Goldman Sachs's second-quarter profit fell 11% as sluggish demand for deal making put a damper on investment-banking revenue, but the results still beat analysts' estimates.
Is This the World’s Cheapest Dress?
IF rock purists were unsettled last month by the opening of a designer boutique on the site of what once was CBGB, the hard-core Bowery nightclub, imagine how they will feel reading the next sentence: The old Tower Records space a few blocks away on Broadway, for two decades the spot for adolescent reveries of dance, pop and punk, has been leased by Steve & Barry’s, a clothing chain where everything costs less than $10.
Skip to next paragraph
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Steve & Barry’s
Steve & Barry’s, for the uninitiated, is to fashion what Tower once was to music. Steve & Barry’s is manna, a store that sells stylish celebrity-branded clothes at prices that are absurdly inexpensive, lower than those at Old Navy, H & M or Forever 21, undercutting even Wal-Mart by as much as half.
Sarah Jessica Parker ($8.98), heart-printed hoodies by the Nickelodeon alumna Amanda Bynes ($8.98) and basketball shoes by the New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury ($8.98). Lines at the registers are often 20 deep.
The question on everyone’s lips: How do they make a decent dress or a jacket, with sleeves, or a pair of functioning shoes for $8.98?
The answer is complicated, but for those who can remember what it was like to wile away an evening browsing the exhilaratingly chaotic downtown Tower store, its coming transformation into a temple of cheap denim short-shorts, cargo pants and walls of novelty T-shirts makes some sort of sense in the arc of cultural evolution.
Fashion, as it has become more accessible to a generation that is obsessed with the mass emulation of celebrity style, has surpassed music (and the increasingly archaic concept of the record store) as the retail touchstone of youth. And cheap fashion has become infinitely more respectable, even cool, given the current economic climate.
“It seems like there is some justice in that, doesn’t it?” said Ms. Parker, who last week attended a movie premiere wearing a bitty blue sundress with a print of hothouse foliage, $8.98, from Bitten, her year-old Steve & Barry’s collection. “For a lot of people — young women, middle-age women, regular women — there is this idea about wanting fashion in an affordable way. They are living in a less rarefied world.”
The significance of planning a store on Broadway — by the time it opens this fall, it will be around the 300th Steve & Barry’s in the country and the largest in New York — is not lost on Steve Shore and Barry Prevor, childhood friends from Long Island who founded the company in 1985.
During an interview last month in their headquarters in Port Washington, N.Y., Mr. Shore, from Syosset, and Mr. Prevor, from Merrick, both 44, said the location was a logical choice, given its proximity to New York University and their target demographic. It is also intended to send a message to the fashion industry, which has largely underestimated the chain despite sales last year, according to the business-research firm Hoover’s Inc., of $1.1 billion.
“There’s been a revolution, a full-blown revolution,” Mr. Shore said, sounding, at times, just a bit like Crazy Eddie. “We just haven’t told anyone yet. If the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch or J. Crew said that everything in the store is going to be $8.98 or less, it would be front-page news. But while no one was noticing, we opened stores across the country that have identical clothes for much lower prices.”
The question, again, is how.
They opened the first Steve & Barry’s store at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985 with the idea of selling licensed collegiate designs at much lower prices than the campus bookstores. In the 1990s, after expanding with locations near Big Ten campuses, they introduced a larger, mall-based format selling casual sportswear (mostly T-shirts bearing sophomoric logos, targeted toward young men — three inebriated frogs, for example, are “Toadily Wasted”).
In 2006, they began offering more fashionable designs in partnerships with Mr. Marbury, Ms. Parker and other celebrities, thereby changing the look and concept of the stores, but not the underlying business model that relied on an obsessive attention to costs.
Mr. Shore and Mr. Prevor, dressed in chinos and rumpled shirts, frequently described the company as “the Google of fashion” and rattled off several ways they had devised to make a high-quality product at the low prices. The clothes appear to be well made — several of the Bitten dresses, made in India, were lined, and the strapless dress Ms. Parker wore is constructed with an internal elastic band to hold it up. And the basketball shoes appear sturdy, although they are made with fake leather (well, so are Stella McCartney’s).
Steve & Barry’s saves big, for example, by opening stores in underperforming malls, where the owners are more likely to negotiate rents and offer other incentives; by building its own bare-bones store displays; by maintaining only a small public relations office in Manhattan; and by manufacturing in countries like China, India, Madagascar and more than 20 others, including the United States.
Though the prices will raise concerns that the clothes are made in sweatshop factories that underpay or otherwise exploit workers, Mr. Shore and Mr. Prevor said absolutely not.
Howard Schacter, the company’s chief partnership officer, said Steve & Barry’s monitors its subcontractors carefully and demands ethical business practices. The key to its low prices, he said, is a razor-slim profit margin.
Then, too, Steve & Barry’s doesn’t advertise, but rather relies on word of mouth.
Steve & Barry’s also saves small — for example, by using discount hotels, like Motel 6 and Econo Lodge, for travel, assigning one printer to 50 employees and myriad other ways.
On a tour of their offices, where designers’ cubicles are retrofitted into dreary, sometimes windowless nooks, Mr. Shore and Mr. Prevor pointed out aging furniture that Mr. Prevor found in his parents’ basement and a filing cabinet that bore the logo of a fruit-and-vegetable distributor. (There was a large stack of papers spilling onto the floor next to it.)
It is not a country club, but the offices are lively and full of 20-somethings, many of them recent college graduates — the director of stores was a music major at Harvard — attracted at being able to take on significant responsibilities fairly early in their careers, and also by the likelihood that Steve & Barry’s will eventually go public. TA Associates, a private-equity firm that backs Eastern Mountain Sports and Jenny Craig, bought a minority stake in 2006.
“To be great, you have to have these ridiculous, insane prices, and not sacrifice quality,” Mr. Shore said. “The question we constantly ask ourselves is how to hit the price point that even Wal-Mart is not hitting.”
The most basic dresses at J. Crew start at $58. At American Apparel, they start at $26; at Old Navy, $19.50; and at Forever 21, some styles cost $15.80. The least expensive dress on the Wal-Mart Web site is $14.92.
Prices at Steve & Barry’s are actually dropping — the $8.98 threshold was introduced as a holiday promotion last year, but remains with no set expiration, Mr. Prevor said. (At the newest store in Waipahu, Hawaii, which opened last Friday, the highest price is $9.98, reflecting increased shipping costs.)
Meanwhile, the company’s sales at locations open at least a year, a crucial indicator of retail health, have increased more than 20 percent each month since January, he said.
Outside the Manhattan Mall store this week, several customers said they appreciated the quality and style of the clothes, but over and over they said, “The prices are unbelievable.”
“I have no idea how they do it,” said Katherynne Ramirez, 24, from the Bronx, who estimated that 35 percent of her closet came from Steve & Barry’s. “The material seems pretty good for the price, so I bought a lot of summer tops. They looked nice.”
None of this sufficiently explains how Steve & Barry’s managed to lure a celebrity like Ms. Parker, who, in a now decade-long performance as Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City,” helped establish the credibility of binge fashion consumption as a national pastime and made Manolo Blahnik a household name. As a celebrity designer, she could have had her pick of deals, but as a businesswoman, she sensed the possibilities in mass and a change in the public perception toward low-price clothes.
“I had never heard of Steve & Barry’s, and I didn’t know anyone who had ever heard of them,” Ms. Parker said. “I was dubious. But I loved their manifesto and the idea of the marketization of fashion.”
A year into their collaboration, Ms. Parker has been joined at Steve & Barry’s by Ms. Bynes, whose more teenage-oriented label is called Dear, and Venus Williams, whose performance collection is called Eleven.
For men, there are additional basketball styles named after Ben Wallace, golf clothes from Bubba Watson and a new surf-wear collection from Laird Hamilton. The success of Mr. Marbury’s Starbury shoes, the first celebrity style introduced in the store in 2006, then at $14.98, has been heralded as a backlash against $100-plus styles like the Nike Air Jordan. Steve & Barry’s, according to estimates, has sold more than 10 million pairs.
“What has changed,” Ms. Parker said, “is that now people have bragging rights about what they paid. I admired a woman’s pair of pants at a party recently and she said, ‘Fourteen dollars! H & M!’ It really is, among the people I know, part of what they do now.”
Mr. Shore and Mr. Prevor again likened the change to a revolution.
“When you look at clothing now,” Mr. Prevor said, “price is not the arbiter of what is good. It’s the clothes themselves.”
- arbiter elegantiarum
[名]［ラテン語arbītrāre（ad-へ＋bitere行く, 探す）. 原義は「調停のため, 何をなしうるかを見に行く人」］