In the spring of 2013, Stirling Barrett decided to forgo putting a down payment on a house in order to launch Krewe, a sunglasses line based in his hometown of New Orleans. By the fall of 2014, Beyoncé had been spotted in the brand’s frames and the company was shipping to 10 countries. Since, Krewe has reported an average of 200 percent year-over-year growth. It has three brick-and-mortar stores and over 200 wholesale accounts, including Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Club Monaco.
Those retail relationships are especially cushy, complete with an annual weekend-long party in New Orleans called Krewe Fête, meant to educate both current and prospective accounts on what the brand is up to. This year’s event will kick off on October 13.
Krewe sunglasses in production
A handful of editorial contacts attend, too — Vogue included. Naturally, that means Anna Wintour is a fan — she’s profiled Barrett twice in the magazine (photographing him alongside one of Krewe’s most influential groupies, Gigi Hadid) and featured his styles many times over. What’s more, the brand was a 2016 CFDA Fashion Fund finalist and will be formally inducted into the CFDA in October.
It’s an impressive trajectory for any brand, let alone one without venture funding, which Barrett initially believed would be hard to secure, given his desire to stay in Louisiana. “We set out to do something from a place no one would expect,” he explained. “Until we proved that we could do it in New Orleans, we weren’t likely to get support from funding sources; people probably would have seen it as impossible.”
Now that he’s proven that notion wrong, Barrett sees no reason to court extra funding.
He attributes Krewe’s success with self-funding so far to a cash-flow model, divided into thirds between its e-commerce site, wholesale accounts and brick-and-mortar stores, the latest of which opened in New York’s Soho neighborhood earlier this month. Deciding to expand beyond the south (Krewe’s two other stores are in New Orleans and Dallas) came down to sales data. “We saw a lot of growth online from the New York area — it was one of our biggest cities — so we knew we had a lot of diehard fans up there,” said Barrett.
A pair of sunglasses from Krewe’s latest collection
New York being such a global city and a fashion capital doesn’t hurt, either, especially for a brand set on continued growth. Nevertheless, Barrett has no intentions of moving the Krewe’s headquarters — now with almost 40 employees — out of Louisiana. “My office will forever be in New Orleans” he said.
We caught up with Barrett before he took off to Paris Fashion Week with the CFDA to chat further about the importance of brick-and-mortar in today’s landscape, how he makes wholesale worthwhile and why Amazon’s got nothing on niche brands.
Why is opening stores still so important for a brand today, in our digital landscape?
It’s a complicated question. I think that commodity-based brands are struggling with both in stores and online. If you make a product — like T-shirts or jeans, for instance — that a company like Amazon can do well, it will be a struggle to succeed, because the margin will keep getting smaller and you’ll just keep getting cut out.
But where I’ve seen brands succeed today is in more niche areas, like one-of-a-kind sunglasses or one-of-a-kind shoes, where they’re really building a focused brand. Amazon can’t knock off that kind of brand. They’re already a giant brand; they can’t be this niche, cool brand, too. But to be [the latter], it’s really important to invite consumers to come hang out and see who you are in person, to see your Instagram come to life.
Inside Krewe’s new New York City store
You’re a big believer in wholesale retail, at a time when many are opting for direct-to-consumer only. How do you hack that?
When we’re partnering with wholesale retailers, the biggest criteria for us is: Can they tell our story? Can they embody who we are, beyond these frames? Because it’s not just about the frames. Yes, the quality is amazing, the designs unique and they come with a lifetime warranty — but that’s all fleeting if customers can’t understand who we are, where we’re from and why we’re making this product. Niche brands today have a huge storytelling opportunity to take advantage of. Customers who buy in want to go to their friends and expound on that story.
So, to succeed in wholesale, it’s less about the name of the account, and more about the way we service them. Every wholesaler wants to tell people’s story — that’s how they get people engaged with the brands in their store — so it’s really on us to make sure we’re servicing our retailers in a positive way. We have someone on our team whose sole job is to go host product-trainings with the staff of both our major doors, including Bloomingdale’s, and our smaller, regional boutiques. We’re always communicating with them. Our wholesalers are hearing the same thing as we are — that retail is dying — but we’re showing them how we’ve kept our sales up and [how to combat that] with the storytelling our customers respond to.
What metrics will you look at with the New York store to gauge whether to open another?
Let’s put the other store on hold, because we’re not a brand that wants to open 50 stores. We don’t even want to open 10 stores. But, as a self-funded company, EBITDA profitability is really important to us. We have other metrics for a successful store experience, like: Are we servicing the customer in the way we believe they should be serviced there, and building brand evangelicals? Beyond that, it really does come down to a number, because we don’t have any money to burn. It’s not like we’re Warby Parker — who I’m a fan of, to be clear — which has never turned a profit and doesn’t need to, since they’re venture-backed. We must turn a profit to continue to grow the business.
Do you have plans for international expansion?
We have aggressive sales goals, and at some point, we’re going to have to start expanding outside of the U.S. But the U.S. is huge, and it’s our own backyard. It’s a lot easier to make a mistake here than it is anywhere else in the world. I would rather get really buttoned-up and understand what we do, how we operate and who we are before we start saying we need to go elsewhere.