If you’re a woman living in New York and you have a pulse, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of Otte… or have shopped there on numerous occasions. Otte is a womenswear retail chain that carries established brands such as Alexander Wang & Kenzo, as well as some emerging designers you don’t know but will undoubtedly will soon. Their assortment is unparalleled to any other retailer and it’s all thanks to their founder, Kay Lee.
Kay is the epitome of a retail powerhouse. A bonafide fashion veteran by now, Kay has the “I moved to NYC and made my dreams come true” story down pat. Born in South Korea, Kay found herself in New York in her early 20s, enrolled at Parsons to study fashion design, ended up designing for a mass-market brand, and years later (after much experience and business savvy adopted along the way) came to the realization that she wanted something of her own. Amen, sister.
In 1999, Kay stumbled upon a retail space in Williamsburg (back before it was the gentrified, over-saturated area we all know and love) while on a stroll with girlfriends. Next thing you know, she opened her first retail shop and fast forward 15 years later she is the proud owner of seven locations (5 in Manhattan, 2 in Malibu) a booming online shop, and an Otte namesake label. Has she impressed you yet? Thought so.
We chatted with Kay about her buying process, guilty pleasures, and favorite NYC dishes. Meet Kay and learn a few things…
First up: Rapid fire questions
Coffee or tea?
Booties or flats?
Laptop or desktop?
Sweet or savory?
Uptown or Downtown?
Jeans or dresses?
Now, the rest…
OTTE was founded in 1999 with the first store in Williamsburg. Tell us a bit about the journey of opening multiple retail locations?
We are celebrating our 15th anniversary this year! I started in Williamsburg in 1999, back then the neighborhood was just starting to change and there weren’t really any other boutiques around. In 2001 the opportunity to open a second location in the West Village came up and I took it—that location has been open in the same spot for 13 years, and it completely changed my business, so many designers wanted to sell to me because of the location. Since West Village grew so quickly, it was easy to expand to other locations in Manhattan after that. Madison was next, followed by TriBeCa in 2009. We closed the original Williamsburg location in 2011, but followed up by opening our biggest store to date in 2012, on Third Avenue, and NoLIta last fall. Each location caters to a different customer, the woman who shops with us at our Upper East Side stores is different from the one who shops downtown, and even those locations have a unique clientele.
You carry some established designers such as 3.1 Phillip Lim and Kenzo, and also some up-and-comers such as Demy Lee and Marie Turnor. What is your process for discovering new talent and how do you determine whether they’re the right fit for you?
I started carrying Phillip Lim way back when he had his first line, Development, which was very simple. Now he is one of the bigger designers we carry. I am always looking for new designers to add to our stores. I look through magazines and keep an eye on what is trending online and also on the streets. Sometimes if I see something I really like on someone, I’ll ask them where it’s from and then do research on the designer. I worked out of an office in our West Village location for about the first ten years, so I was able to interact with customers on a daily basis, finding out what they like and what they’re looking for, and I still keep an eye on what our customers buy and what they ask our associates about even though I am not in the stores every single day.
You also have a successful online store. What’s it like running both, and what’s your secret to staying organized between all locations and online?
Our roots are in retail, every location is a little different, and we pay attention to every detail of a customer’s experience from how we merchandise the selection to our stores’ decorations, lighting, even music sets the mood. E-commerce is very different from retail store because we have less control of a customer’s overall experience with our brand online – they could be here from web search, from our homepage, from an affiliate link or even from social media. So, in order to represent our brand well online, we really focus on editorial content and photography to set the mood for our brand. The secret to staying organized is to have consistency in our style and identity.
We hear you love to travel. What is your favorite city in the world and where are you dying to visit?
I recently visited Greece. I loved the islands, especially Mykonos and Santorini. I’m dying to visit the Maldives!
You have five locations in Manhattan and two in Malibu. Do you have a favorite?
My favorite location is the West Village. It’s our oldest open store, and I worked as a salesperson there for many years as well as doing the buying, so I’m very sentimental about that location.
Let’s chat food. List out your three must-eat dishes in NYC:
Fill in the blank: ____ is my guilty pleasure.
Booking a luxury trip
How do you decompress from a long and stressful day?
I take a long hot bath or get a deep tissue massage from Cowshed Spa at the SoHo House.
You must’ve built up quite a clientele list throughout the years, and I know we’re all special to you! Who has been one of your favorite women to dress?
Julianne Moore and Helene Miller
What’s in OTTE’s 5 year plan?
We have an in-house line, Otte New York, which we’re expanding to a full lifestyle brand. We’re also working to build up our e-commerce business globally, and possibly looking at retail stores in different cities down the road.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love going to buying appointments and seeing the amazing pieces that I know will be good in our stores!
All photography by yours truly.