Bishop Collective Finds the Balance between Brick and Mortar and Online Retail

Are you an avid online shopper or is brick and mortar retail your preferred choice? Whichever side of the retail aisle expresses your predilection; there is no doubt the retail market has been drastically altered in the past decade.

The Bishop Collective has found the best of both worlds and is making those tried and true retail principles work for their online and brick and mortar store. Launched in 2013 by two college professors, Mai Vu and Dmitri Koumbis, Bishop Collective speaks to that consumer who is looking for unique, well-crafted garments that can stand the test of time.

Dmitri Koumbis took out time from his extremely busy schedule and spoke with Fashion Reverie about what he knows to be true about fashion retail.

Mai Vu and Dmitri Koumbis

Fashion Reverie: What was the inspiration behind the Bishop Collective?Dmitri Koumbis: The Bishop Collective started from lots of conversations I was having with my students in the classroom. We were having conversations about how we could change the currents models of retailing. My business partner and I, Mai Vu, began giving projects to my students that were the basis for what the Bishop Collective is today, things like crowd sourcing and funding; how to you create a successful campaign as a start-up, and branding opportunities. As time went on, we began to use the information we got from our students to drive a business. Later, Bishop Collective became its on entity, launching first online in October of 2013. We were online for five years and we opened our brick and mortar store on the Lower Eastside in June of 2018.

FR: Why the name Bishop Collective?

Dmitri Koumbis: My background is in graphic design and aesthetics. So, when Mai and I were trying to come up with a name for the company, we toyed around with lots of different names and could come up with anything we really liked. As a distraction to hitting a wall with coming up a name for the company, I started to learn chess. I was researching the different names of the chess board pieces and the name Bishop kept coming up and position of the Bishop in relation to the other chess pieces. I also was looking at some old fashion magazines and I found a fashion editorial of Twilda Swinton as the black and white queens. That was a signature omen that Bishop would be the name of our brand. Also, graphically Bishop worked out well as a logo and other graphic images for the brand.

FR: You started Bishop Collection as an online store. Why did you recently include a brick and mortar model?

Dmitri Koumbis: Bishop Collective curates collections from a lot of emerging designers, so it is important that our customers can feel the fabrics of our collections, as well as study the design aesthetics and silhouettes. It was difficult for a customer to see and touch these emerging designers clothing because we were only online; also, most of the brands we feature are not in major retail stores.

We started by producing pop-up shops which brought in lots of foot traffic. When we had our last pop-up store on Mulberry Street, we had a large influx of consumers coming through and received really good feedback from them. We realized that having a brick and mortar was essential to the trajectory of Bishop Collective. We found this space last summer and we are pleased with our growth so far.

FR: You opened this store on the Lower Eastside, which is traditionally not associated with a fashion-forward sensibility. Why open in this location?

Dmitri Koumbis: We believe that the Lower Eastside is an up-and-coming neighborhood. However, me and my business partner placed Bishop Collective in this area because we love the way the Lower Eastside still looks.

We both moved to New York City because it was a gritty city that you had to fight hard to survive and make it. And there is a certain aesthetic to New York City that is near and dear to me and Mai. There are the raw materials like brick outer surfaces that are still evident; buildings that are pre-war that have a certain architectural brilliance, and a little bit of dilapidation that has its charm.

We wanted to find a bit of New York City that still had that Old World charm. When we first moved in many of the older store owners were not that kind to us; they thought we were here to gentrify. But they came around after a few months and are now very welcoming.

FR: What is your background?

Dmitri Koumbis: I have been in retail since I was 16. I worked my way up from sales associate to a visual merchandiser, eventually working in the corporate offices of Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic. At some point, I decided to go back to school to get my degrees in interior design and visual management, and later advanced degrees in graphic design and visual marketing. In graduate school I realized I wanted to work in academia so that I could be involved in educating young people.

After I completed my master’s programs, I got a part-time position teaching in New York City. (Dmitri Koumbis currently is an adjunct professor at LIM College and Parsons School of Design.) I met my business partner Mai Vu, who is also an academician, because we shared office space. Mai Vu has a background in fashion theory and has worked as an archivist for Ralph Lauren and a few other companies.

Over time, we realized we were missing something in delivering to our students information from the retail industry to the actual classroom. We wanted to bring something to the classroom that was more relevant, so we started asking our students what they would like in a retail space. We used that classroom information to eventually birth Bishop Collective.

FR: In the “About Us” section of the Bishop Collective website, you speak about educating the consumer about fast fashion versus slow fashion. Could you elaborate on that concept?

 Dmitri Koumbis: Slow fashion stems from relating to fashion that is more ethically focused. This focus goes beyond just sustainability or product that is not petroleum based. Slow fashion is about considering fashion that is more holistically based.

We are trying to get away from the idea of mass consumption where consumers buy something just to own the product without having any connection with the real product. We see ourselves as the intermediary between the consumer and the fashion brand, educating the consumer on the complete story of the processes behind the brand.

We are finding that much of product that is currently on the market is so similar and there is very little character, nuance or texture to much of what is being mass produced. Slow fashion allows the designer to have more creativity behind their timeframe.

Bishop Collective brands House Dress and Luz Ortiz

FR: Are all your brands US–based?Dmitri Koumbis: Our brands are not all US–based, but they all manufacture in the US. The raw goods may not be, but the final product is all manufactured here.

FR: Who is your customer?

Dmitri Koumbis: Our core customer is aged 25 to 38; but, can go beyond that age range. Through and through, our customer is very well educated about what she likes and fashion in general. She’s well-versed in what is going on in politics, economics, and the arts. She is also street driven and community centered. In fact, she is the quintessential everywoman. Our core consumer appreciates higher priced goods that are well-made which is the antithesis to fast fashion.

Interestingly, since we opened our brick and mortar, a lot of male consumers have come into the store and bought product, even though our product is not male-centered or necessarily gender fluid. Our product is so well made that men are finding ways to work our product into their wardrobes. Our male consumer is usually more fashion driven, so he is looking for unique pieces that can become conversational.

Bishop Collective brands Matine and CV Saint

FR: What are the price points for your merchandise online and in the store?Dmitri Koumbis: Price points range from $36, which is own tee shirt, to $600 for a coat and our accessories from $35 to $150. We try to explain to our customer that you are not just buying a garment, you are helping to pay someone’s wage to make that purchase or garment.

FR: Brick and mortar versus online; advantages and disadvantages.

Dmitri Koumbis: One of the advantages of having an online retail store is you become accessible to a much larger audience. You can  reach out to a global audience in a much faster way. It can also be an easier link to your social media campaigns and audiences. Still, for all its benefits, online is a tool; a tool to access if the product is necessity, and as a tool for research and investigation.

Researchers have identified three motivations for consumer shopping: necessity, brand patronage, and emotionally driven stimulation. The problem with shopping in the online space is that the push for online shopping proliferation is being done by companies that need online shopping to succeed and exceed brick and mortar shopping. Companies like Amazon, Alibaba, and other companies are truly committed and invested in promoting this agenda. However, a lot of the theories around online shopping simply don’t fly. Consumers, particularly women, who need to purchase a special or unique item like a wedding dress or that garment for a special event need to touch and feel that garment before they are comfortable with their purchase.

One of the benefits of brick and mortar retail is that owners get to have one-on-one conversations with consumers that are much more detailed and informative than a conversation you can have with that chat box that pops up on your screen when shopping online. Because of this lack of retail intimacy, if you want to call it that, there is a huge rate of return with online shopping, ranging usually between 40% to 60%.

We have put more of our financial resources into our new brick and mortar because real spaces require a lot more care and maintenance than virtual spaces. But the turnaround financially and emotionally is so worth the costs because we are already seeing more return customers to our brick and mortar than to our online store, and we are developing better relationships with our customers.

FR: Cost wise, what is the rate of return on your dollar for brick and mortar  versus online?

Dmitri Koumbis: For our online store we were spending easily upward of $15,000 a month for Ad words, SEO, and other things just so consumers could find our site and our ranking on Google would be high. That is much more than our monthly rent for the brick and mortar. And that cost was necessary for an online store that is not associated with a mainstream brand. Most online stores that are outside of that inner sanctum of household name brands are spending that much and cannot afford to have both an online presence and a brick and mortar. And the online costs are continuing to rise.

Brick and mortar presences must be more experiential for the modern customer so that you can build that relationship. We sponsor lots of events in our store and we are starting to see some of the same folks at are events that are transitioning into repeat customers, you cannot do that with only an online presence.

We also must keep a lot of product in the brick and mortar store because we sometimes sell out quickly and you want the racks to look relatively full. We buy product directly from our brands and then we re-order if needs be. Still, we must work around issues of foot traffic in the months were consumers are not shopping as much.

Images courtesy of The Bromley Group

FR: In this current retail climate, how to you stay passionate, happy, and hopeful?Dmitri Koumbis: Inherently, I am a pretty happy person. I also vibe off other people’s happy energy. I do have a lot on my plate with managing Bishop and Collective and teaching classes at LIM College and Parsons, so it necessary for me to stay positive so that I bring good energy to my students. On days when I do feel so energetic and passionate, I look to all the stable in my life who are very supportive. I give back to the community and community gives back to me.

—William S. Gooch

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