Tarek Hassan typically likes to host conversations over lunch at one of his favorite local restaurants: Precinct Kitchen & Bar in Boston or Toscano in Harvard Square, which is just a short distance from the home of his first Concepts store in Cambridge, Mass.
However, COVID-19 has forced the Concepts CEO to speak at a distance, communicating with FN for this story via Amazon Chime from the company’s newly constructed Boston office.
This is unusual for the retail veteran, who thrives on engaging with others and developing relationships. After all, it’s the bonds he has formed within the industry for more than three decades that have helped Hassan build a strong international presence — and earned him a reputation as one of the most respected names in the business.
Over a series of calls with FN, Hassan reflected on his long career and passion for creating rich consumer experiences — which is the reason Concepts’ immediate future includes a heightened focus on physical retail, with major store openings in Boston and New York City.
“We will never walk away from brick-and-mortar. This is where we come from,” Hassan said with determination. “We will always invest in that because you cannot tell a better story without having been in front of the products, holding the products and having engagement.”
The dedication is fitting, since Hassan has been a fixture in the footwear retail business for decades.
He started his career at his uncle’s now-defunct store, The Tannery, handing out fliers in the Massachusetts streets in 1984. From there, he climbed the ladder from stockroom employee to the sales floor, eventually becoming a manager and then a buyer.
But it was a meeting at his first FFANY show in the late 1980s that sent him on an entrepreneurial path. “I was at the Sebago showroom, sitting with Abe Rogowsky from Shoe Parlor, Danny Wasserman from Tip Top Shoes, the head designer of Sebago and I believe the CEO and the president,” Hassan recalled. “The brand was a household name at that time, known for boat shoes, but they were introducing more of a dress shoe.”
He continued, “I was able to go over the design and told them what I thought they should do differently, based on what the consumer was looking for at that time. The best part is they actually took my ideas, and eight months later the product came out with what I thought they should have done — and it was extremely successful in the market. Right then, I knew I could make a difference.”
From there, Hassan found his own lane to make an impact, drawing on his passion for extreme sports such as snowboarding and skateboarding, and his love for fashion and design. “I’m not a designer, but I love to create,” he said. “I came up with Concepts to bring the worlds of extreme sports and fashion and streetwear together.”
Although the skate influence has relaxed somewhat, Hassan’s original vision is still very much in place. Concepts’ offering is “street luxe,” delivering streetwear sensibilities with a more refined palette, stocking Nike and New Balance alongside Birkenstock, Lacoste and Canada Goose.
“I don’t think Concepts is just for the sneakerhead. It is the one retail platform that’s the intersection of sneaker culture, luxury and lifestyle,” Birkenstock Americas CEO David Kahan told FN. “The beauty of Concepts is the customer who may own the newest Nike collaboration may also have a Birkenstock in their closet. That’s what makes them unique.”
After debuting in 1996 in the famed Harvard Square, Concepts has extended its footprint to Boston, New York, Dubai and Shanghai. Along the way, the retailer had some help: In 2018, for instance, Concepts finalized an investment deal with online retail juggernaut Zappos, which has provided logistical support and operational expertise, in addition to helping to propel physical store expansion.
To that end, Hassan is in the midst of intense growth mode. On Oct. 24, Concepts opened a new flagship in its longtime backyard. The three-floor Boston store occupies 4,700 square feet at 18 Newbury St., placing Concepts next to luxury destinations including Giorgio Armani, Rolex, Chanel and others.
“We are positioning ourselves as a brand in a location where we feel we belong now,” Hassan said. “At the top of Newbury Street, we can speak to a broader consumer base, and now more than ever, incorporate streetwear into the luxury world.”
The buildout has an elevated aesthetic as well, with an appearance that is more art gallery than footwear and apparel retailer. For instance, the main staircase draws inspiration from the Greek term “theatron” (a gathering place for spectators) — a nod to Concepts’ goal of driving social engagement and exploration. And the most noteworthy architectural feature is a bold zinc cube designed to cast light at different angles, which provides each customer with their own sensory experience.
The first floor houses what Hassan said is Concepts’ biggest priority in the immediate future. “When it comes to branding, private label is one of our biggest devices,” he said.
A refreshed Concepts private label collection will debut in fall ’21 and will comprise a head-to- toe assortment, including headwear, tees, knits, fleece, bags and accessories. Concepts president Darin O’Brien, who joined the retailer after nearly 18 years at Converse and Nike, explained, “The intent is for identifying the key silhouettes that we can reimagine through our lens and bring those to life in storytelling. It’s going to be an evolved process, season to season.”
The store’s second floor is dedicated to rotating projects and collaborations, and features a DJ booth. And on the top floor — aside from a section for luxury brands and a made-to-order food and beverage location dubbed Concepts Café — the retailer is introducing a new banner: Vrsnl (pronounced Versional).
“Vrsnl is an elevated and immersive experience with a sharp focus on women’s fashion,” Hassan explained. “It’s designed to inspire and meet the needs of our growing female audience.”
This new banner includes offerings from top fashion labels such as Balmain, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, Versace and Jimmy Choo, as well as top streetwear brands and its own private-label apparel and accessories. Vrsnl also will launch an e-commerce platform — and eventually have its own brick-and-mortar store, according to Hassan.
Meanwhile, Concepts aims to open a new door in the Big Apple before year’s end. The retailer entered New York with a permanent store on Hudson Street in 2015, and its new location will debut at 99 University Place in late November.
The space, which was once home to Rugby by Ralph Lauren, comprises 2,800 square feet near New York University. Customers can expect to see the skate influence that Concepts is known for there, as well as an emphasis on its private-label apparel. “We understand the crowd, the college kids and their needs. It felt very organic to be part of this [area],” Hassan said. “We’re going to be able to express what we’ve always wanted in terms of skate and private label.”
The Hudson Street door will remain a part of Concepts, serving as a home base outside of Boston that will house pop-up activations, as well as an office for design and creative teams.
THE WORLD WE’RE IN NOW
These moves come at a time when physical retail is more challenged than ever, and online shopping has become increasingly relevant, due to health concerns and restrictions related to COVID-19. Recognizing this, Hassan has ramped up Concepts’ e-commerce efforts and plans to unveil a site redesign in early 2021.
“E-com has been working. We’ve had great success there because we were able to adjust with everything that’s going on, so it’s a major focus for us right now,” Hassan said. However, he still believes in leading with brick-and-mortar. “Since our business is in great shape, I think opening two beautiful stores is a good energy. People are going to be excited and the world — especially our world — needs excitement right now.”
Concepts also has stepped up throughout the pandemic to respond to the needs of its community, through donations to health care workers and social justice organizations, and by using its platform to host important conversations.
But COVID-19 has impacted the business.
With the coronavirus still causing economic uncertainty worldwide, Hassan is putting further expansion on hold. A planned Paris location, which Hassan was ready to move forward with at the start of the year, is now on pause.
“Considering what’s happening this year, we’re just focusing on the Boston flagship and New York,” Hassan said. “COVID made us sit back and look at expansion in a much different lens. We want to make sure that whatever we do, we do it right, we’re calculated, healthy and focused.”
THE POWER OF COLLABORATION
That sort of thorough, detail-oriented thinking is what has made Concepts a major player in the collaboration game.
The retailer has consistently produced instant sell-out collabs that turn into resale market standouts. For instance, the Nike SB Dunk “Blue Lobster” from 2009 in the special packaging, which retailed for $250, is listed on secondary market sites such as StockX for as much as $20,000.
Over the years, Hassan has earned the respect of brands and customers alike for his expert storytelling. “Everything we do starts with an inspiration and storytelling,” Hassan said. “Once a person understands the reason, the storytelling and inspiration behind the design, that can outlive anything.”
O’Brien added, “What brands see in Concepts is how we do things, how we do their brand storytelling in our stores, presenting their products. The magic is in paying attention to details. That last 10% is key.”
This pursuit of perfection has led frequent collaborators to come back for more.
“Brands can go to them with anything — whether it’s a collaboration or a new product they’re trying to introduce or even a retro shoe they’re trying to bring back — and rely on Concepts to tell that story in their own way,” explained Joe Grondin, New Balance’s senior manager of global collaborations and energy.
Concepts and New Balance have delivered several joint projects throughout the years, however the one that stands out for Grondin is the 997 “Rosé.” The collab released in November 2014 as a celebration of the retailer’s entry into the New York market.
“It was the most pairs we’ve ever done on a collaboration to that point and it sold out in seconds. They had a beautiful activation for it, the storytelling was completely on point and from an execution standpoint, they brought in this beautiful pink rosé suede and highlighted with reflective accents, which speaks very much to New Balance heritage,” Grondin explained. “They were able to do this flashy shoe but also have it speak to some classic New Balance elements as well.”
For Concepts’ longtime creative director, Deon Point, his top project was the Asics Gel-Respector “Coca” in 2015. The look, which came in dollar-bill packaging, featured premium green suede uppers and reflective overlays, with nods to 1980s Miami and “the journey of the coca leaf.” However, it was an activation during Art Basel in Miami that made the shoe truly memorable. “It was by far the most elaborate buildout that we did,” said Point.
For a special Miami experience, Concepts blindfolded customers, put them on a bus and took them to a nearby mansion, where they were met by an ex-military guard with a German Shepherd. Inside the mansion was a “holding area,” girls with shotguns and machetes, an active club and finally, an area where the shoes were sold by a woman who resembled Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco.
“For us, it was super fun and unique, and people were amazed that we took the level of detail up a notch compared to what we’ve done in the past,” Point explained.
And Concepts may look to top this in the near future. Point confirmed that an upcoming project with Nike SB, slated for holiday ‘20, could be its biggest ever.
Aside from sales, Grondin said Concepts has helped New Balance realize the power of collaboration. “They proved that if you can execute a product and packaging like this and have this type of activation and storytelling, you can reach a totally new consumer,” he said.
Similarly, Kahan noted Birkenstock finds untapped potential in its collaborations with the retailer. “They connect us with a different demographic,” he explained. “Concepts has a very unique taste level. Their take on things is always, ‘How would somebody wear the product with whatever is happening in ready-to-wear?’ Concepts was one of the first to say, ‘People are going to wear Birkenstocks with a tracksuit, with Nike shorts, with gym socks.’ They see things ahead of the curve.”
And there’s plenty to look forward to: Grondin confirmed at least two more Concepts x New Balance collaborations are due
in 2021, including a reworked classic and a new silhouette. Kahan also said a Birkenstock project will arrive next year.
For Hassan, it’s been a long journey with Concepts, but his dreams for the store and the brand are now starting to be realized.
“We’re finally able to express and deliver what we’ve always wanted to. You have to remember, we came from a very humble beginning, we had small stores. Concepts wasn’t large enough to bring all of these ideas we wanted to show in women’s brands and accessories. We were so limited to what we could do,” Hassan explained. “But now, we very much are able to give the experience that our customers deserve.”