ups and downs. What do you attribute its longevity to most?
There’s great communication amongst our team. We work well together. We don’t have much micromanaging in our company culture. Everyone has a sense of their responsibilities, and they’re given enough space and freedom to be creative. It’s all about everyday well-being—the pleasures of doing your job without someone breathing down your neck.
How might have your private label pedigree prepared you for growing Chaser’s business?
I learned a lot about the children’s market from a retailer’s perspective—what they want to put on their floor, why and when. We have applied a lot of this thinking to our line when determining graphics and silhouettes for a season.
What’s your take on the athleisure trend—any slowdown in sight?
I think it’s only becoming bigger, and it’s here to stay. The clothes are comfortable, easy to wear and look cool. Comfort is everything these days, especially for kids!
How about the growing trend of boutiques stocking both adult and children’s collections. Does that have legs?
We’ve seen it, and I think part of the reason is because of the overall consolidation. It’s seen as a way to drive revenue. However, it really depends on the type of retailer and whether that’s the best approach. Some stores are never going to want to be associated with kids’ product, particularly very high-end retailers. Not everything works for everyone. If you’re going to carry both, I think the layout works best by allowing the single woman or man to not feel like they’re shopping in the kiddie section.
Another industry trend involves retailers ramping up private label efforts in response to brands expanding their direct-to-consumer programs. As a former private label person, is this a wise move for retailers?
Let me just say first, having come from private label, I couldn’t wait to get away! But it really depends on the retailer. It’s hard to compete with bigger guys on price when they are working on much bigger volumes, and if your product doesn’t have a distinct point of view, then forget it. I also believe that most boutique shoppers are looking to be on-trend, and branded products are the best way to go. They are helping drive those trends. Brands are putting a lot of energy into marketing and looking to partner with retailers to help develop their brand identity. They want to help push traffic to the store. It’s all tied into the social media component, which is particularly helpful in unifying a brand and its retail partners. So, to answer your original question, I think we’re better off if brands and retailers work together to drive sales, rather than go our separate ways.
Speaking of going separate ways, is the escalating trade war and subsequent tariff hikes impacting Chaser significantly?
We certainly feel it. If the war continues to escalate, then I anticipate an increase in the cost of goods will be passed onto consumers. We have already been hit with pricing pressure in almost all of our raw materials, but so far we’re holding back on price increases, and we will for as long we can. Of course, there are limits and if the pressure continues, we may have to address our pricing.
What is your strategy in presenting Chaser on social media?
People still respond best to puppy pictures! [Laughs.] Kidding aside, we just want to show our product in the best light possible. We want to show how people live and feel in our products. This means showcasing everything from flat lays to lifestyle shoots. It’s a mix across our channels that works best. For example, we’ll post pictures on our children’s account, showcasing parents and kids together. It’s just one of our ways to celebrate the mini me movement of late.
How’s the feedback to those efforts?
We get a lot of great feedback through our social channels. In fact, a lot of our marketing strategy now works through Instagram with a heavy focus on influencers. I don’t think we’re unique in that, but it’s definitely been a great tool for us. We typically don’t pay influencers—only on occasion. Overall, advertising on Instagram has become an important part of our budget as we watch this shift in how consumers shop.
Taking into account this shift in shopping, what might the typical childrenswear store or department look like in five years? How might the experience be different than now? Convenience will still be everything. As a result, selections will only grow more curated. Retailers are trying to stand out with a less-is-more mentality to give customers an experience they can connect with and aren’t overwhelmed by. At the same time, customers will only demand more of a wow factor from retailers, meaning the selection and service must be on point to survive. A store—especially one down the road—better give someone a good reason why they should come in rather than shop from their couch.
What is your top goal for the rest of this year? Continuing to strengthen our relationship with our retail partners and think outside the box when it comes to the next designs we’re putting out on the market.
What do you love most about your job?
I love seeing the product when we finally get the real feel of a finished line. We have a little game where our team makes friendly wagers as to what the best performers will be in a given season. The fashion business should be fun. I think a lot of people often turn small things into crises, and all that drama and stress is, ultimately, a waste of everyone’s time and energy. You really need to focus on the big picture and move on from things that are insignificant to the day-to-day business. Like I always say, don’t sweat the small stuff—just keep looking ahead.