The namesake store of New York native Elyse Walker opened in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood in 1999, years before social media entered the conversation and e-commerce became a mandatory. The concept was a cherry-picked selection of styles from fashion’s top luxury collections.
“When we started, we wanted to be the best-curated store,” Walker said of her goals 18 years ago. While that mission is still intact, Walker maintains that staying nimble rather than adhering to a set plan is key. “I feel like, in business, you always need a strategy – but following the organic nature of your brand is how you really succeed,” she said.
On a recent call from Los Angeles, she mapped out her road to success, plus she explained how she has differentiated her brand and what she’s doing to remain competitive.
Inside Elyse Walker’s Newport Beach location
How did you get into the fashion industry in the first place?
I’ve been working since I was in fifth grade. I grew up working in my dad’s office — it was a shoe wholesale business — and then my mom opened a shoe boutique when my brother and I were in high school. I worked there all through college, and I went to all the shoe shows. When I’m asked how I learned to run a business, I’m like, “How could I not?”
Were you tempted to jump into the family business and skip out on school?
It’s hard to bring creative ideas to fruition without some sort of business sense, and I knew that. But I did want to get through school really quickly. While I was in college, after working in my mom’s store, I opened a shoe store — it was a family business — in New York, on Madison Avenue. I went to college in the morning and night, and I ran my store.
What was your vision for Elyse Walker, when you finally decided to go it alone?
I decided to move to L.A. and it was a very saturated market. I knew our point of view had to be very specific and precise — and we’ve kept that point of view. As a whole, we’re edgy and a little bit sexy, and our style is confident — our clients are definitely confident. We carry over 250 brands, but it’s an edit. If you’re in the mood to shop the whole Gucci collection, you’re still going to go to the Gucci store.
How did your partnership with [contemporary retailer] Revolve come to be?
Seven years ago, I launched elysewalker.com. I realized very quickly that dot-com is a whole other animal. We had a lot of brand support, but we were running our own e-commerce, as many brick-and-mortars did, from the back of our store. At about at the same time, Revolve launched something called forwardforward.com. I knew what they were trying to do, but they really didn’t have many brands at all. It’s very hard to build those relationships. So I basically called them, and I said, “If you’ll be my operators, I’ll bring all the brands.” Five years ago, we merged and created forwardbyelysewalker.com.
Lately, it seems you’ve been launching more and more designer collaborations; I know you recently teamed with Virgil Abloh of Off-White.
Because we do a really good job in that sector, designers are now coming to us to partner, which has been great. We don’t deal with everyone, just like they don’t ask to partner with everyone. But it’s one of those things that, once you get it going, it sort of takes off on its own. Sometimes we’ll launch a brand, or we’ll endorse it, or we’ll collaborate, or we’ll do a capsule. It’s great for us, because it gives us even more credibility with the clients. And we truly work side-by-side with the designers. It’s not just telling us which styles we can have as exclusives. It’s like, “No, our customers want shredding.” and “No, we like the longer length.”
How much of your inventory is made up of these exclusives?
It’s still probably less than 10 percent, but we may get to 15 to 20 percent. Exclusives are important — people like to see you have exclusives — but designers make the best pieces for their collections. You don’t want to use dollars on exclusives and not have budget left to buy a designer’s main collection. It’s a tough balancing act.
Elyse Walker’s Newport Beach store
How are your in-store and online experiences connected?
We have different buying teams for in-store and online — I works with them both, and we all travel together as a team. It’s like our secret sauce: We have the brick-and-mortar flavor on our dot-com, and our in-store gets to have the support of our online. I would say about 80 to 85 percent of the product is the same; online’s a little younger, of course, and in-store has a bit more basics.
Has social media changed the way you operate?
Social media has never been so important, and it’s growing, growing, growing. About a year ago, we hired a full-time social media person for in-store, and for online, we have an entire team. It’s something we’re working on every day, which is relatively new.
You’ve also been working on your site…
When we first launched the site, I thought we needed an e-magazine, but we finally decided to just cut to the chase: Here’s our story, here’s our edit. The same with our app — it’s easy to navigate, and there’s a consistent look. You may not be a Forward girl or an Elyse Walker girl, but people can see something and say, “Elyse Walker.” They know it was styled by our team.
You host a lot of events for your “girls.” How important are these?
We have an event almost every week. We’ll also host designer dinners, we’ll do trunk shows, we’re doing a thing for Coachella, … When I talk about changes over the years, it’s not just social media. We certainly didn’t have in-house marketing and PR teams when we started. Today, I think they’re vital for any business to flourish. The customer is very savvy, and she has a lot of choices, and she wants to be engaged and to have access. I’m always thinking about new ways to give her that, even in my sleep.