Nicole Tondre and Lisa Fuller of Courtshop definitely embody their brand: unpretentious and totally cool, which can be a tough combo to find in downtown Manhattan. They opened the doors of their Nolita boutique in 2008 and it quickly became a favorite destination for hip girls looking for understated wardrobe staples at reasonable prices. The one thing that they felt was missing was great denim that fit the same bill, so they launched their own in-house line in 2011.
Courtshop denim specializes in clean, simple jeans in classic washes that have an emphasis on great fit, specifically higher waisted styles. Nothing the girls do is focused on branding or fads, and you won’t hear them wax philosophical about collection inspirations. Instead they talk constantly about their girls, meaning the loyal shoppers who dictate what designs they come up with next.
I met Nicole and Lisa at their brand new Mott St. location (they moved last week from around the corner). The shiny new retail space is evidence of the major growth the brand has experienced in the last year. No longer an under-the-radar cult fave, Courtshop is now stocked in 100 stores including Stevan Alan, Shopbop.com and Bonadrag.com, not to mention worn by the likes of Drew Barrymore and Michelle Williams. After scooping up a pair of high waisted summer shorts (this column is actually a cover for my shopping addiction), we popped around the corner to sip sangria and chat about denim, dogs (Lisa has a naughty Boston Terrier and Nicole has an American Eskimo mix) and how they built their brand.
Do you both have a background in fashion?
Nicole Tondre: I did study fashion in Colorado and New York majoring in design. As soon as I finished school I came to New York and started working for designers. I was in midtown with different brands—a lot of surf and skate denim.
Lisa Fuller: I actually went to business school and worked in finance at home in Toronto. I just couldn’t handle business casual though. My parents were pleased, but it wasn’t me. I always knew I wanted to see other things and live somewhere else so I came to New York with a suitcase. I always loved fashion and clothes and hated banks!
How did you two connect?
N: In 2004 I switched gears from design into retail and opened my own store in the East Village, Circa Now. It was a great neighborhood store, lots of vintage and denim. I met Lisa in 2006 through some fashion friends. My former business partner and I ended up hiring Lisa as our first hire, and when my business partner Chrissy moved to Portland, Lisa and I partnered up.
So how did Courtshop come about?
N: We knew we wanted to start something new, since Circa Now hadn’t been launched by both of us. Initially it was just a boutique with vintage and contemporary.
How did you choose the name and location?
N: We knew we wanted to be down here in Nolita. We had done the East Village. Vintage was dying down, and we were growing up. We just wanted to get a little more serious about a brand, and this neighborhood just seemed right. We chose the name Court because it was memorable, unisex and has multiple meanings. You have to come up with something simple that people can remember.
L: It’s not trendy or cyclical. It doesn’t talk about antlers or triangles …
How did you decide what brands to stock and what the vibe of the store would be?
N: It’s always been about what are the brands we are wearing right now, what are our friends wearing right now, what are the girls in the neighborhood wearing right now. Price point is always important to us. Under $200, approachable. When we opened we had Richard Ruiz, Mara Hoffman, Mary Myer, Something Else, Grey Ant Denim, Kill City Denim. Lots of vintage.
Was denim always important to you guys?
N: Denim was always a big deal at Circa Now. We had Grey Ant and Acne back in 2004. Anyone that sold a high waist, we would stock it. Back then it was hard to come by a good high waist.
L: Even now it’s hard to find high waist in a variety of styles and washes. A denim line was always a goal. We did lots of sampling in the early days, but officially launched it in September 2010. We started with five fits and a dozen washes overall.
N: We had been fine tuning and designing for about a year before. We had a high waist skinny, high waist strait, mid rise skinny, mid rise strait and a flare.
How do you begin to tackle something as ubiquitous as denim?
L: It didn’t feel like such an undertaking because we already had a customer base, who knew what she wanted.
N: We knew what she didn’t like about the other brands whether it was the price or the fabric. We were selling $325 dollar jeans and then it became 2009, and that wasn’t happening for people. There was nobody else doing denim downtown at that time either. There was nobody doing basic denim: cool, nondescript basic jeans.
L: Then everyone went crazy with color, patters, prints. All the jeans you see at Beacon’s Closet now. And we just never went in that direction.
How do you reinvent denim every season?
N: We always introduce at least one new fit per season. It’s as simple as, these shorts have a half-inch inseam and I want to cover my ass.
L: It’s sort of like, what do we want to wear? What do we see girls wearing?
Do you produce locally?
N: We have a third partner from a denim manufacturing family in India. His family is kind of like the Levi’s of India. It’s one of the top denim and cotton producing countries in the world. Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, it’s all produced there.
L: We have actually managed to do a lot locally lately. Especially with the building of our store, we did everything within a five blocks radius. Next to our new store there is a button guy—so fortuitous. We roll in there with 100 pair of jeans, and he is back in business. It’s great.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in running your own business?
L: Building a really great team. We’ve finally gotten there, but it’s been our number one challenge. First of all having so many people and getting them to do the right thing. When you start with just two it’s your whole life, so you have to learn to delegate and trust that things will get done, and someone might even do it better than you.
Will you branch out beyond denim?
N: Yes! We will launch woven tops by Fall ’14 at the latest. It’ll be vintage-inspired but modern fabrications and fit.
You stock great vintage in the store, where do you source it?
N: We get a lot from the West Coast. We’ve been buying vintage since ’04 so we have a lot of relationships.
L: It’s all about the piece. It’s not about the brand or the label. Is it relevant? That’s the question we ask ourselves. There’s no filler vintage. It’s a piece you’ll wear forever and that will go with everything.
Do you talk about opening up another location?
N: Yeah we sure do. San Francisco took to us so well so maybe there. LA is slower to warm. A Brooklyn store in the near future for sure, probably before the West Coast.
Who are your muses and style icons?
L: Mostly dead people.
N: As far as who is in our inspiration folder wearing great jeans, it’s anyone from Jane Birkin to Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Mick Jagger. Anyone really.
L: We are more inspired by our circle of friends, our customers. The girls that come into the store inspire us. They’re so real and right in front of us. It’s all our own core market research.
N: We aren’t conceptual designers. People always want us to design that way but it’s not us. We just think what do our girls want to wear? What are they asking us for?
L: Nothing is pipe-dreamy.
What’s your relationship with the fashion world?
N: Not really much of a fashion existence. I’ll scroll through the Style.com shows and I read magazines, but that’s it. We are decidedly non-fashion.
L: Yeah we aren’t into fashion week at all. I’m just not as obsessed about anything anymore! I don’t cry when Morrissey comes on anymore.
You seem to work together so organically…
L: It’s kind of just like both our heads together forever and always. We’re kind of like one person at this point, and we know what each other can do and it just works somehow.
N: We’ve been really lucky.