Blake: The mayor

by Elise Diamantini

Blake proves that loyalty is its own reward.

“To be honest, I’m really just a big retail nerd,” proclaims Blake Nieman-Davis, owner of Blake in Portland, Oregon. “I’m probably going to just nerd out after we finish this call: check out all the retail shops and observe people’s buying behavior.” Nieman-Davis was in Palm Springs for a wedding when we interviewed him—surrounded by beautiful weather and beautiful beaches—and all he could think about was shopping stores.

Growing up on the West Coast, Nieman-Davis had jobs in retail, but it was a trip to New York that validated his decision to make it a career. He started at Federated in the executive training program, and then went on to launch Kenneth Cole Reaction’s wholesale specialty store business. “It was a comedy of errors,” Nieman-Davis remembers. “I knew nothing, but that naivety may have helped me. When I first started, my boss told me that I had to get into Canal Jeans Company, so the next day I went to the store and asked for the buyer (who obviously wouldn’t meet with me without an appointment…). So I waited there all day until she finally agreed to see the line.” As luck (or persistence) would have it, that order with Canal Jeans turned out to be bigger than another rep’s order for all of Macy’s East! “Reaction was an urban brand at that time, so I’d spend weekends on Fulton Street and watch how guys would shop at S&B Underground. I remember seeing them measure jean cuffs. I’d ask why they were doing that and they’d tell me, ‘Well, the cuff has to be wide enough to go over my Timberlands…’ I’d take in that information and relay it back to people at the office.”

After a few more stints in retail and wholesale, Nieman-Davis heard about a store closing back where he grew up, in Portland. And so, in 2003, he took over the space and opened Blake. Two years ago he moved into a bigger space and has since created one of the best denim stores in the U.S. “What I’m learning with the new store is how to keep up with the pace and volume. Last year we were up 60 percent and we’re already up 30 percent over last spring.”

New for fall ’12 is a private label line of men’s wovens ($150 to $200 retail), outerwear, non-denim bottoms (just under $150) and T-shirts. Nieman-Davis is involved in every part of the design process. “We’re also launching footwear in a small way. I have really good relationships with the local shoe stores, so I don’t want to bring in anything that will compete with them. Our apparel mix is so diverse that it won’t seem weird to have a $54 pair of Toms sitting next to a $500 pair of boots.”

The majority of his business still comes from denim, but non-denim is a growing category. Best-selling styles are $240 retail selvedge chinos from RRL. “We can’t keep them in stock, but at the same time we’re selling $130 non-denim from AG.” Outerwear is another hot category. “We’re in Portland; people buy jackets all year. We do well with RRL, Spiewak and Engineered Garments. I buy product that’s functional and want to give customers a stylish way to protect against the weather.”

Nieman-Davis attributes much of his success to customer relationships. “I know everyone says that, but it’s true. I try to offer them a really authentic experience. We’re honest, sincere and not pushy; we may even talk someone out of something if it’s not appropriate. I have loyal customers because I’m not forcing them to be loyal. Great service is everything to me. About a year ago I helped a woman find jeans for an interview. She came back to tell me that she nailed it because she felt good about how she looked. It gave her confidence and she got the job. Hearing that changed my perspective and made me realize that what we do is important to people.”

Not surprisingly, his relationships with the Portland community are similar in strength and sincerity to those with his customers and within the industry. This year he even ran for mayor of Portland. “I was campaigning for the past few months and doing really bold things that no other candidate would be dumb enough to do. For example, I announced that if I got elected, I would donate my entire salary to the public school system. Portland is a screwy town with a history of electing really bizarre people for mayor. I was getting nervous that I might actually get elected, so I started begging people not to vote for me! Deep down I know I don’t have time to do both jobs at the same time, so it wouldn’t be fair if I won.”

However, he’s spending more time off the floor to work on other projects for the store. “I’d love to open another store. I don’t think Portland needs another Blake, so if I opened something here it’d have to be different. I joke and say I’d open a store in a sunny place, live there from January to June and move back to Portland for the summer. Like Blake Mexico…now that’s an idea!”

Fast Facts

* Established in 2003
* Location: Portland, Oregon
* Size: 3,700 sq. ft.
* Classification breakdown: 50% denim, 15% outerwear, 15% knits, 10% accessories, 10% antiques
* 50% men’s/50% women’s
* Top brands: RRL, Engineered Garments, Spiewak, AG