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Rooted in Life: A Look Into The Growth & Future Of Elm Company

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Started as a headwear company with the philosophy of “Rooted in Life,” Elm grew from its roots in skate, snow, art, and music and launched into the apparel category in the Fall of 2009. Aaron Levant at Agenda recently had a chance to catch up with Elm President Alex Karayan for the TWBiz Network:

How did you get started in the industry?

Alex Karayan (Elm Company): When the idea came about, headwear wasn't yet a standalone category and the brands that were out there weren't otherwise putting a solid design emphasis on it. We knew we could do it better and that's really the mentality that has gotten us to where we are today…

What brands were you into growing up?

Growing up, my notebooks in school were always covered with various brand's logos I drew over and over again… I remember being into this or that brand as early as elementary school. As a brand though, we all grew up being into kind of our own things. That's what I like about our crew… we've all had our own influences… whether music or skateboarding or whatever… we all bring different things to the table.

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For those that don't know, what is the idea behind Elm?

Elm is about life and what you absorb from it. That's where the "Rooted In Life" philosophy comes from. Everyone draws inspiration from their surroundings and by doing so, we grow as people and inspire the lives of others. It's not just about skateboarding or snowboarding or music, or whatever. It's about the places we go, the people we see, and the things we do that make us who we are… Elm embodies that mentality.

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You recently launched your apparel program. Tell us a bit more about it? How has the transition been from starting off with headwear?

The apparel has really been just an extension of what we've always done with our headwear. We've brought the same quality and attention to detail that we've always had and applied that same design aesthetic to the garments. So we really concentrate and put an emphasis on the trim packages, whether it's a unique label treatment or a hidden pocket. It's been pretty much a no brainer for us and something that's been very well received. With Fall '11 we're bringing a whole new dimension and are excited to see the response it garners.

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Getting your brand off the ground, were you self-funded or did you get help from investors?

We've been an independent brand from day one and remain that way to this day. Looking back on it now it definitely would have been a much easier road if we had investors. But no, instead we worked full time jobs to initially get the brand started, putting everything we had into it. Since then it's just been about properly managing our cash flow…

What is the biggest hurdle/challenge you faced since you started Elm Company? How did you handle/overcome it?

There's something new every year. Just when you think you have it all figured out, life has a way of keeping you on your toes. We've had our fair share of issues with production, marketing, finance, staff, etc. It's about learning and moving forward, never making the same mistake twice.

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What are some key lessons you have learned during your career?

Be ready for anything… business is about problem solving more than anything.

What's the best advice you have ever received?

Things are only as difficult as you make them…

Did you have a particular guide/mentor that was instrumental in your development and success in the industry? If so, how were they helpful?

Not really, we've kind of learned things as we went and done things our own way. It might not have always been the best way, but it's been our way. We try to learn from everyone we work with and we've been fortunate enough to work with some really great people.

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How did you choose your team? (How did you select the people working for you?)

For the most part we work with people we know (or at least one of us knows), but you don't always get that luxury. Aside from that, we try to find people that can identify with what we're doing and bring something new to the table. One of the toughest things though is finding people to work with that are on the same page as you, but it's also important to be open to different perspectives. Every new person you bring in is going to have an influence on where you're headed so you really have to be careful to find people that don't have their own agenda for your brand.

How do you choose your retailers?

Our first couple seasons we chose to keep the distribution very tight. We saw value in keeping Elm something that was hard to find. We selectively opened retailers who believed in our message and what we were doing. It's still pretty much the same thing today, though we're naturally loosening the reigns on distribution as the demand for the brand has grown.

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Is there a regional difference in styles/trends/preferences you notice?

I think these days pretty much every region has multiple trends going on. There's obviously some that gain more popularity than others, but kids get in/out of things so fast these days that it's hard to just point your finger somewhere and say all the kids here are into this and all the kids over there are into that. Our focus is and always has been a bit more classic in style though. Because of that, we're able to relax a bit on what the next "trend" is and concentrate a bit more on what we want to do and I think that's worked in our favor. The second you begin trying to chase trends, you lose the soul of the brand and the reason you started doing this in the first place.

Have you adjusted your business plan to meet the demands of this tough economic climate?

We're still here, so the answer has to be yes, right, haha. I think everyone has been forced to adjust and those that didn't are probably gone or on their way out.

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Where do you see Elm Co. in five years?

Bigger, but not blown-out… and growing both as a brand and as individuals behind the scene.

Anything else you're looking forward to in 2011?

Growth, in every sense of the word. Fall 2011/Winter 2012 is our strongest collection to date. With our recent success we've nearly doubled the size of our beanie range alone and we've taken the apparel more than a couple steps up as well.