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In 2011, Liz Eswein was among the first of her friends to get an iPhone, and then the first to download an app called Instagram. She tried to get the handle @Liz, but it was taken. The same goes for @LizNYC. Oddly, @newyorkcity was not. Today, that account has 1.5 million followers. It is also a crucial part of the marketing and brand identity of the cult favorite brand New York or Nowhere, which Eswein co-founded.
Eswein quietly launched the brand in 2020 with Quincy Moore, founder of the shuttered lifestyle brand Knowlita, which sold apparel and prints. “New York Or Nowhere,” the phrase, had been the IP of Knowlita and first appeared on that brand’s apparel. In 2020, it was spun off as its own brand with its own Instagram account, which now has 138,000 followers.
The first products by New York or Nowhere — aka, NYON — were digital, which was a savvy move on the part of Eswein and Moore. The duo started to build a community and capture that community’s data by offering free products, like digitally downloadable phone backgrounds, in April of 2020. Before there was even a product to sell, the founders “leveraged the [@newyorkcity] account” and Eswein’s unique “influencer” status to build the brand, Moore said.
“[Through the digital downloads] we had been acquiring customers,” he said. “We’d been giving them stuff for free, and then, once we had a product to sell, we had already endeared them to us. We knew they liked it. At that point, it was like we lit a match, and it kind of exploded.”
In April 2020 came NYON’s first physical products: postcards sold with stamps — at the height of Covid, when going out to purchase stamps became impossible. Net proceeds were donated to the Food Bank For New York City. They sold out within an hour, Eswein said.
NYON’s first official apparel drop was the “Confetti” collection in June 2020, which coincided with Pride Month in NYC. It kicked off sales with pre-orders, a decision made with the intention to mitigate risk, and was almost instantly profitable. “We drove to Massachusetts, which is where my production facility was then, and literally packaged and shipped 2,000 orders, just the two of us,” Moore said, of the brand’s early days.
NYON’s success, to a certain extent, comes down to its ability to “productize an emotion,” Eswein said. Both the @newyorkcity account and the @newyorkornowhere account provide a “touchpoint for people to experience the story of New York through rose-colored glasses,” she said. The duo take a decidedly positive view of the city.
“We’re trying to spread joy and happiness and bring people together through a shared love of something — and that happens to be New York,” Moore said. He joked that he’s almost surprised there hasn’t been backlash yet, as the brand was created by “two white people talking about how great Soho is.” At the same time, particularly given the challenges faced during Covid, it seems an opportune time to celebrate the city — and clearly, Eswein and Moore are not alone in wanting to do so.
On October 22, NYON graduated from being a Covid upstart to having a covetable retail space on Lafayette Street in NYC. The founders signed a 10-year lease on the space. The design borrows decor motifs from NYC iconography, like the Grecian-inspired old-school coffee cups, the Statue of Liberty’s color scheme and the deep green of a Central Park bench. From its opening day, lines have stretched down the streets of Soho. The brand’s most classic items, including its plain slogan sweatshirts, are completely sold out in every size. However, Moore did say that “the perception of things being sold out is important to increase demand. So, there’s strategy behind it.”
The company has spent nothing, literally, on customer acquisition. “We don’t do any paid ads, we don’t do anything of that sort,” Eswein said. It has been helped organically by the fact that celebrities are fans. In August of 2021, during filming for “And Just Like That,” Sarah Jessica Parker (as Carrie Bradshaw) carried the brand’s Ludlow tote. When record-breaking Yankees star Aaron Judge wore the New York or Nowhere Crosby hoodie in October 2022, the brand’s sales of the style hit $20,000 in 24 hours. Two weeks ago, Lindsay Lohan sat court side at a Knicks game wearing a piece from an upcoming collaboration between NYON and the NYC basketball team.
It should also be noted these completely-sold-out sweatshirts are not cheap — most are around $125.
Recently, in celebration of those who completed the NYC Marathon, NYON offered free “dad hats” to anyone who brought their bib to the store. (The promotion runs through November 12.) On Monday morning, at the same time I was on a Zoom call with Eswein and Moore, they received video footage from their team of the long line of runners outside of the store.
“New York, as a place, has a lot of meaning for a lot of people,” Moore said. “We’re not necessarily responsible for that meaning, but we’re a vessel through which people can express it. There’s something about ‘New York or Nowhere’ — those words together. There’s intention baked into it. It’s not ‘I heart New York,’ it’s not ‘New York forever.’ There’s a permanence to it and an allegiance to it that has resonated [with everyone] following @newyorkcity, aware of the brand or not.”
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Brand to know: String Ting
Kendall Jenner, Dua Lipa, Bella and Gigi Hadid, and BLACKPINK’S Jennie are just a few names on a long list of celebs to have been spotted accessorizing their phone with a String Ting, the pandemic-born creation of Rachel Steed-Middleton. Her colorful, fashion-accessory-worthy phone straps have been such a hit that this week the brand is launching jewelry, inspired by some of its most beloved phone straps, or, as it calls them, “tings.” Below, a chat with Steed-Middleton on making a phone chain a coveted accessory.
How did the idea for the company come about?
“String Ting was originally founded as a fundraiser with my kids during lockdown – one thing lead to another and I just sort of kept going, not only because what I was making caught people’s attention, but because I loved making them and being creative again. My 20 years in design, business management and marketing also helped but I could never have imagined that String Ting would turn into what it is today.”
Were people already using phone straps and you wanted to make them cuter, or was it something else?
“Initially the inspiration was color and optimism. It was such a dark and strange time during the first lockdown and I wanted to make things that were happy and upbeat that people could have with them everyday and perhaps feel a bit of a lift from. I wanted what I was making to also have a real function – utility. Unlike earrings or necklaces that we can only appreciate in the mirror, we are constantly looking at our phones…so why not treat it like the accessory it deserves to be?”
Who was the first celebrity seen with a String Ting phone strap and what happened from there?
“When Dua posted her Ting, it went completely insane – at that time I had just put up a website but I didn’t have any stock made! It was a busy couple of days. Then Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Rosé and Jennie from BLACKPINK [all were seen with Tings]. It is a total shock every time, because they can have anything they want and the fact that they have chosen something I designed is crazy.”
Do you think phone straps are here to stay?
“Definitely! Phone straps are a category in their own right. We have the largest selection of handcrafted premium phone straps in the world – they are made with freshwater pearls, Swarovski® crystals, Japanese Miyuki beads and many other little treasures. There’s a Ting for everyone and you can make little outfits out of cases and Tings – just like changing jewelry to match your look. The possibilities are endless! It’s so fun.”
What’s next for the company?
“We have so many exciting things in the pipeline! We recently launched our Zodiac collaboration with CASETiFY and have shifted our retail strategy to include wholesale partnerships with The Conran Shop, SSENSE and Holt Renfrew in Canada.”