Photo credit Adele Godfrey
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Interview

Kay Lee

10.21.13

Kay Lee is the founder of OTTE, a line of carefully curated luxury boutiques with it’s own signature womenswear collection to match. Since the store’s inception in 1999, Lee has used her trained eye in sourcing fabric and extensive retail experience to discover and cultivate emerging talent, while featuring coveted brands from Carven to Kenzo. Since the original Williamsburg outpost set up shop in 1999, OTTE has expanded to four other locations—the Upper East Side, Tribeca, the West Village and most recently, Nolita—with a personality as unique as its neighborhood.

Interview

Fifteen years of retail success! What’s the secret?

It starts with getting the right merchandise! When I’m on appointments, I put a lot of thought into what I choose and run through my picks again in the office before finally sending the order in. Each season is a bit of a gamble, but if I see something I love, I place a bet on it and order a lot of inventory. So far, I’ve been lucky and hit the jackpot! It’s also important that I have a great team behind me, both in the office and at the stores.

How are your locations different?

Each store has its own identity and customer unique to the neighborhood. The woman that shops at our West Village store is looking for something different than the woman shopping at Otte on 91st & Madison, but we maintain a core brand identity with timeless, classic and comfortable pieces. I know what my customer is looking for and I do my best to bring that to her each season-hopefully with a little bit of sass and fun!

With your new Mott Street location in Nolita, who is the customer you’re trying to capture in that particular neighborhood?

Before we opened, I visited the neighborhood and talked with friends who are longtime Nolita residents to get an idea of the customer. Nolita has a fun and trendy young-professional vibe, and shoppers come to the neighborhood to buy from niche boutiques and brands. With the recent expansion of the OTTE NEW YORK line, I decided it would be perfect location to showcase our own pieces while mixing in key trends like silk tees and leather jackets from up-and-coming designers.

Much of the growth has taken place over the past two years. Has there been any new investors? Why now?

I started OTTE by myself, but as the company grew I knew I couldn’t handle it all on my own, so two years ago I brought on Nancy Zhang (formerly with Citi Group and Google) to be Otte’s COO. Nancy handles the daily operation and details, which has been immensely helpful in allowing me to focus on buying and designing. We form a great partnership and decided to focus on a five-year expansion plan. Right now, we both work seven days a week and do all operations and financing in-house. Our business is very strong and growing daily!

Why did you decide it was time to launch OTTE New York? Did you always feel Shopbop was the right partner to launch outside of the store with?

My background is in design, and as the stores grew, I knew I wanted to design signature pieces in luxe materials for our customers. Our stores and brand are well known in New York, but Shopbop offers a great opportunity for online brand recognition both in the U.S. and internationally! They’ve been carrying one style from Otte that has seen a lot of success, so we’re expanding to nearly a dozen styles for Spring 2014.

Who is the designer for the in-house label?

I work with two other designers, May Oishi-Simoneau (formerly of Foley + Corinna) and Gali Bloom (formerly a co-owner at Min Lee Collection) to develop ideas and pieces for the line. Both work in our Otte boutiques, so they know what our customer is looking for and what they need. With their help, we form bodies for the collection from my inspiration, which I draw from colors, vintage samples and my travels. I recently came back from Peru, which was incredibly inspirational for next fall!

Otte features so many designers—who have you been able to carry since opening your first location?

Fashion labels come and go and many of the lines I first carried are no longer in business. The one brand that we have consistently carried has been Phillip Lim, from when he first worked at Development through his current line, 3.1 Phillip Lim.

Who are the most successful brands you carry?

Isabel Marant, Vanessa Bruno, Iro, 3.1 Phillip Lim, rag & bone and Alexander Wang are all very popular in our stores, along with brands that make classic, basic pieces like Enzo Costa, Organic by John Patrick and Inhabit.

You recently launched #8 NEW YORK, a multi label showroom. What has this taught you about being on the other side of retail?

It is very different! I am used to visiting showrooms to buy for my stores, and now we’re selling to other stores from our own showroom. Having a multi-line showroom is something I’ve always wanted to do, though, since I carry so many lines in my stores and have been a risk taker in picking up new brands that have gone on to be successful. With retail experience as my background, I know what other buyers are looking for and can give honest feedback to new brands to help them grow. I’ve also partnered with Lynn Rosetti, who was the sales director at Steven Alan for 15 years, to help manage the showroom.

How do you juggle so many projects?

Right now, everything seems to be happening at once! We’re in the middle of buying for spring, opening our newest location in Nolita, growing our new showroom and developing for next season and new projects, but I am lucky to have an AMAZING TEAM at OTTE, which is the key to success for my business. Growing OTTE is a lot of work – I am married to this business, which makes my employees like my family

Are there plans to expand outside of New York?

We get a lot of offers and inquiries about opening on the West Coast, but we’re still focused on New York. My first store was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1999, and it would be nice to return to my roots and open a store in Brooklyn. After that, we may start looking to expand outside of New York!