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Two Brands Making Classically Cool Basics for Women

There's no shortage of brands selling "elevated basics" for women these days, but with colder months around the corner, do you really want to be swaddled in anything besides cozy sweater dresses and well-fitting trousers? Here's two brands you may not know, but you'll definitely want to keep in mind as you fill up that fall closet.—Stephanie Talmadge

Canada's Frank + Oak Expands Its Arsenal With Womenswear
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Story by Chavie Lieber

When Ethan Song, a Chinese software engineer living in Montreal, decided he was going to start a men’s clothing company four years ago, he was determined to make the shopping process easy.

Frank + Oak, the brand Song started with co-founder Hicham Ratnani in February of 2012, delivered on this objective. After filling out a survey to determine their personal style, customers got a newsletter with a curated selection of Frank + Oak apparel. Using the tagline "premium threads for under $50," Frank + Oak debuted high quality, affordable menswear, with the range of sweatshirts, trousers, T-shirts, and jeans.

Because Frank + Oak started out from the very beginning as a direct-to-consumer business — controlling all parts of its operation, from manufacturing to distribution — it was able to keep costs low and offer a price range that competed with your local Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo. The fact that it was an e-commerce business, too, meant Song, CEO, and Ratnani, COO, didn’t have to worry about rent or overhead. Instead, they hired out a team of 35 employees in Montreal, who were then able to focus on the website, shipping, and designing. The brand rolled out a new collection each month of sleek, minimal designs, which kept shoppers returning for their personal recommendations.

Shoppers took to Frank + Oak almost immediately; nine months after it launched, the Wall Street Journal reported, it was shipping out 12,000 orders a month, and had nabbed 60,000 users.

Nearly five years later, Frank + Oak is still a growing menswear brand, and although its price point these days is averaging higher than $50 (denim button downs for $45 and henleys for $32, but also pants for $98 and blazers for $195), it’s developed a cult-following across Canada, with plenty of fans in the US as well. It has 2.5 million members and 75 percent of its customers return each month to buy new items. It’s raised $21 million in investments to date and currently has over 200 employees. And as part of its keen eye towards growth, Frank + Oak is rolling out its first collection of womenswear, which launches today, and Song says it will debut with the company’s initial intentions — selling wardrobe staples that are easy to wear.

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"A big part of the Frank & Oak men's success was based on these super high-quality, well-designed classics and that's what we’re going to start doing on the women’s side," says Song. "We aren’t going to pretend that our women's collection is going to be the flashiest thing in fashion. But we're making cool pieces for a real girl, who has a real job, real responsibilities, and can wear these pieces, day in and day out."

Frank + Oak womenswear, consisting of trousers, jeans, blouses, dresses, tees, sweaters, and outerwear will range from $50 to $165. Song refers to the pieces as "elevated basics" and they fit into the model of a capsule collection. There’s the bomber jacket, the boyfriend jeans, the turtleneck tee, and a boxy-fit Camel-colored fall coat; the pieces all stand alone, but also work together. Song admits the women’s fashion space is crowded. But he believes Frank + Oak will succeed if it does with its womenswear what it did with menswear: taking the guesswork out of shopping.

In its early aughts, Frank + Oak developed its entourage by catering to niche shoppers Song likes to call "fellow creatives." These are men aged 22 to 32, who likely have careers at startups, in tech, design, and the arts. (Song admits Frank + Oak has an outrageous amount of customers that work at Facebook). These shoppers are interested in taking chill apparel beyond the Silicon Valley "jeans and hoodie" but don’t necessarily subscribe to fancier work attire from brands like Banana Republicor Vineyard Vines. Instead, they prefers pants, button downs, and tees that are casual but still fit well enough that they appear posher than your average athleisure look (if you’re thinking this sounds a lot like normcore, that’s because it does).

"Online shopping for menswear was not easy; it was either very expensive or very basic. It didn't feel youthful. Frank + Oak changed that," says Christian Dane, founder of Toronto fashion showroom Style Box. "The collections are so well edited that it is almost impossible to make a fashion mistake when ordering. They do good solid basics with a few pieces here and there that are influenced by trends."

As GQ put it in 2015, "Companies miss the mark trying to create the perfect hybrid of fitness, street, and tech gear. Getting you in the most versatile clothing possible is a pretty worthy cause, which is why we're pleased to tell you that Frank & Oak has totally f'ing nailed it."

From the very beginning, Song says he intended for Frank + Oak to become a lifestyle brand. And while this is certainly a catchphrase basically every retailer aspires to, Frank + Oak has very much achieved this status — at least in Canada.

When the brand decided to expand beyond e-commerce, and opened its first stores in Canada, starting in 2013 (it now has 12 throughout Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Quebec) it included amenities like free Wi-Fi, lounge areas with couches, juice shops, coffee bars, and barber shops in many of its stores. Song says this came with the process of talking to shoppers and realizing that as a community, Frank + Oak-ers "really wanted somewhere to go; to have that assistance, in talking with someone while they shop, but also to create moments, with destinations."

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To fans like Alex Liang, a Toronto-based fashion blogger, concepts like this showed shoppers that Frank + Oak was more than just talk; it actually did, and would, engage with its community of shoppers.

"I think Frank + Oak customers pride themselves on being intelligent, stylish, and cultured, and so having an element of a shared lifestyle space with like-minded people is really cool," Liang says. "It’s cool to have a place to spend the afternoon, and get a haircut and a coffee. It really makes the shopping experience like no other."

"They’ve evolved to such levels because they don’t just stand for clothing," adds Canadian retail expert Brynn Winegard. "They’ve become real tastemakers. Frank + Oak took the Montreal cool, its stylish culture and sensibility, and translated it to the rest of Canada, and onward."

Song says Frank + Oak continues to try to keep shoppers involved. Often, clothing collections are based off of customer’s needs. Take its current men’s collection for September, for example, which is based off of a theme of how Frank + Oak shoppers get to work.

"We asked ‘How can we equip you better this year to go back to work than last year?’ and then that became ‘what are the best functional pants to wear?" Song says. "We had to decide, do we put stretch in our pants? Is our customer today a suit-wearing customer, or are they more like the shirt and sweater? Do they bike to work, and if so, should we look at larger silhouettes? We integrate all of that."

When the brand expanded its store footprint to the US last year, it left the decision of locations to shoppers, allowing fans to vote on which cities Frank + Oak should hit (Chicago, DC, and Boston were the winners, btw). After reviewing feedback from various in-store barbershops about its male shoppers needing better grooming products, Frank + Oak launched a collection of soaps, creams, and colognes in late 2015. Two years ago, it starting putting out a zine called Oak Street twice a year, complete with glossy photos and profiles of business owners and entrepreneurs.

"We wanted to create a magazine that would basically become a bible for our community," Song says. "It’s not a fashion magazine but about fellow creatives and entrepreneurs, and their work. And through that, we showcase Frank + Oak’s values."

The pivot to womenswear is an obvious next step. Frank + Oak has plenty of female shoppers, Song notes, who are often shopping for their designated others. Then there are women like Meagan Henderson, a unisex fashion blogger based out of Edmonton, Canada who buys its men’s clothing in an extra small.

"The brand makes great wardrobe staples," Henderson says. "The clothing is beautifully-made. The men’s stuff is clean, classic, and simple. I imagine that that’s what the womenswear will align more towards, which is why I’m really excited for it."

Of course, a menswear brand tackling the women’s market is no small task; it’s something a brand likeBonobos struggled with in its debut of its womenswear line AYR in 2013 (which has since spun off as its own standalone company), and is a concernshave brand Harry’s has had for years as it eyes female consumers. A best-case scenario is that women take to Frank + Oak’s clothing while its loyal male customers continue to shop. A worst case one, though, would be alienating its core clientele. One Frank + Oak shopper recently wrote in the comments of an Instagram post where the brand was promoting its women’s collection, "Please don't turn into a store full of women's clothes and only one rack of men's."

To that end, Frank + Oak will tread lightly — at least in the beginning. The womenswear collection will only be available online — male shoppers can rejoice that its brick and mortar man-caves won’t be touched — and it won’t follow the menswear monthly collection debut, instead debuting four times a year.

In terms of growth, John Currie, a former Lululemon CFO who is now a partner at Campfire Capital, one of Frank + Oak’s investors, envisions the company will "ultimately disrupt key market incumbents like Club Monaco and J.Crew and be just as sizable in the market." Song adds Frank + Oak will eventually start rolling out pop-up shops for its female shoppers, which will consist of "some really interesting retail environments for women to shop in." Upcoming trunk shows for the womenswear include Montreal (September 30 through October 2), New York (October 7-9), and Toronto (October 14-16).

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While the current collection is centered around classics, the next womenswear collection (winter) drops in November and will have trendier inclinations, complete with silks, jumpsuits, and fun prints.

Above all, Song says, Frank + Oak’s womenswear will continue to evolve based on feedback from its female shoppers. So if you’re feeling like there’s something Frank + Oak should be making for women (ahem — black Chelsea boots please!), speak up. Because, Song says, Frank + Oak really will listen.

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Waltz: A San Francisco Womenswear Brand to Watch
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The San Francisco-based womenswear line Waltz is centered around minimal basics — something we currently see everywhere, and all the time — but done in a way that actually got me excited when I first came across the new spring lookbook.

The brand was founded in 2014 by New York native Danielle Colen, with the belief that fashion doesn’t need frills to feel “elevated” — an industry cliché that, by now, has lost its meaning. Waltz is all about quality construction and materials; the end result is a thoughtful line of easy closet staples that don’t cost a ton.

The pieces are season-less, versatile, and well-tailored; tops are in $100 range, dresses are in the $200s, jackets are in the mid-$400s, and nothing exceeds the $600 mark. There’s a heavy selection of great items in the spring collection, including an ankle-grazing duster coat, a fitted denim midi dress, or any of the high-waisted bottoms.

The fall collection, which is out now, includes heavy knit tops, turtlenecks, and trousers with the same expert tailoring in warm, seasonal hues like burnt orange and chestnut. Shop it in person at a handful of West Coast retailers like Anaise, Anomie, and Voyager, or online at Garmentory and Galerie.LA.

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