Vans DQM General
Owner/Founder: Chris Keeffe
Date Opened: 2003
Number of Storefronts: 3
Location(s): DQM Bowery, Vans DQM General in Soho, & Vans DQM General in Boston, MA
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A company that started in 2003 in the Bowery in New York City has morphed into a retail location recognized on a global scale. Chris Keeffe, founder of the original DQM—a sneaker boutique rooted in skateboarding—partnered up with Vans in 2011 to open the 1600-square-foot Vans DQM General store in Soho. A former professional skateboarder, Keeffe has had ties with the brand for most of his life, and his shop has been selling Vans since day 1, a little more than 10 years. Of the newfound opportunity, Keeffe says it just made sense.
“The relationships we made with Vans over the years and the synergy of how we sold their product, and how strongly we felt about their product and the authenticity they have, gave us the opportunity to open up a pop up shop, which then lead to opening a permanent flagship store with them in New York,” explains Keeffe. “We wanted to create an atmosphere and environment that presented the best of what Vans has to offer. It's a curated space and product by DQM, which shows Vans in a way that is authentic to New York. It's a specific design – a one-off design—and it's very different than the quintessential Vans you would see somewhere else.”
After opening The General in September 2011, and receiving positive reinforcement in the region, Keeffe and Vans teamed up again on another opportunity to open a similar model on Boston’s Newbury Street in July 2012. Since then, Keeffe has been managing all three locations (including the original Bowery Street shop), while working more closely than ever with Vans to create a co-branded line of apparel, as well as DQM’s own signature collection. We caught up with Keefe to hear more about how Vans DQM General came to be, what sets the store apart, and his thoughts for the future of the unique retail model.
How would you define your demographic?
Because we've been in New York for 10 years we have a family, a following, we definitely have a contingency of people. Being in Soho now, having been located in the Bowery and being a small mom-and-pop shop, we have more visibility now. Obviously everybody knows Vans, so it's been a good partnership and a good opportunity for us. We feel real privileged.
Besides Vans and DQM brands, what other brands do you carry?
In skate decks we carry Real, Antihero, 5boro, Girl, Chocolate— Basically all of the big ones.
How do you decide how to merchandise the store?
In the store we sell a curated version of all the Vans categories. We also get to do collaborations with them three to four times per year that are specific to and only sold in this store, which we design and they manufacture.
There is also a co-branded apparel line that we do [with Vans] called The General. We have a high level of tourism in Soho so it's kind of like something they can take back with them to say they shopped here. We have skateboards and hardgoods, so we stay true to our roots in that way.
We merchandise Vans and DQM men's shoes and apparel all together. We feel they go together very well. What we make for apparel looks more like Classics on a little more of a mature level. We feel that our stuff meshes very well with their stuff. You can see on the wall we have a lot of New York inspired skate stuff. The interior design of the store was an effort by Vans Senior Director Global Environmental Design Michael Hurst. He was a huge inspiration and help to my business partner and DQM creative director and designer Tashi Stricker.
How did you find this space? Was it something you worked on with Vans?
No, it's something I hunted down myself. We got pretty lucky with the space actually. It was already zoned for a two floor retail space, and it was very unique. Everything else around here at the time was very much "white box" and we found this place. It's a landmark building, built in 1762 that actually used to border on the canal of Canal Street back in the day. So there's a wall in the back that's actually the original stone wall that bordered the canal. It has a lot of character and we are super lucky to find it. It all came together with the timing, and it just fit to exactly what we wanted to portray for Vans and ourselves for that matter.
Did you build out everything inside?
All of it. We shopped and found every piece of furniture in here. We have custom tables with seating that folds out. [Vans’] Michael Hurst was key in helping make this happen.
More often than not we do try to tell a category story. A lot of the front product is DQM cut and sew, and then its California collection, followed by Classics, which we merchandise with T-shirts and hats. And then we have an elevated section that is strictly devoted to Vault, which is Vans' most inspirational and aspirational product they make along with their in-house designer Taka Hayashi. And then we have our buffalo.
I noticed that. Has that always been the store's mascot?
When we finished building the store, on our opening day, we felt that it needed something and my partner came back with that [points to buffalo], and I was like what the heck is that and why do you want that in here? It went up and it has been adopted as the mascot ever since.
Does he have a name?
He does have a name but I can't tell you.
Fair enough, he'll remain anonymous.
[Laughs] We really just wanted to give it a boutique feel, with boutique customer service, and not have it feel like a store on Broadway.
How many people work here?
About six or seven. Not too big. It gets busy, especially in the summer. Weekends are typically busy. It's been well received.
Do you host events here?
Yes, we use this an event space, too. Art galleries, photo shows—we just did a photo show with Lance Dawes and Craig Stecyk, which was really cool. It's a neighborhood space.
Downstairs we have our women's section as well as kids, plus a living room space.
What's it been like going from running your own independent store to managing this space?
Definitely on a more curated level, it's been really good because we get to focus on our in-house brand, which we back and feel extremely strong about, and Vans, which I've been wearing for 25 years. So it felt like a really natural next step.
Has it been a good learning experience for you too, as far as working with a bigger brand and learning their vision?
Absolutely, working with a company as big as them on that level has provided a lot of good experiences and learning for me.
What’s the Bowery store like?
It's kind of like our core skate shop that we need to have, because that's where we built it and we want to keep it there.
You carry all brands across the board there?
What is the new Boston store like?
It's really nice. A bit of a different vibe than here. Obviously you can't recreate this store because of the space, but we made it a little lighter and very specific to where it is in Boston and things that would fit in Boston. That's our plan if we get the opportunity to open any more stores in other cities.
Would you stay Northeast or East Coast?
I mean I would love to see something on the West Coast, just because it's where Vans is from and I feel it has a tremendous impact on telling a little bit of a different story in a different way. The other peak and valley we have on the East Coast is weather. [Vans] has made a lot of strides in winterizing a lot of their product and are getting a lot deeper into being able to be worn year-round. Being in New York, we had a really rough winter this past winter. So, we do have our challenges there. It's tough. On the West Coast where you have steady weather year-round I do see it being successful there.
What category has been driving growth at this store?
Vans apparel is growing to become a big part of the store. A couple of years ago it was a lot smaller piece of the store, but it's been gaining a lot of traction with the footprint in the store and their impact on the industry. It's actually a full-fledged apparel brand now. The quality and fits are great. Being under VF they have a lot of resources at their fingertips. So we are really stoked on them building that category because it helps us out here a lot.
It seems like the apparel would help bridge the gap for your customer here.
Yes, its a great point of entry to the brand. The price point is really good too, its so accessible to everyone. At this store, we have a focus on everyone: infant all the way up to sixty-year-old.
Do you feel like Vans has as strong of a presence here as they do on the West Coast, and is the brand's presence growing?
Definitely. Being from New York, Vans has always been here. When we had the opportunity to do this here in New York, we knew exactly what we were going to do, what we were going to carry, and in a lot of ways it was easier than figuring out Boston, for example, where there is a large contingency of colleges and people from all over where you couldn't really pinpoint your demographic as much. Plus, New York leads trends in a lot of ways, and when we opened this people were already fiending for it. There was no other space in the city like it, which to us was a no-brainer. The fact that they partnered with DQM to do this is a huge honor.