For the past 10 years the sibling duo of CHRISTOPHER & NICHOLAS KUNZ have risen in the fashion ranks to represent one of America’s brightest fashion stars taking their designer brand, NICHOLAS K, worldwide. Their sublime Spring 2015 collection placed 3rd in our top 10 list of shows during New York Fashion Week and the duo recently returned from showing in Milan at the bequest of DHL & IMG. The Impression sat with the duo to talk urban nomads, inspiration, showing within days of each other in both NYC & Milan, and their future plans.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
First, congratulations! Your recent collection was just spectacular. It showed in both New York and Milan. Tell us about the influence for this season’s collection.
NICHOLAS KUNZ: We were inspired by Isabella Eberhardt. She was an explorer in the late 1800s that traveled through North Africa to protect against colonialism and help the poor. She dressed as a man to get through that territory because those times were difficult for women. She had a really rich life and history. Our women’s collection is utilitarian and men’s wear influenced so it kind of fit our brand DNA in general. We utilized more of the utilitarian elements- the environmental and social aspects she had to deal with. We had a very North African feel with the head wraps, layers, and scarves that could be worn as skirts. We have very versatile clothing fused with more masculine elements.
How did you discover Isabella? She’s a bit of an obscure character.
NICHOLAS KUNZ:We were looking for independent and strong women explorers from that time period. We also came across Gertrude Bell, who was also very interesting, which led us to Isabelle. We found a film on Isabelle that was made in the 60s or 70s. I think a lot of those stories are coming back.
You two have developed a very distinctive urban nomad look. How would you say your look has evolved over the years?
NICHOLAS KUNZ:I think its become more refined. I guess our goal is to be more focused and defined as a brand. We’ve never been about trendy collections that become irrelevant after a few seasons. We see each collection as building blocks for the next collection. When someone buys our brand we want them to be able to build upon what they already have- streamline it, define it, make sure it’s evolving every season.
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: When you start you have an idea of what you want but you let the market move you in different directions, though you do have a baseline. Even though you have your identity you still listen to sales and people. As you mature you decide what you want to offer and you focus on that. In some ways you become more specific. In today’s market there are so many brands and offerings, you do need to figure out who you are and really stay with that.
NICHOLAS KUNZ: At a certain point your brand has maturity to it. Our goal is to make it as defined and elegant as possible.
How did showing in both New York and Milan come about? That’s a really unusual situation.
NICHOLAS KUNZ: It was through a program that DHL and IMG were working on. They wanted to bring designers that were at a certain level to different markets and give them an opportunity to enter a market with much more impact. You could always go do the sales trade shows in different countries but without proper marketing, there are thousands of brands and it’s hard to stand out in a different country. It was a competition that we basically won. DHL and IMG exported us over there and collaborated with Camera Nationale De la Moda Italiana (CNMI) and set us up with an amazing team of people to work with.
What was it like to do the same show back to back?
NICHOLAS KUNZ: It’s a whole different experience. In New York, there are maybe 200 shows going on. In Milan, there are maybe 40-50 shows and they’re all huge brands. There’s a certain intimacy in Milan that’s not in New York. New York is a much bigger venue- it has a much more commercial feel to it. The Lincoln Center is all built up, but in Milan you’re showing in an old villa and it’s so historical. It brings you to a different mindset. Chris and myself have both lived in Italy so it was an amazing experience, just very different from New York.
Could Milan tug at your heartstrings and reel you back?
NICHOLAS KUNZ: It was pretty emotional. It’s rare that you get such an experience like that. The venue was absolutely breathtaking. Our workspace was set up in an old villa.
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: It’s always a huge production and by the time it’s finished you’re exhausted. When we thought about it we were like, “Wow, we have to do that twice.” Normally we have six months between shows and we can catch our breaths again. Actually this time it was restful-we still worked a lot, but everything was done so well that it was such a nice environment to work in. A lot of the things we would normally have to worry about we didn’t have to worry about. There were people taking care of everything.
You’ve been in business for a little over 10 years now. So what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing building your brand today?
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: Well I think it’s resources. One of the things about moving overseas is that there are so many little things. You can find someone to do sales or distribution, but it’s difficult to find the right people. Also, if you want to do trade shows there is a certain consistency that is required in Europe. People need to see you at least a couple of seasons in the same place and get to know you before they place an order. As that develops you need to find people to do PR and continue the momentum as a brand.
NICHOLAS KUNZ: I also think the economy in general has been tough for everybody in the past 5 or 6 years, especially in Europe. So when you’re not from that country and you’re abroad trying to start a business over there, if you don’t have people set up to do everything you need, it’s very difficult.
What do you hope to achieve with the business and the brand over the next few years?
NICHOLAS KUNZ: We’re trying to go a little more direct retail. We’ve launched our own e-com and were spending a lot of time updating that and updating the technology involved with it. We’ve found a substantial growth in our direct sales, so we’re really focusing on that. We want some really specific partners. People’s ideas on how to run businesses have changed over the past few years. Previously, there was a lot of direct communication with nurturing the brand, but when you’re working with stores that carry a gazillion different brands, the relationships are not always there or developed. The people we’ve continued to do business with have kept a really strong relationship. They know exactly what they want and those are the people we’ve been able to grow strong with. It’s offering more personal service and an old way of doing business.
What is the ideal relationship?
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: For us, stores that have larger orders and focus on collections, which means their stores are a little bit more directional, have always been the best retailers. They reorder every season and have customers that come back. As you’re growing you’re always excited about an order, but you don’t really think about whether it’s the right store that can build the brand. There are stores that focus on buying little bits of everything. Those are stores in which the relationships don’t work out well. They are not necessarily buying the right things- things don’t retail the way they should. Stores that are consistent and buy the right things have customers who come back.
Are there any plans for an accessory collection?
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: We have done accessories in the past-inconsistently. But this season we have three bags so were planning to continue expansion of that.
How do you market and what would you love to do if you could?
CHRISTOPHER KUNZ: Oh boy. You mean if I had an unlimited budget? (chuckles) We have somebody in house that has both production and post production skills that could develop a lot of great content. Direct retail and working more closely with celebrities… I think in today’s day and age that business is very very strong.
NICHOLAS KUNZ: Celebrities are always tricky for us because we have celebrities asking for our stuff, but they really have to fit the brand. Most of the celebrities that are featured every month in US Weekly or People Magazine are not the type of people that would wear our things.
So who or what type of celebrity is a fit?
NICHOLAS KUNZ: It’s more of the type that aren’t overtly pushing themselves in the media. It would be the Halle Berry’s. The people who have a lot of talent but aren’t always in the media. It’s not something we’ve been focused on.
Well we can tell you two have been focusing on the right things, as the collection is spectacular. Good luck on the next. And to your next Milan experience.