Ritch Erani may wax nostalgic one minute — lamenting the impact of social media or pining for the days when Andy Warhol or Francesco Scavullo strolled by the display window — and then stress the importance of constant evolution the next. His two Chuckies New York women’s boutiques in Manhattan reflect that duality.
Erani’s newest shoe salon, which opened on Lexington Avenue in May, is purely contemporary, with minimalist fixtures and shades of gray dominating the 875-sq.-ft. space. Yet the owner chose the location because the shopping atmosphere reminded him of a bygone era. He closed his 25-year-old Third Avenue store to reopen there.
“What I like about this area is that Lexington is so small, it can’t hold [big-box stores],” said Erani, who has been in the footwear industry since 1980, when he dropped out of high school at 16 to open a Brooklyn, N.Y., shoe shop with his older brother Chuck, who now separately owns Chuckies Brooklyn. “I want to be back where stores are boutiques. I want to go back to where [buyers] would cherry-pick the finest of the collections, and people would get dressed up to go to a shoe store.”
The other Chuckies New York location, opened seven years ago on Madison Avenue, is a more visual representation of that time, with a vintage red carpet and crystal chandelier on the main shoe floor. “Business on Madison Avenue is good because you have the same kind of customer,” Erani said. “They are people who appreciate [a more intimate shopping experience].”
At both stores, he noted, the key to success is an ability to stay ahead of trends and present a tightly edited, hard-to-find collection of footwear and accessories. “It’s not about what we have,” Erani said. “It’s about what we don’t have. Our customer is a woman who wants direction. She doesn’t want to see every shoe in the world.”
With a price range of $200 to $1,700 and a sweet spot of about $700, the boutiques’ top-selling shoe labels include Jimmy Choo, Lanvin, Balenciaga and Marni. Chuckies also carries Casadei, Bettye Muller and a host of others, but the assortment is different every season and quantities are always limited. “The mix is really eclectic,” Erani said, noting that the stores also carry two in-house brands that he designs: Ritch Erani NYFC and Chuckies New York. “A woman should have a little bit of everything in her closet.”
Onward Luxury Group President and CEO Brooks Tietjen said his company (formerly Iris North America) is a longtime vendor for Chuckies, which has offered the firm’s labels Chloé, See by Chloé, Nina Ricci and Jil Sander. “Chuckies is always looking for new and innovative shoes to give the customer the best shopping experience,” Tietjen said. “[Rich] really understands shoes and the customer. He is a consummate shoe retailer and invests not only in the footwear business but in the [larger] fashion business, too.”
Giuseppe Zanotti has created several exclusive styles for Chuckies, and the label’s director of sales, Erin Iorfida, said Erani is a dynamic partner. “Ritchie always brings excitement to our showroom,” she said. “His vision is strong, and he consistently creates unique styles within our collection that work best for Chuckies.”
The boutique also has helped launch the careers of emerging designers. “Ritch was one of the first to believe in us,” said Ivy Kirzhner, who bowed her eponymous line this spring. “Chuckies is always [well] curated, offering beautiful selections. It was an honor for my first collection to capture the eye of such an impressive store and seasoned buyer.”
The Chuckies customer tends to be in her 30s or 40s, but the retailer gets visitors of all ages, not to mention all walks of life. Gone are the days when Cheryl Tiegs or Brooke Shields might show up at any moment, but the stores still have some celebrity regulars, including Renée Zellweger, Betsey Johnson and Liza Minnelli. Madonna is also a fan and has been spotted wearing Erani’s own designs.
The owner explained much of Chuckies’ cachet comes from the fact that he hires only staff who are already knowledgeable about footwear and fashion. “It’s about how the salespeople represent the collection and how they teach people to wear [the shoes],” he said. “My girls watch the runway shows, and they know what’s up. If you want to know what’s hot, we’ll tell you what’s hot.”
But even with a style-savvy team, remaining relevant — and profitable — can be tough in a market that is more complicated each season, Erani admitted. “My biggest challenge is seeing an abundance of everything at the same time — seeing a new [runway] collection and then seeing it copied on the Internet [at lower price points] everywhere,” he said. “[Designer looks are] just overly accessible. I have to figure out ways to get my customers to come back and stay loyal to me when they have everything at their fingertips.”
Enter Chuckies’ two in-house lines, which aim to put unexpected twists on seasonal trends. For spring ’13, for example, Ritch Erani NYFC paired acrylic detailing with metal charms and convertible elements. “We needed something that [customers] won’t find on the Web or at a department store,” he said. He noted the strategy is working: Ritch Erani NYFC is a top seller on the retailer’s 2-year-old e-commerce site.
Next, the store’s website will relaunch this fall. Erani said he hopes to bow two to three additional brick-and-mortar locations over the next several years as well, and perhaps a Ritch Erani NYFC-branded boutique. “It has to be in Manhattan, though,” he said. “I really feel like this is my niche.”