How UNIS CEO Eunice Lee battles the ‘Everlane effect’.
Everlane’s ‘radical transparency’ story is misleading, argues Eunice Lee. Her antidote: long-term perseverance, gradual growth, and a focus on bricks-and-mortar.
Eunice Lee, founder of contemporary menswear company, UNIS New York, doesn’t take gross oversimplifications of her business lightly. That’s especially true when the insults are coming from a fellow competitor.
On December 16, 2011, Everlane, a new arrival at the time, posted its infamous “From Cotton to Consumer” infographic on Tumblr depicting the total cost of an average $50 T-shirt — after sourcing, manufacturing, and shipping — to be worth no more than $6.70 before markups. The post caused something of an uproar among small brand owners and menswear insiders, many of whom railed against the naivety and incomplete nature of the information.
Ms. Lee, in particular, who sells, among other things, premium T-shirts for $52, was having none of it. There were a number of important cost factors that Everlane had conveniently left out, she felt, and her riposte, posted at the site Well Spent (which served as a sounding board for several small brand owners in menswear), was passionate, but measured. “Not everyone uses fabrics as cheap as $2.75 per garment,” she wrote. “[W]hat about all the other steps involved in the manufacturing? Moving fabric from one area of the factory to the other. Cutting. Dying. Fittings. Fit models. Pattern changes. Production markers. Damages. These are all related to the final cost, and they’ve all been left out.”
There was an emotional zest to her response that made it rather clear that Everlane chief, Michael Preysman, had plucked a nerve. “People already question the price points of [my products], and they actually should be more than they are,” she tells Lean Luxe. “I think Everlane oversimplified the process to make the rest of us seem really stupid — that’s the part that really pissed me off.”
Her opinion, quite frankly, is completely understandable. For Ms. Lee, UNIS has been a sixteen year labor of love, a venture that took roughly a decade of tremendous perseverance, sweat, and savings, before finally gaining industry recognition and acclaim.
She fell into menswear by chance, having studied women’s fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York, but landing a position with DKNY’s menswear design team, where she stayed for over three years. “There were many more menswear jobs out there [than in womenswear],” she recalls, describing the entry level job market in fashion at the time. By November 2000, she found herself fed up with the grueling hours (often 14-16 hour days, seven days a week). So she used her savings, originally meant for a down payment on a new apartment, as the seed funding needed to open the UNIS boutique in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, and to produce the line.
In the sixteen years since, it has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Along the way, Ms. Lee has had to shepherd the company through the transformative tragedy of 9/11, not even a year into the brand’s debut, and she’s had to navigate through the grey gloom of the 2008 recession. In both instances she’s emerged more economically focused and resilient than in the times prior. Over the years, she’s kept a lean operation, doing her best to control the margins in areas that don’t affect the quality of her products. Initially, she rejected wholesaling UNIS due to the inherent risks involved (late paying stores, lower profit margins), and she spent a number of years using her apartment as the UNIS offices and warehouse.
She likes to cite french labels, Agnès B. and A.P.C, both very popular in the late ‘90s, as formative influences on her decision to go straight into a brick-and-mortar location, instead of relying on wholesale. “As a designer, one of the things we fantasized about [at DKNY] was, ‘what if you had your own store?’,” she says. “Both Agnes B. and A.P.C were influential because you just felt like they were such quiet brands. They were super tasteful, they really have a strong brand message, they just walk their own walk. That just seemed so appealing to me.”
Financially, the brand is entirely self-funded, and having never taken on any outside investors, Ms. Lee still owns 100 percent of the company. But the decision to forego outside investment, paired with deliberately slow, methodical growth, has, predictably, come with trade offs. “What’s held the company back is my own cash flow,” Ms. Lee says, referring to the bootstrapping approach she’s taken. “If I had more cash on hand, we would probably double [in size].” She was reluctant to disclose exact revenue figures, but did reveal that UNIS grew by 25 percent in 2013, a slower rate than usual due to the financial strain from opening the a new location in Los Angeles that year. That rate got back on track in 2014, ending up at 50 percent growth.
These numbers are largely fueled by the Gio, UNIS’ signature line of tailored chinos. It may have taken a discussion on pricey T-shirts to provoke a fiery response, but make no mistake about it: Ms. Lee’s livelihood — and similarly that of UNIS — is driven by a passion for pants, specifically a proper chino. When it comes to this versatile and much-loved style of pants, UNIS is worshipped. And within the contemporary menswear circle, Ms. Lee is regarded as a doyenne in the field, the rare example of a woman running, and owning outright, a successful and influential menswear operation.
Her brand is widely recognized, by both industry insiders and newcomers, alike, as one of the more important names in today’s American menswear — and it’s her tailored pants that consistently bring the brand praise. “I basically brought the skinny chino back to America,” she laughs. And certainly the argument could be made that she is, in fact, largely responsible for raising the profile of khakis and chinos in the US, from that of a throwaway commodity — a staid, ill-fitting business staple most often found at suburban office parks — to a luxury item coveted by today’s shopper.
The Gio arrived in 2007, a number of years before tailored high-end khakis became popular. It debuted years before J.Crew, Club Monaco, Michael Bastian, and even Brunello Cucinelli, started introducing modern, slimmed-down versions of their own. Their renditions, which began arriving in 2010 and 2011, were bold, unconventional, and military-inspired. Think: camo patterns, trim cargo pants, and, sometimes, a combination of both.
But the Gio has always remained more classic and restrained, never stepping over into wild patterns or unnecessary details. Ms. Lee is a creature of perfection, and the Gio, nine years later, remains a work in progress, she says. Still, she’s managed to find an acceptable working template: The pants are made from high-end Italian cotton twill (always in tasteful, basic colors), and they are of course tailored to perfection — slim and tapered through the leg, which makes for a dressier look. “I think you do have to offer a lot of value when it comes to chinos that are basically $200 a pair,” she says. “There has to be something about them that makes them special.” She adds: “I say to my customers, ‘It’s not just an American chino; it’s a very tailored, fitted pant.’ That’s why so many guys love the way it fits. It doesn’t fit like a slimmed-down American casual worker’s chino–I actually tailored this pant as a dress pant.”
Bonobos co-founder, Andy Dunn, published an insightful editorial a few years ago on Medium entitled “Get One Thing Right”. In it, he emphasized the need for emerging brands to first become specialists in a single item, and to exercise restraint in expanding their product lines. The idea is to think about the core consumer first (rather than feed the ego of the brand), and to avoid aiming to be all things to all people. “A great brand is a privilege, and it’s a privilege best earned through an item, not through a collection,” he wrote. “Designers and merchants and founders think about collections. Consumers think about items.”
Ms. Lee adopted this philosophy for survival. “I built the line up one item at a time,” she says, noting the financial limitations that necessitated that business model. “Realizing, at the end of it, that the Gio was my bread and butter, I put all my money into that one basket. Basically, there’ve been seasons where I couldn’t afford to make shirts or other products,” she adds. “It’s so hard to explain to my customers. But being self-financed, it’s made me realize just how important this one product has been for me. I’ve got to make it the best it can possibly be.”
True to form, the Gio’s introduction marked the UNIS’ turning point. After nearly a decade of toil and slow growth, Ms. Lee was close to folding. But in late April 2009, the New York Times ran a feature on the company highlighting the charm of the boutique, which brought a much-needed boost in attention and foot traffic. “That New York Times article was such a big deal for us,” she says. “I was crying when I read it because I was that close to walking away.” Though calls started pouring in, it took yet another big break for the Gio to finally catch on for good.
In 2009, slim chinos were not much of an item. Raw selvedge denim dominated. But soon after the NYT piece, Ms. Lee was named a 2010 nominee by GQ and the Council of Fashion Designers of America for their Best New Menswear Designers in America award. It was a nomination that was largely fueled by the judges’ reverence for the Gio.
Though she would lose out to southern gentleman, Billy Reid, the visibility solidified UNIS’ stature (alongside names like Michael Bastian, Mr. Reid, and Ovadia & Sons, at the time) as an esteemed member of the new menswear pantheon. Most important of all: It helped to move the Gio off the shelves. “That was when they really blew up,” she says. “It does really take press to help sell an idea to the consumer.”