Kobi Halperin moved from Israel to the U.S. to break into American fashion, first at Kenneth Cole and then Elie Tahari, where he was creative chief. He left the big leagues to start small, launching his namesake brand almost two years ago. Halperin’s womenswear line has already landed in most major retailers, and he’s now in cahoots with Neiman Marcus for an exclusive collection of women’s blouses. But above all, Halperin says he wants to keep an authentic connection with the customer, sometimes going undercover on sales floors to get feedback. We met the master of disguise at his new NYC showroom in time to catch his pre-fall collection.
Why did you decide to launch your own label?
It’s been a year and a half since we launched, and it feels like a continuance rather than a new beginning. I moved to New York 18 years ago, and I worked at Elie Tahari for 13 years, and then at Kenneth Cole. From my experience being connected to the customers at Elie Tahari, I felt there was an opportunity to do my own brand. It isn’t about ego or making myself famous; it’s really about being connected with the customer and focusing on that without anything else surrounding it. We started looking for the right partners and the right family to connect with, and found Rothschild. It was a perfect match. I brought just a little bit of talent, the design, production, and the selling aspect, and Rothschild gave us the opportunity to have the warehouse, the facilities, the systems. I am proud to say the first season [fall 2015] we shipped everything on time.
What’s your design process like?
Every collection is about a journey or a specific place. It’s always connected to my heritage, my background, my grandmother’s closet. For pre-fall ’16, I went to Beijing, and brought textiles and treatment details back with me. For a beautiful antique piece, we find a way to maintain the concept, make it relevant for today, but bring in memories of the past. The dress code is not the same as it used to be. People are free, women are free to wear whatever they want. I love the idea of bringing the evening aesthetic into everyday.
How did you get started designing?
I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic part as a child. I grew up in an Orthodox family in Israel, where it was unusual for an Orthodox boy to be focused on fashion. I was lucky to be around family and parents who accepted it and helped me to do it. Around the time I had my bar mitzvah, I first realized fashion was a job. It was a magical moment. I was hesitating about what I should be—a designer or a psychologist. But guess what? I feel I’m both. Most days I’m a psychologist because my job is about dealing with people, and a little bit of the time I’m a fashion designer. But I’m happy I chose fashion because to be able to be successful you have to have the ability to work with people, understand people, be sensitive to people, be sensitive to customers. It all became one job.
How do you keep that connection with the customer?
I’m on a kind of tour right now, and I go to every location we are carried. A week ago I was in Miami, then Las Vegas, San Francisco, L.A., New Jersey, Chicago. I want be low-key when I connect with the sales people on the floor; I present the collection, explain what we’re doing, and share the passion with them. Sometimes in fashion, people get scared and a little bit lost, and I want to remind them that it’s what we love to do. First I’m doing that with the sales people, then the customer. I really want to get information directly from the customer on the sales floor. Most of the time they don’t even know who I am—I’m wearing a black uniform and they think I’m just there to help them, serve them, listen to them, see how the clothes are fitting them, see what they’re talking about, understand their needs.
How did the exclusive for Neiman Marcus come about?
Based on my relationships from the past, we were able to start our business with every store—Neimans, Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor. We’re doing a new package of a variety of blouses, called “Only Niemen Marcus.” We’re also going to do special programs for every account.
Will you show at Fashion Week?
We are not doing a show. For me it’s about focusing on the customer and the needs of the business. When I’m a big boy, later on, we can play with fashion on the runway. [Laughs]
Tell us about the new showroom in New York.
We moved two months ago. We have the right fixtures, aesthetic, and most importantly, our flower arrangements! I take care of them every day—that’s my main job. I’m the florist. [Laughs] It’s got lots of real light, which is very important to appreciate the details and the workmanship on the garments.
Right now it’s about creating awareness for the brand. I want people to know us by looking at the details, not by the logo. I won’t be humble about that—the idea is to become an important American brand. We’re starting with womenswear, then other categories that focus on women, like accessories and beauty. It’s about getting the woman attached and making her want us to become a part of her life.
If you could launch any category next, it would be…
Shoes. I’m obsessed with shoes.