Fashion Statement: When Lance Lawson and Jim Wetzel realized that Chicago's fashion-conscious shoppers were looking outside the city for the latest trends, the pair decided to revolutionize the local fashion scene with their designer specialty store, Jake. Raising the sophistication level, they've introduced Chicago to collections from the likes of Doo.Ri and 3.1 Phillip Lim, as well as emerging designers whose fashions fit Jake's style. They also upped the level of customer service by offering complimentary alterations, deliveries and even champagne. In return, some customers spend $75,000 to $100,000 annually.
Perfect Fit : Taking out a home equity loan, Lawson and Wetzel pooled about $150,000 and opened the first location in 2004. And combining Wetzel's extensive experience at major fashion houses with Lawson's prior consumer marketing and sales work didn't hurt. They have since opened two more Chicago locations and plan to expand to other underserved markets across the U.S. "We have good buzz in Chicago, and we feel like this concept is really strong," says Wetzel. Already, their stores and website have received national acclaim.
Handled With Care: Lawson and Wetzel have created buzz thanks to active marketing efforts at the grass-roots level. They reward downtown concierges with lavish gifts in return for directing customers their way. They send gift boxes to their best customers every season, host a luncheon every spring with informal modeling of the newest trends, and put a face to fashion by regularly inviting top designers to their stores. Says Lawson, "To have a designer personally tell you in a fitting room what piece from their collection they think would be great for you is an amazing experience."
Follow Their Lead: Raise the standard and you'll find that you'll never go out of style. --Sara Wilson
Ready to Wear: A great business idea can come from life's basics--just ask Jacob DeHart and Jake Nickell. Every day, about 150 T-shirt designs from all corners of the world are submitted to their website. With designs ranging from political to comic to abstract, the artists behind them hope their creations will be selected as a favorite of the company's online community. Each day, members of the online community can cast their votes for the week's winning designs, which are put on T-shirts and made available for sale. Since the site launched six years ago, every design printed has sold out.
Village Voice: Understanding that uniting a community comes with responsibility, DeHart and Nickell regularly consult with their users for feedback and are careful to protect the integrity of the T-shirts. They've turned down offers from Target and Urban Outfitters, preferring to work with smaller vendors instead. Says Nickell, "We were just another product to put in their stores, and that's really not the way we view ourselves."
A Common Thread: With more than 500,000 registered users, Threadless.com is sizing up to be a powerful force. It just opened its first retail store in Chicago; launched Threadlesskids.com, a new children's clothing line; and has plans to expand distribution internationally and obtain partners in Europe. The site today is also just one of many communities under the partners' larger umbrella company, SkinnyCorp; other communities include Naked and Angry, which pursues the same idea on canvases like neckties and wallpaper, and 15 Megs of Fame, which puts the spotlight on undiscovered musicians.
Follow Their Lead: Give your customers a voice, and they just might use it to spread the word about your business. --Sara Wilson