Spiewak interviews AKIRA, the store that keeps Chicago on the cutting edge of fashion

When did Akira open and what was the inspiration behind it?
AKIRA first opened in July of 2002. The inspiration was three college friends opening their own business, a small women's clothing boutique, with very low expectations. The three owners knew nothing, were dumb enough to try, but they were smart enough to learn and work hard every day.

How did you select the area for your first store? Tell us what you love about your neighborhood?
AKIRA’s first choice for location was Lincoln Park. We felt there was stronger population density, but unfortunately the locations we were interested in, the landlords weren't interested in us because we didn't have a track record. We were simply a start up. Our second choice was the eclectic Bucktown neighborhood. What it lacked in population density, it made up for in terms of centralization and accessibility. Also, it's a very hip and trendy area, and it was up and coming. Back in 2002 when we first opened, it was grittier and edgier. Over the last 8 years, the neighborhood has exploded, and we've prospered along with the growth in the neighborhood. We've been very lucky.

How long has AKIRA been carrying Spiewak Outerwear? Why do you and your customers like Spiewak? Do you have any favorite fall 2010 Spiewak jackets?
AKIRA has been carrying Spiewak outerwear for the past four years. Our customers like Spiewak because the jackets are stylish and can be worn forever. All three owners have a Spiewak jacket from the first season that we carried it and they all still wear them, almost four years later. AKIRA’s favorite will always be the classic Spiewak jacket for fall. It’s one of our top sellers and our customer’s go-to jacket.

Besides Spiewak, what are other lines that inspire you and inspire loyalty in your customers?
Our favorite lines are some that we have carried as long as Spiewak. Ben Sherman men’s clothing, Steve Madden footwear and we also love newer lines Paige Premium Denim and PF Flyers footwear.

What are the two most important pieces every man and woman needs to add to their wardrobe for fall 2010?

The two most important pieces every man and woman needs for fall include a nice-fitting blazer and transitional pair of boots. Blazer and boots are perfect items for fall because they can easily be dressed up or dressed down.

What are your personal favorite items at AKIRA right now?
Our favorite items at AKIRA right now include our new leggings, blazers, and chic cargos from the AKIRA private label and numerous other brands.

Do you have any upcoming store events this fall?
Our big upcoming event is our fall fashion show charity benefit, Garden of Eden, that benefit’s Chicago non-profit Imerman Angels. All proceeds from Garden of Eden benefit Imerman Angels, a not-for-profit organization that provides 1-on-1 cancer support by connecting cancer fighters, survivors, and caregivers all across the country. Our fall fashion show features the AKIRA label and our hottest brands for fall.

We do an event each week for each store that is in different neighborhoods. Whether it is a shoe-painting party, a neighborhood cookout, bachelorette party with special discount or an in-store celebrity appearance, we try to keep our customers happy no matter where they are in the city.

How does the visual design of AKIRA brand your retail identity and affect customer’s shopping experience?
The look and feel of every AKIRA store is different and unique. We feel strongly about color combinations, and subconscious feel. When you first walk into any store or restaurant, you don't exactly know why you like or don't like a place, but you know how you feel and you know if you want to stay, leave, or come back. From lighting, to music, to spacing, for us, retail is detail. We started as a small boutique, and we try to stay true to that feeling of warmth and intimacy even as our stores grow larger in size. We want our customers to feel like they want to stay, relax, shop, and try stuff on. Because our business is client and service driven, we have a lot of dressing rooms. 25 to 30 dressing rooms in each AKIRA store aren’t uncommon. Also, we've never been fans of the overly minimal, "walking on glass" "scrutinizing" feeling of other high-end boutiques. We want our clients to walk in, feel comfortable messing up a rack of clothes, and know that we don't take ourselves too seriously. We want everyone to have fun - whether you're driving a Lamborghini and paying with a Black Card, or a college student combing through the sale rack looking for a $10 shirt. We'd rather you hear everyone's laughter as opposed to a pin drop.

Do you get a lot of feedback from customers? How does this affect your business?
Feedback from our customers is extremely vital and it helps to drive our business. We believe that feedback is everything. When a customer buys something that tells us something. When they don't, that equally tells us. We look at reports every week to see what is selling and what isn’t. Our customers shop at AKIRA because they know our job is to make them look good. Very often items that they find in our stores are found first before the mainstream at department stores months later. At AKIRA when it comes to fashion we believe it’s good to be first.

What was your first job in the apparel industry?
The first job in the industry was AKIRA for the three owners. Neither Jon, Erikka, nor Eric had any retail experience whatsoever. That was good and bad. Bad, because we didn't know what we were doing and had to learn. Good because we didn't have any preconceived notions of what retail was and had to ask "why?" all the time and we still do today. The 5 most dangerous words in business are, "everybody else is doing it" so regardless of what other people do, we do things our way because it works for us or we think it makes sense. If doesn't work or doesn't make sense, we change it. We make mistakes every day, but we learn.

Do your travels influence your purchases? Do you have any exciting trips planned for the fall or holidays?
Travels heavily influence our purchases for the store. One of our owners Erikka travels all over the world to look for new and creative lines to introduce in the store. Our private line is designed in Europe and Brazil to keep things fresh and interesting in Chicago. We are excited for our annual trip to Magic in Vegas and the owner’s monthly trips in and out of the country.

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