Running a retail fashion company in 2020 is an increasingly delicate proposition. We’ve seen how difficult business was for big brands like J.Crew or Barney’s even before COVID-19. Throw in a global virus that has radically changed our day-to-day lives, and being in fashion right now is tough. How can you sell clothes if your primary business model is dependent upon a brick-and-mortar, in-person experience?
These were just a handful of issues at play for one of D.C.’s hottest and newest clothiers, Somewhere. The combination retail store and coffee shop opened in September of 2019 in the District’s rapidly expanding (read: gentrifying) Navy Yard neighborhood, practically a baseball’s throw away from the ballpark of the Washington Nationals. While the store appeared to be thriving, one has to keep in mind the staggering statistics facing new retail businesses: approximately 20 percent of new ventures close within the first two years of operation without factoring in a one-in-a-lifetime pandemic. “The irony of the situation is right before shelter-in-place went into effect locally, we had one of our most successful in-store pop-ups we’ve ever done,” Somewhere co-founder Dominick Adams tells InsideHook. “There were like 400 or 500 people outside waiting to get inside, and the whole street was blocked off. That was literally the Sunday before shelter-in-place happened. Three days later, it was like, OK, don’t go outside and wear a mask. Like, wait a minute — I just hugged like 50 people yesterday!”
So, how do you function as a retail store if your customer experience topples from several hundred people at once to none at all? “We kept reading headlines about how everyone was going online and that retail was fine, but people forget that online sales aren’t anywhere close to what we’re selling in-store,” said Will Sharp, Somewhere’s other co-founder. “There’s an experiential component (to retail shopping). So we were like, ‘How do we keep that going? What is the solution?’ And for weeks, there wasn’t one. You can’t interact with people when you’re forced to close during a pandemic. Then it sort of dawned on us that we could do something that was halfway there.”
That midway point became Somewhere’s Window Shop. Launched in mid-May, the premise is pretty simple: exclusive capsule collections are dropped on a weekly basis via a QR code that’s displayed in the window, along with items from the collection. The QR code directs to the Somewhere website, where shoppers can make purchases that were initiated offline but completed online. The entire concept came together, from inception to execution, in about “three days,” according to Adams. “It was a 30-minute conversation and next thing I know, there’s a sketch and we’re on the phone with the guy who does our vinyls,” he says. “Everybody is pretty close; the guy who does our vinyls is my neighbor across the street. The guy who built the actual box is a long-time friend who I gave his first job around 10 years ago. Our photographer is someone Will has been working with for 10 years, and I’ve been working with for seven.”
If you’re going to ask customers to venture to a shop and not physically walk out with a product, the collaborations had better be unique and special. So far, Somewhere has delivered. The first drop featured Window Shop-branded items specifically, while the third week had a photography book from Cam Hicks called For the Porch that spotlighted his work with Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton and others. The second drop — a collaboration with NYC’s Awake — was the most popular, with the co-branded shirts quickly and completely selling out. “Part of the idea was going to someone like Vans and saying, ‘Hey, I know your warehouses are exploding right now because no one is taking the product. So why don’t we take product, and customize it?,’” says Sharp. “[So it’s] not a full collaboration, but almost remaking or reusing product that is pretty much useless.”
There’s no doubt that the Window Shop has been a success, but what about the long haul? That’s something Somewhere is still trying to decide. “I don’t think we know the answer,” says Sharp. “Let me put it this way: when we started, I hit up maybe 25 brands. And to a big company, it’s a hard thing to digest — you don’t just say yes or no. Following the success and what people are seeing, almost everyone wants in. I think we were going to end it two weeks from now, but with everything going on, we might extend it. There’s a lot in the pipeline, and we might even keep it as an in-store installation. We don’t know yet.”
One thing that is for certain is this: coronavirus has often seemed insurmountable. But time and time again, we’ve seen communities rise up and take care of one another. The same can be said for Somewhere and its role in the city of D.C. “When something like COVID hits, you’re kind of helpless,” said Sharp. “You’re told you can’t do it. Your whole life as an entrepreneur, you’re supposed to fight that! Everywhere you go, everyone says no. This project was an attempt to get us out of those depressed moments, and emotionally I think it really has. And that’s the most important thing. It’s like, wow, people do care. And wow, people do come together during this stuff. I am encouraged that we’re really doing something that’s important to our community and especially Washington, D.C.”
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