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Top-notch Tops: Meet Cooper & Ella’s Kara Mendelsohn

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Ask any woman about the one item in their closet she can never have enough of, and it’s probably tops. Not just tops, but ones you can actually wear (i.e. not crop tops; ones that can be worn with a bra; not sheer in inconvenient places). With over 19 years of experience in the business, Kara Mendelsohn decided to fill this hole in the market with her line Cooper & Ella. First launched in stores February 2013 and named after Mendelsohn’s two children, Cooper & Ella sells wearable, chic blouses at price points that any woman would appreciate. Thanks to years of contacts from her sales and merchandising roles at Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Thakoon, Mendelsohn offers the quality and the look sans steep prices. We caught up with her over lunch to find out why business is booming just a year and a half after launching…

How did you get your start in the industry?
I went to Michael Kors from 2000 to 2003 on the collection line. Derek Lam was the head of design there. Lazaro [Hernandez] from Proenza Schouler was an intern in the design department at the time. When I was at Michael Kors, it was still a small team. The sales team was only five people and the entire company only occupied one floor of the building we were in. I handled all of Europe and Asia, plus all of the department stores. During the four years I was there, we launched shoes, fragrance, and bags. I traveled six months out of the year. I think I have been to every major city in every state. It was an amazing job, and Michael is an amazing person to work for. He is so much fun.

What was next after Michael Kors?
When Silas Chou bought the company, I left and went to Marc by Marc Jacobs, where I worked in retail merchandising until 2005. At the time, it was a booming multi-million non-vertical business. It was the height of his popularity, and it was before the recession. You couldn’t make enough product. That was when contemporary was really exploding. We were in every Saks, every Neiman’s, and every Bloomingdale’s. I oversaw a team of four people in the NYC offices and approximately 80 specialists at the store level, and had another team of people that traveled. We basically were responsible for driving all the sales at a store level, and also for analyzing everything and feeding that information to design and sales.

Has anything from that experience been helpful with kicking off your own business?
Everything! From what should be in your A door, B door, C door to your Northern buy, your Southern buy, and your Midwest buy. After Marc by Marc Jacobs, I started working with Thakoon when he was just starting out. He had already launched at Barneys and then I helped launch him at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf’s. Throughout my career I fought for different paths to broaden what I had. You can’t run a business if you don’t work all those different angles. My background was so vast, everything form contemporary to designer; I knew buyers but I also knew how to price product, where it should be placed, which warehousing facilities you should be using, and how you convert your numbers if you’re selling to Europe versus Asia.

What made you decide to venture out on your own?
I was consulting for a while and people would always say to me, “Why are you not doing a branded line? You have all the contacts, you know what sells, you know product.” I was already in tune with what was available and what wasn’t. The market, specifically in the contemporary arena, is outrageously oversaturated with product right now. I knew there was an opportunity, very specifically in tops. Anywhere I ever worked, they needed more tops. I would go to designers and say, “I need something that’s elevated, but sexy, modern, and cool,” and they would give me something like an enormous padded striped t-shirt. I would tell them that just wasn’t it, but they would say things like, “But it’s really cool and that really skinny girl from the Lower East Side who’s an off-duty model would totally wear this!” That has no relevance to a real woman. Also, price is a big thing.

What are Cooper & Ella’s price points?
The blouses are priced between $88 and $150. There was nothing in that tier. The average price for a contemporary blouse is $395. Yes, there is inexpensive product, but it’s usually very junior-looking. The opportunity here was to offer an elevated design at an accessible price point.

When did you start Cooper & Ella?
I launched Spring 2013; my second season, Neiman Marcus came on board. My third season, Saks came on board, and then Bloomingdale’s. I’m in all stores at Saks and Bloomingdale’s. I’m in six stores at Neiman Marcus and on all of their dotcoms, as well as Shopbop and Piperlime. Globally, I’m in all of Harvey Nichols’ doors. I’m in Palacio de Hierro in Mexico. I’m in Sogo & Seibu in Japan. That’s in the span of a year and a half.

How were you able to produce that much so soon?
I’m working with the top factories, so the execution of that is not a problem. The rollout was fast and furious, because I sell at full price, my product turns fast, it’s a classification people are constantly looking for, and for the most part, it’s seasonless. People see the product and look at the price tag and say, “Why does this $98 blouse look better than the $300 blouse right next to it?” I knew I could be in A doors, where the top dollar sells and I knew I could be in the B door where their price point taps out. We are essentially the least expensive item in the most expensive store. It’s a very good place to be.

Other than the price, what sets your tops apart?
 You can wear them with bras! Even the tops with open backs have special bands and closures where your bra would go. Nothing is sheer. Nothing is tricky. Plus, everything is machine washable.

Do you plan to carry more than tops in the future?
I’m doing dresses for Spring ’15 and there will be other product categories to come.

Do you envision Cooper & Ella becoming a full range collection?
Yes! But it has to make sense for the brand. It’s really thought out based on the numbers and what the customer wants. Also, I have to maintain that disruptive price point. The plan is to grow it in a way that is slow and steady.

How many people work for you?
Six people. We keep our overhead very low and our team very lean. I’m wearing a thousand hats.

You have two young children. How do you juggle motherhood and starting a new business?
You’d be amazed at what you’re capable of doing once it’s all on your plate. You just re-adjust. There are a lot of women I know that are stay-at-home moms and they’re outrageously stressed. You just have to learn to let go. In the fashion industry, a lot of people take everything too seriously. For me, it’s like, “Let’s not get upset about this! It’s just the color purple.”

For every piece sold, Cooper & Ella donates one hot nutritious meal to a child in need through Hope Charity. For 2015, Cooper & Ella has already committed to a minimum of 100,000 meals. 

 

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