The founders of Akira, a chain of 17 clothing stores, are nothing if not an American success story: Erikka Wang was born in China, and Jon Cotay in the Philippines; the trio met as students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in 2002 opened their first store, in Bucktown, at Ms. Wang’s suggestion.
Since then, and with no outside investors, they’ve built a following with a mix of clothing and accessories that’s reasonably priced and on trend, if not cutting edge. “Right product, right price, right balance,” Eric Hsueh says. Even so, it pays to push the limits a little: Each season, Mr. Cotay, who works with buyers, selects a trendy item (double-breasted men’s jackets, for instance) not to sell in droves but to make a statement — to prove Akira is fashion savvy. “We have to balance trends with what Chicago wants,” he says.
Despite the downturn, the trio has added nine stores in the last three years, expanding from its urban base to the suburbs with stores in Old Orchard, Woodfield Shopping Center, Westfield Hawthorn Shopping Center and Fox Valley Mall, with Southlake Mall in Indiana on the list for next year. Marketing focuses on co-branding: Local McDonald’s owner-operators sponsored Akira’s spring fashion show, and a fashion show this fall helped launch Belvedere Vodka’s Red brand in the Chicago market.
Meanwhile, Ms. Wang is working to improve Akira’s nascent ecommerce website; the technology “isn’t where it should be,” she says, noting that most online customers live outside the Chicago area.
The three won’t reveal sales, but retail consultant Neil Stern guesses $500 per square foot, double that of most mall-based women’s stores.
“They’re successful because they stay close to customers on one side and suppliers on the other,” says Mr. Stern, senior partner at Chicago-based McMillan Doolittle LLP. “They’re giving outlets to young and upcoming designers. That’s harder to do as you get bigger.”