Bring Fashion to Beauty Supplies!
NOVA Brand Apparel CEO Simon Kim
In the time of hope, usually, in the beginning of 2023 you hear grumbles everywhere. Inflation, high interest rates, and recession all come at once. People say “when God closes a door, he opens a window,” but what items can possibly persuade your unwilling customers to spend money? We met a person who can answer the question. For the last three decades, CEO Simon Kim of NOVA Brand Apparel has worked in the Black fashion industry in Georgia. We visited his ever-booming business, despite the recent economic downturn, in order to find out what can be done to improve the beauty supply business.
BY JUYOUNG SUNG
Please introduce NOVA Brand Apparel (“NOVA”) for our readers.
NOVA is an African American women’s apparel wholesaler. The business opened in Atlanta in 1996. It started with kids’ clothing, then men’s apparel, and eventually women’s apparel since fourteen years ago.
You have quite a history. Are you well-known in the market?
It has been almost 30 years, and we have enough regulars to keep our business running without difficulty. We’ve been working hard to make the impression that “NOVA has it all when it comes to clothes.” Another thing is great customer service. These two are the secret of a long running business, I believe.
Where do your customers come from?
It’s mostly from the six Southeastern states. Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee … We have customers from Orlando or Jacksonville. We can also include Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. 99% of the customers are African Americans. We are specialized in the African American market for women’s apparel.
How did you start a fashion business, and what made you turn to women’s clothing?
After the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, many Koreans moved to Georgia. I was one of the new arrivals at the time, and my brother-in-law was running an African American men’s clothing business. So, I thought I should do kids’ clothing. That was the start, and I ran an import business for men’s clothing, which turned out not so easy. I had to hire a designer and bring goods in containers. I had to bankroll the business, but manufacturing cost hundreds of thousands dollars, shipping another hundreds of thousands, storing another hundreds of thousands, and payments were rarely immediately receivable. It takes a half year to recover the cost. I thought this was not the way to do business, so the rise of ethnic market for women’s apparel at the time was my way out. I hopped on the bandwagon.
Did you have any special items?
It was about 13-14 years ago, and leggings were hot. We simply introduced some women’s clothes along with men’s, but leggings started to sell like hotcakes. At the time, the profit from leggings alone covered the rent. It was immensely hot. Then, I made a decision to go 100% women’s clothing.
Did you follow a single item to another field?
My wife calls me “reckless” because I make commitments without plans. Well, if you think about it, there is no risk-free business. If you are lucky, you’ll get it right all the time, but that’s rare. No business is child’s play. Fortunately, when we were all-in for women’s clothing, the trend did not fade but continued to grow. In the beginning, it was one or two leggings items. Then, various prints, faux leather, and stretchable seamless types hit the market in succession. To my surprise, when we carry items, people find us in some ways. They were African American customers. From there, my business kept growing. I have to say I was lucky.
You say you have many African American customers. Are they resellers?
Some own brick-and-mortar stores, but many do online retail. Koreans have the mindset that they need to have a retail space, but Black businesses tend to have a strong presence in social media and digital footprints. They often take a picture of themselves wearing the clothes, upload the pictures, and sell the items online. No rent or hired hands. During the pandemic, there was a rush of newcomers to the business. I noticed some unfamiliar faces picking up a load of goods and wondered what’s going on. They were opening a new business with government subsidies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to place an occupancy limit of 4 customers at a time and made a scene with a long line of customers in the morning. Even now, I sometimes make 5-6 trips between the warehouse and the store to deal with tides of customers.
What about many beauty supplies carrying clothing items nowadays?
Just a few years ago, beauty supply business owners did not carry clothes. They maintained sectional divisions like hair and chemical, but it has become a new trend to have some clothing items available. For customers, it makes one-stop shopping possible at beauty supplies. At least to keep their customers from going elsewhere, they are carrying certain items for clothing options.
Do you have advice for beauty supply business owners who plan to start carrying clothing items?
1) Start small
Many retailers complain about limited space when adding clothing items. However, you can generate synergy with other beauty items even within a very tight space. When you make some sales, then you can expand. Don’t start big and learn a lesson the hard way. For both retailers and wholesalers, a small thing at a time is a good thing.
2) One-size items
Beauty supply stores usually carry one-size-fits-all items in the beginning. Most seamless items are one-sized. They are made of stretchable and highly elastic materials, so they can fit from S to XL. For middle-aged Black women, you can carry one-size items that are made of non-elastic fabric but allow a very generous fit. When they are one-size, your customers won’t ask more questions or a fitting room. That’s a go-to setup for a starter.
3) Mannequins are a must! Display is very important.
When the retail space is limited or owners are reluctant to carry clothes, mannequins are a hurdle. Actually, mannequins make a big difference in sales. If you put up a mannequin in a high traffic area and change clothes per season, you can refresh the store display and the atmosphere in general. Some of my customers do a really good job and buy thousands of dollars worth of goods every week.
NOVA’s pick for 2023 trend items
1) cable seamless sets
Knit-like appearance at low price. These seamless options are steady sellers. Twist cable is currently on top of the best seller list.
2) baseball jackets
Comfortable and active-looking, baseball jackets have been popular since last year. They often go with tight leggings.
3) PU leather
PU (or polyurethane) leather feels real and very sturdy. Various designs are available in PU leather.
4) African styles
Providing a generous fit, one-size dresses in exotic and bold African patterns are steady sellers among middle-aged African American women.
What’s your take on the 2023 prospect?
In the last couple of years, our business has been good even during the Covid-19 pandemic. We bought a lot and sold a lot. This year, we hear about recession everywhere and are thinking about tightening the belt. Nevertheless, we have regulars, influx of Black online businesses, and increasing demand from beauty supplies. In the long run, I am optimistic about the future.
Do you have anything to say to BNB readers and beauty supply business owners for the year of 2023?
For many beauty supplies, clothing items can be an outlier. However, if you don’t try, you will never know if they will sell or not. If you hesitate, others will be ahead of you. I want to say that you should start early but without pressure. Another thing is that I think people are overly worried about recession. Whether it’s business or personal life, having hope and staying optimistic is important. If you think positive, everything will be alright in the end. “Stay positive” is what I want to say to all.