Photo by Donnell Culver
Greg Armas has a knack for knowing what the people want. Before he developed his winning formula for his store and brand, Assembly NY, Armas was the co-founder and buyer for Scout in Los Angeles, which housed vintage clothes and current collections that were created by the same designers. The idea was fresh, new, and a shopper/collector's dream come true. No one would expect to find vintage Westwood or Sonia Rykiel next to their current collections, but Armas made it possible. Fast forward to today and Armas is still on top of what customers are looking for with Assembly NY. Very few designers and store owners can lay claim to housing designers like Christopher Ræburn, Christophe Lemaire, and launching KTZ in New York City. He knows what makes a great business model after being a buyer and storeowner for over 10 years.
We met with Armas at his studio to pick his brain about his design process, how he stays ahead of the curve, and for any advice he would give someone starting out.
When did you launch Assembly NY?
[The store] opened 6 years ago and the collection was launched 4 years ago first with menswear and then womenswear later. My previous retail location [Scout] had been men’s and women’s, but I wanted to focus solely on menswear when I came to New York. After I had the shop for about a year I started designing some things under the name Assembly NY, and the very first things were suits for a smaller frame. They were casual – the shoulder pads weren’t in them and they didn’t have a lining. Soft tailoring was the phrase I was using. And lo and behold women started buying these small fitting suits while everything was for guys. Pretty soon my men’s only store had women clientele.
Did you change the silhouette at all in response to the women shoppers?
Well it was difficult to not make women’s clothing right away. Obviously, in financial terms, women are ten times the [fashion] market. I knew as a buyer that if you have a female audience you should definitely go for it, but I thought it was important to cut my teeth with men’s production and men’s styling. Assembly really stayed a men’s only line though it had a unisex branding, but it was really a men’s only line for the first three deliveries until we introduced women’s. Women’s and men’s share nothing however, other than the designer.
What aside from the financial standpoint made you want to design a women’s collection?
I always wanted to design a women’s collection. It was about waiting until I had something worth contributing to the women’s market. Even though I knew how to buy other people’s lines for my shop, I felt like I needed to hold my horses until I knew exactly what I should make for my client. When I had women that were first interested in my men’s suiting, they were really instructional to me and told me who my women’s audience is. There were a few conversations with my early customers then, and they said just make what you’re making for men for women. Everyone is making women’s clothes so that girls can like them and it’s very intentional and very boring. I haven’t done that because for me I have to have women’s and men’s tailoring, but I make those pieces for women that are typically more menswear pieces. We do a lot of pants – we put our dresses over our pants, because that’s the kind of girl that we’re selling to.
How did buying for your previous store, Scout, play into Assembly?
At Assembly, we now have over 45 lines that we carry. It has been highly informative. The most has been looking at someone’s entire collection and realizing how many styles a buyer and store sell. [At Scout] I looked at the merchandising of collections over and over again to see what designers are making that buyers don’t care about, make sure that my ego didn’t get involved nor buy things that I wanted to create. Now, I feel like almost the exact opposite in that I probably pay too much attention to what I know and go with what I feel a little bit more. If I’m feeling stripes and I have to put a feather on something then I have to do it.
Do you look at trends at all or do you buy and design strictly from how you feel?
I look at trends on the street more than I look at trend reports online. I definitely have a personal style that is integrated in everything I do. That’s not the same as every designer – there are a number of designers that keep their work very separate from them. That’s not the way it is for me. My personal style is very involved and very informed every season whether it is for men’s or women’s. I look a lot out in this neighborhood in Chinatown – especially on girls - just to see what they’re putting together.
How do you keep from putting out something that is off brand?
Well, I have a lot of spinning plates. There are a lot of things to keep in motion, but they come from the same creative source. When it’s good, it’s good and when it’s tough, it’s tough. I don’t really differentiate from the creativity of the shop and the brand - they’re both pretty personal - but I have 14 or 15 years as a storeowner so my structure and staffing is in place and makes sense. We also only have one store so it’s easier to manage. It doesn’t distract the design process. It just blows my mind the idea of dedicating hours to design all of the time it, because I’m doing the full thing plus doing the store. It’s what I’m used to, but maybe I’d be a better designer if I put more time into it and I didn’t have the store, but financially I couldn’t have the line without the store and the store couldn’t build up the brand.
What’s the next goal you have in mind?
More retail locations. It’s interesting to see how our online does well in informing and educating our customer, but it does not have the same performance or experience as our store does. A lot of people on the market have stores that are doing fine and their online is killing it. We couldn’t be more opposite. That’s from us having a different experience and from doing it for so long. It’s really about multiplying it now. We’ve also added our first fragrance that we’ve worked on for years that’s about to launch. We’re introducing more of those categories - what could Assembly smell, taste, and feel like - then having more touchstone retail locations where other people can experience that.
Is there any advice you would give someone who’s starting a business?
Doing a full collection is almost guaranteed suicide unless you have very informed and very thorough financial backing. Most independent designers typically cannot compete in the contemporary market because of the competition. Designers like Helmut Lang and Andrew Rosen have been doing it for years and have so many categories covering the whole market. If you’re trying to introduce a collection you’re throwing out a pretty wide net, but someone has a wider net than you and will haul in more of the audience. I say to go spear fishing instead.
I believe that a designer is going to do best if they find pieces or concepts within their collection that are the most personal, most unique and focused based on one concept that’s really yours. If you’re into leather, do about 5 leather pieces but don’t do a whole leather line. If you’re into prints, don’t feel like you have to make a collection that frames your prints. Work on making your prints amazing and then figure out what garments it should go on, but do 10 and don’t make 100. Make it about what your unique contribution as a designer is. You’re putting yourself up against people who have way more experience, way more time, and way more money than you have, but what they don’t have is your creativity and your ideas.