Looking back now at the fabulous sneaker-dominated retail business two 20-something guys founded in Las Vegas almost ten years ago, it would seem that they had a clearly defined plan. But according to co-founder EJ Luera, (whose business card reads “nice guy”), it was a little risk-taking and a lot of luck. “I don’t have a fashion or retail background,” he confides. “I was in nightlife: I was a DJ, I did marketing. My business partner Ajay Bouri is the fashion visionary. I merely invested in his vision.”
EJ shares how Ajay, who worked with him at a nightclub in Reno, had the idea to sublease a tiny corner in a women’s apparel store called The Attic to launch The Basement, a collection of contemporary menswear. The Attic ultimately (and quietly) closed but Ajay maintained relationships with his vendors and continued to service clients out of the trunk of his car.
“When he moved to Vegas, he kept those accounts open and also started selling to nightclub hosts, cocktail waitresses, etc. We realized there was a void in Vegas for what we offered so I decided to invest some money to open a store in Chinatown (a modest neighborhood about two miles from the strip). I think between us, we invested $75,000. The shelving was from Ikea; our iconic ‘sneaker tunnel’ is made from raw steel, brick, and wood. When we opened at the Wynn last year, we took the Chinatown concept and simply elevated it. The sneaker tunnel features LED lighting, the wall coverings are original art and live moss, the fixtures are all unique. The Wynn experience is more elevated but the Chinatown store is a more authentic reflection of urban street culture and during conventions, people from all over come to check it out.” (Editor’s note: we recommend Taco Tuesdays for the food trucks, DJ and bar.)
While FEATURE boasts a sophisticated web business that generates a good 75 percent of sales, the stores are so much fun. (Editor’s note: We challenge you to visit their sneaker tunnel without buying new sneakers! I bought featherweight Nikes and Comme des Garçons/Converse with little red hearts.)
As a top tier account for all the cool brands and collaborations, EJ explains how the business has evolved. “When we first opened nine years ago, we had to convince brands to take a chance on us. We were in a crappy location in Chinatown with our Ikea shelves and our entry-level brands. Because we couldn’t get the brands we wanted, we took a chance on some little-known boutique brands that had not yet established themselves. And then lightening hit: a few of those brands caught fire; our credibility came from the fact that we happened to have those brands at the right time and that credibility attracted other cool brands.”
Ironically, while risk-taking put FEATURE on the map (a third store will soon open in Calabasas), the guys are no longer taking chances bringing in untested brands. “At our stage of development,” EJ explains, “we probably won’t take chances on untested designers anymore. We’ve become image accounts for many cool brands so other cool brands are seeking us out. Not all of course: we had to pursue Margiela; we had to court Thom Browne. But for the most part, they’re coming to us. We probably carry 60 to 80 vendors (sneakers, apparel, accessories) in the store and that’s too many. We want to go deeper into the brands doing well and take fewer chances on the others.”
EJ also credits luck for allowing the business to flourish without Nike for so many years. “We didn’t get Nike until year seven but we were fortunate to be part of the retro-runner resurgence,” he explains. “Saucony, Asics, New Balance—we were top tier accounts with those guys and almost top-tier with Adidas. That’s what got us through.”
In conclusion, with all the excitement of launch parties and collaborations and pop-up shots, EJ emphasizes the value of persistence. “CDG turned us down for five years. Ajay would keep calling them but he’d never get past an assistant. They complained that we were in Chinatown; we remodeled four times and expanded before they’d finally give us an account. MCM had a resurgence in the urban market and Ajay would wake up at 3:00 am every day for a month to call Germany to maybe find someone who spoke English. They had no concept of Chinatown in Las Vegas but we finally got 1,000 very cool backpacks to put on our Ikea shelves. So the message is to never give up!”