LN-CC, or Late Night Chameleon Café, is a multi-offer retail organisation based in east London that also enjoys heavy online traffic. In a very short space of time, they have provided a compelling alternative to the established retailing blueprints. e-tailers, physical retailers and a fiercely loyal clientele all document their varied activities with forensic dedication. In a rare opportunity when more than one of the founders was in the same country, Tank caught up with Creative Director, John Skelton and Charlotte Hall, their Marketing Director. Skelton's energy is infectious, and, in discussing future plans, he underscores how and why LN-CC has rapidly staked its claim in a crowded premium fashion market.
Paul Davies You've just passed your first year of trading. The most crucial; and have established yourselves extremely quickly. In August '10 before you opened, you mapped out where you wanted it to go. All those points have been reached.
John Skelton We launched in September, half a season, really. Although we knew the offer was modest, we were extremely happy with the store, which helped. The winter we've just left, was the first where we could say, "This is what we do. All the content, the music, the events, this store." That was us just getting going. After three seasons, we've achieved our forecasts. We're ready to look outward creatively and feel we've got so much more to give now that we've honed our internal development. During summer and winter this year we should really make huge strides in our output. Developing our style, our aesthetic and our voice. All of this is underway as our main focus right now.
PD You were buying very limited quantities to start with.
JS You can't really get by with limited stock. Obviously, it's high-value product, but we've bought a lot deeper and a little bit wider for summer. But firstly, as amazing as it seems creatively, the reason we've reached goals is because we also have a very strong e-commerce and business team. There is a whole group behind the scenes that has really contributed.
PD What was intriguing for a lot of people was this new physical store with very progressive designers, a roster of all types from around the world. And you weren't opening on a posh address in Mayfair. You were opening in the depths of the east. Was it always the plan to be here?
JS It's worked out better than imagined. There was a snowball effect after the first 200 started talking about it. Also, the product selection, the music, everything is pretty niche in several areas. That it has worked is very much a credit to the customer and the many people out there that who are interested in what's going on. Recognising that what we're doing on a music level, a product level or working with Conor [Donlon Books], is all extremely considered. We spend a lot of time with different artists, people to collaborate with. It hasn't just come along. The success is proof on a world scale there are enough people to make this work.
PD The website originally had a mission statement, "we don't mind if you visit the store and don't buy anything. We just want you to come and enjoy it." People might think, "How does anyone survive saying things like that?" But people come through the store for your evening events and they've always been music, art or book-related. You've never pushed the fashion retail side. And you're good at securing exclusives with certain music labels that no established retailer can get their hands on. Was that a conscious decision not to push the fashion?
JS We'll just do what's right and what feels relevant at the time. Dan [Mitchell, third founder] has excellent contacts in the music world and wanted to promote events rather than sell product, which suits all of us. We're simply giving people an option, whether it's come to the store and buy a product or come to an event and enjoy the night. It's just a very honest statement, I guess. At some point there will be some event focused around product, but it'll be more… "This is the new person that's doing X, Y and Z". It won't be, "please come and buy this product".
PD It does feel like most online retailers have settled on an established formula. They have a widely recognised range of international labels, supported with heavy editorial and regular presence on the social networks and then discount incentives. Nobody seems to have broken beyond that.
JS I would like us to be known as, "the independent store of the future". We operate both the store and the site at their optimum, and place as much emphasis on each. Obviously, online has more of an international reach, but we run them both as forward thinking as possible whilst they serve very different purposes. Both do things the other one can't. The website is very clean. It lets the product do the talking. The store gives you the feeling, the mood of what we're doing and it actually holds not just the product, but our world. And I think we're the first serious retailer to launch both at the same time. There's usually been one and then another.
PD The other thing that marks you out from other retailers is that you championed the new generation of Japanese designers, which nobody saw coming.
JS We actually went to Japan and picked up the roots, like we did with younger brands coming out of UK at the time. We sourced the labels that were unheard of outside Japan. It's great to see they're growing and we've become the destination to find them.
PD Not so easy to achieve, given that most Japanese brands weren't particularly interested in exporting before you.
JS Those guys are very clued-up on choosing the right path and loyalties, which is where we came in. Dan is very much into Japanese streetwear, we invested the time when we didn't have a lot of money in going there. Two and a half years spending weeks in Japan and coming out with eight brands. So we've done the research. We've seen everything that's available and returned with the best of the new generation.
PD Previously, you and Dan had established careers in physical retail. Increasingly, the general public are becoming more comfortable about the idea of online. For you, was it a natural transition to move online?
JS I'm very much independently-minded, as is Dan, and we were both very quickly climbing the corporate ladder thinking, "we shouldn't be here." I wanted to get back to an independent format and have free reign to do whatever we wanted. We've since gone even more independent with our thoughts but structured it in a way that we can service the world and get to where we want to go.
PD Your marketing has always been inspired. Instead of taking out an ad in a magazine, which is short term, you ran a global competition in which two people are flown over… What was the prize offered?
Charlotte Hall £15,000.
PD That's considerable. And, in terms of growing awareness and a lingering perception, it goes well beyond the monthly cycle of a magazine.
CH It's also giving people the chance to interact with what we're doing. That's important.
JS The lucky winner hasn't made it over yet. And has £15 grand of credit in her account if she wants to spend it. It's there and she hasn't…
CH Been amazingly responsive.
PD She's probably getting all her friends together asking, "what do you want? Have a look on the website and see what you like".
PD Before the store opened you suggested that LN-CC was part of a larger project you have in mind. Is that something that you're still pursuing?
JS Absolutely. We actually have one other thing that's already going on that nobody knows about, which is another part of our business. And by the end of this year, we will have put something out there that will be another visible arm and it will all come together.
PD Related to product? Or?
JS Yes. One… Well, I don't want to ruin it now but… within this year, start of next, we will have something else very interesting happening, that people will very much be aware of. The jigsaw will be filled. We embarked on this as a long-term project, and within the next six, seven, eight years, they'll be very interested in the store. §