“BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR IS A GREAT LIFE IF YOU CAN GET THE MATH TO WORK OUT.”
A finance guy for most of his career, Chuck Hellman is the last person on earth who envisioned himself a social media star, despite his strong passion for fashion. But with 175,000 followers on Instagram and 4.0+ million on Tik Tok, that’s exactly what he’s become…big time!
His retail roots are traditional, dating back to 1983 when he started climbing the corporate ladder at Bamberger’s and May Company. From 2007 to 2012, he was CEO of Robert Graham until Tengram bought the company. In 2012, while still in NYC, he bought Blaine’s Apparel in Cincinnati as a hobby; he quickly realized that with proper care and assortment, it could quickly grow to over seven figures. In 2017, after 34 years in New York City, he moved back to Ohio and opened Hellman Clothiers, his first namesake store in downtown Cincinnati. His two men’s stores vary in assortments as the clientele is completely different. Chuck dresses many high-profile clients, not his main business but certainly good “press.” In 2019, he opened a high-end women’s store called Le Lieu and then a second men’s location for Hellman Clothiers. “I guess I’m back to being a retailer,” he observes, confiding that he’s now having the most fun of his entire career. “Being an entrepreneur is a great life if you can get the math to work.”
So what accounts for this 60-year-old’s unlikely stardom as a Tik Tok phenom? “I added social media during Covid and hired Christian Barker, a 22-year-old kid just out of school, to run it for me. I knew I wanted to do something with this guy; I sensed social media could be bigger than it was but I never imagined how big. Christian is now brand director of Hellman Retail Group and my partner in our separate media company called Rokkit Media. People pay us to take over their social media and grow it to make their brands more relevant and meaningful.”
Chuck’s latest project is in the Crypto space tied to NFTs. Called Metaluxe, it’s a premium collection of programmatically generated NFTs on the Ethereum Blockchain, consistimg of 2,000 randomly generated suits encompassing different concepts, designs and rarities. “We’ve doubled down and expanded into numerous revenue streams: I now speak at Tik Tok conferences and they pay us to make videos. With the heavy engagement and traffic we drive, brands pay $10,000 per video to be on our page. But I needed young people to imagine the possibilities and figure out how to implement these all-new concepts.”
Hellman’s team posts videos daily, consistently generating five to seven million views per video. Many are quirky, using Japanese anime dressed in suits and accessories in various themes: Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America, Minecraft, Black Panther, Skyrim and many more shown @hellmanretailgroup… Hellman himself appears in all of these videos, looking perfectly out of place, so uncool he seems cool. “Our concept is to mix fashion with popular culture, and our sales increases (up triple digits vs. 2019) confirm that we’re killing it! We have four people on our team aged 23 or younger and they really get it. Yes, they needed to be taught our work ethic and how to think smart, but they understand the zeitgeist and I’m happy to mentor them. It’s a lot of fun coming to work these days!”
Also fun: covering trade shows, especially flying to Florence twice a year for Pitti Uomo, where Hellman never fails to discover new brands and innovative ideas. “Our platforms attract people from all over the world. About 70 percent of our online business is overseas. One key lesson I’ve learned from the pandemic is to listen rather than dictate: we show our mix of quirky humor, fashion and popular culture and let the community tell us where to go from there…”
Among his mentors over the years, Hellman singles out designer Robert Stock (“an amazing talent and a truly gentle soul”) and Steven Wax (“a brilliant negotiator and detail person who knows how to make people feel good about themselves.”) Hellman’s best advice to young people first entering the business: “Understand cash flow. To succeed in the fashion world today, you need cash.”