5 Questions for Gigi Kwon

Hosiery may not be Gigi Kwon’s first design endeavor, but she’s quickly becoming a retail force.

Kwon opened her second Gigi K store on West 8th Street in New York last month, just a year after bowing her first boutique on nearby University Place. That’s a steep trajectory for an apparel designer whose forays into both legwear and retail began less than three years ago. “I’m just learning about legwear and about selling,” said Kwon, whose shops offer Japanese leggings, tights and socks in a rainbow of colors and textures (think crocheted capri leggings, slouchy legwarmers and lace socks with crisscross ankle ties) that retail from $20 to $70.

The new Gigi K store is part of a master plan to add one location per year until the number reaches 10, she added. Kwon said her customer base is growing, including tourists from all over the U.S. and Europe, and sales are up.

“Last winter was really good, much better than expected,” the retailer said, adding that she plans to branch out into apparel and e-commerce when the economy stabilizes, as well as focus on building the Gigi K brand overseas. “That’s the dream,” Kwon said. “Dreams are a 50/50 [chance], but the customers keep coming, and I’m really thankful for that.”

Kwon’s background includes degrees from the fashion school at Bunka Women’s University in Tokyo and Parsons The New School for Design in New York, as well as a stint working for Vivienne Tam. The Korean designer started in the legwear industry with wholesale, through an agent in 2009, and that part of the business continues to go strong, selling at Anthropologie and Free People, among others.

Here, Kwon discusses her immersion in legwear design and why she thinks Japan is the only choice in hosiery production.

Your background is in apparel design. What made you turn to legwear and retail?
It was because of the recession. At first, as a clothing designer, I didn’t really have an interest in legwear, but then I started seeing [apparel] companies I had worked with in the past close down because of the bad economy. Women can’t afford to buy a lot of dresses, but they can still afford to buy our tights. Our product is [high] quality, but we target lower price points. Customers can refresh or complete [their existing wardrobes] with affordable legwear. We will probably start making apparel — starting with comfortable, good-quality pants — when the economy improves.

Do you design all the Gigi K legwear yourself?
No. I am just learning about legwear design. I have a partnership with a Japanese manufacturing company that has been making hosiery for 36 years. They are supporting me and teaching me about legwear, and right now, they are designing about 80 percent to 90 percent of [Gigi K’s offerings]. I have been starting step-by-step, designing leggings, and last year we sold a lot of leggings. Eventually I plan to do all the design because I know about American fashion and style. The most important thing about fashion is that it’s comfortable and feels like home, like a worn-in jacket.

Why do you choose to make your products exclusively in Japan?
In Japan, they really make the best legwear. They have a specialty technique called torchon lacemaking that dates back to the 18th century. My wholesale agent thought the price was too high because others were giving her $2 or $3 socks, while I was giving her $10 socks, so she tried to have them made in China, but it didn’t work. Japan is the only choice.

Gigi K is your first venture into retail. What have you learned so far?
In the beginning, I tried to keep the best prices for my production. But customers would check the price and they wouldn’t buy because they didn’t know our product and didn’t want to pay [a higher price point]. So I said, ‘I’ll pay,’ and I lowered price points until my customers tried our product and knew it. Then I was able to raise the prices back up. Also, my business plan [initially] targeted college students. I chose University Place for the first store because I knew Parsons and New York University, but I missed my target; they couldn’t afford it. Now they bring their parents, and the [core customers] are women in their 40s and 50s who have money and time, but who still think like teenagers.

What drove your decision to open a second location?
I was in a hurry because I’m really trying to brand Gigi K. We also had great sales at the first store [on University Place]. My business plan is to open a new store every year, so if the second store [on West 8th Street] is successful, I’ll open a third store on the Upper West Side next September. The fourth one will be on the Upper East Side, and then we will go to the U.K. We will always be based in New York, but maybe the U.K. is where we will [expand our customer base].

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