Since our first visit, both of us at the Facing Page have found quite a lot to love at Gastown’s menswear purveyor, Neighbour. Founded by Saager Dilawri, Neighbour is a beautifully designed space that showcases Saager’s excellent buying tastes. Given his reputation as being a great guy to chat with, we were excited to sit down with Saager for a beer and a conversation about starting Neighbour, working for Unis, and balancing high fashion and everyday staples.
The Facing Page: What prompted you to start up Neighbour?
Saager Dilawri: Since early high-school I’ve been into clothes for some reason or another and so I wanted to do something in business but on the clothing side. I figured that retail made the most sense. I went to business school, my dad advised me to not go to art school first so I’d have something to fall back on. I did my business school in London, Ontario, but soon after that I moved to New York and went to Parson’s for a year and did what they call the AAS program which is an advanced graduate program for marketing and merchandising. Through that I got an internship with Unis where I worked for a couple years.
TFP: How was working for Unis?
SD: It was great and I learnt a lot coming out of it. It was just such a small team over there, maybe five people when we started. Then for a year it was just myself, Eunice, and the production manager. We all were wearing a lot of different hats so it was never just one focus: I was doing wholesales, press, marketing, some of the retail store setup and managing. It was a lot.
TFP: When you decided to move here and open a shop, was it always going to be in Gastown or were you looking around a while?
SD: I actually started with the shop a little sooner than I’d expected. I’d come out here because someone had offered me a job and I was thinking of moving here. But that didn’t pan out, but at the same time I was looking around mostly for a retail space just to see what was there. The space where the little tea-house is right now is one I actually really wanted, but that fell through. The space I ended up with was my number two choice, but there was just too much work to be done with tea house at the time. I looked around Main Street and Yaletown as well, but this area just seemed to already have that same sort of feel so it was already being visited by the clientele I was interested in.
TFP: Gastown is pretty amazing as far as this sort of store goes, I don’t know if I’d say saturated but this block has four world class menswear shops with Inventory, Roden Gray, Haven and yourself, do you find it hard to differentiate yourselves?
SD: There’s always going to be some crossover with brands, but it’s interesting how each really has their own distinct feel. One appeals to more a street-wear clientele, one is more the internet customer, but everyone can keep their own vision without stepping on each other’s toes. You talk to people and they always say that this area of Vancouver is unlike any other in North America, if not the world. You can find pretty much any brand you’d want if you’re into that. It is a select market but it’s doing all right here.
TFP: Do you find there’s a good community between the stores?
SD: Yeah, we’re all pretty relaxed. It’s a good community. I think everyone is focussed on their own thing and doing it well.
TFP: So back onto Neighbour, what was the philosophy or vision that you held starting out in terms of brands and aesthetic?
SD: I’ve always been into things, from a clothing perspective, that are a little more playful and less serious. At the same time I’m also into underdog brands. I don’t know, I’m not sure if that’s always the case but you sometimes see more quality in brands that don’t market themselves as hard. They make up for it in quality. For me it’s a lot about clean, wearable clothes. As guys, I think we want something that we can wear numerous times without much effort. I wear the same kind of thing day in day out. You don’t want to think too much.
TFP: Yeah, that’s always nice, things you can just put on and go.
SD: Exactly. But at the same time the idea of having things that are a little more playful or things that don’t take themselves too seriously. In terms of colour and textures, I’m really into that. So I guess that’s the sort of vision. It wasn’t like there were a few brands I totally had in mind, I’m just looking for things that seemed and felt right.
TFP: We were having a quick conversation the other day and I remember you mentioned that at shows like Capsule you’ve found it really difficult to pick out new brands. You’ve done a really good job though in picking through those saturated rooms of brands. Is there anything particularly that’s helped you with that?
SD: I think through the wholesale and retail side of things with Unis I did a lot of work going through shops websites and seeing where our product could fit in. Through that you sort of learn what’s out there and how it all works. For sure there were a few brands that were top of my list to pick up when Neighbour came about, like Our Legacy, and things that appealed to me to a degree. A lot have come through since with that sort of underdog feel I mentioned earlier. If no-one else carries it you feel you can really grow with the brand. Since we started with a few brands they’ve gone from 5 stockists to 35 stockists. To a certain degree that makes it feel nice. And now, I’m also looking to pickup more high-fashion brands that I might not have been able to pick up when I first started.
TFP: In terms of the high-fashion brands, how do you go through picking out pieces in their lines. You say you prefer things to be wearable, and although they’ll often have some basics a lot of pieces from those bigger fashion lines have some pretty tough to wear collections. A lot of playful though.
SD: I think what you see on the runway is really the standout pieces. These brands do tend to have a lot of basics as well, we haven’t gotten to the point where we are super runway focussed yet. We only have a couple brands with runway shows, but yeah, for 15% of the shop or so we do have things that say “Yeah, we carry that as well” but they’re not necessarily the moneymakers at all. So with that stuff it’s okay to have a bit more fun, as long as it’s not just completely over the top.
TFP: Do you find there’s a lot of room to have fun with your buying? Some of the shetland wool sweaters you did for example, you’ve got an orange and a red that not a ton of others stores would necessarily think to do. Do people respond pretty well?
SD: It’s a bit of a tougher sell. I mean it’s not navy and it’s not gray. If you wear it properly though, with a proper shirt underneath, dark pants, it isn’t difficult to wear. I think it’s intimidating though when you see it as it is on the rack. It’s not something you’ll be able to wear everyday necessarily, you might not want to wear an orange sweater five days a week.
TFP: Unless of course you’re Dutch and it’s during the World Cup, so if you don’t mind keeping one aside for 2014, I’ll be back to pick one up (Editor’s Note: this Orange lust only applies to CK). Moving on, you’ve done a few collaborative efforts as well as the Shetland recently, you’ve done the ties, the chairs, how do you go about choosing the brands to work with? No one will have heard too much about the people you’ve worked with. It’s a refreshing considering how many brands just throw collaborations out all the time.
SD: The ties are a good example, they were easy to do because with Unis we used that same factory. So it was really simple. The sweaters were done through someone I knew in New York referring me to them. In that sense it just comes somewhat naturally. I’m not opposed to doing collaborations with a bigger brand at some point, but in terms of just putting our label on it it does make sense to be working with a smaller company.
TFP: With that background you do have in fashion design, do you ever think about having your own full line?
SD: Hopefully in a few years. If all goes well that would be great. There’ve been a few brands that have gone from a retail store originally and turn into a brand just through progression. Look at Norse Projects for example, the Norse store came first, then they realized there was a void and they moved to fill it. They made a small collection for the shop and then surrounded it with more fashion based brands. I feel the same way about doing something for Neighbour. Creating basics like shirts, ties and some sweaters and just rounding it out as a sort of capsule. Then build the shop with things the compliment that.
TFP: Would you want to be trying to bring that playful edge into basics?
SD: Maybe at some point. I think you’re limited to a certain degree. It’s difficult to do a nice outerwear piece, or to do a nice shoe, so you don’t see that many collections with those at a decent price point. It’s because they don’t have a purchasing power. They don’t have their own factory. That’s why brands like Arcteryx or even Macintosh or other performance driven brands are the way to go for outerwear. For something like that, especially somewhere like Vancouver, that’s just the way to do it.
TFP: Outerwear does seem like a really challenging market. It seems like a lot of brands do just throw in a jacket or two because well, you sort of need jackets for the collection, but they’re clearly behind the technical companies.
SD: They’re often really not worth the price they’re asking for. I’d rather just buy a performance based outerwear piece. If you’re buying a fashionable outerwear piece it’s a different story, but the brands that are trying to go more technical through their collections it just doesn’t often really work.
TFP: So you mention dressing for Vancouver, do you see Vancouver as somewhere that’s growing as a style-centre?
SD: I guess it’s a bit hit or miss. For the most part, there’s a little consistency through it. But somewhere like Vancouver you do have to stick with things that are functional to a certain degree. I feel like I have an opinion on that but it might not be the best of opinions.
TFP: That’s fair enough…
SD: You do see people that come into the store and notice interesting things they might be wearing. But I’m not someone who really likes trends, that’s just me. I think I’ve seen enough of the beard, the Americana. I think it’s enough of that. But you do see certain trends. Not sure there’s one that really transcends the others.
TFP: Do you find there’s a little more recognition internationally though for Vancouver?
SD: I think so. Especially with the internet it’s really growing.
TFP: Speaking of which – do you feel pressure to do a portion of your buying with internet retail in mind. There are things you can know you’ll be able to sell a certain amount online, do you find yourself sometimes leaning towards something like that in a collection, or would you maybe prefer something where you’d look at it and think “I may sell a couple of these online, but if someone comes in and sees this in person they’ll be amazed by it”.
SD: I love the balance of the brick and mortar and the online store. You do see certain things and certain brands that do well online and not in store as well as vice versa. It really allows you to buy well to tell you the truth. You can take a risk on certain things because there will be customers online who will be looking for it. I’m taking it into consideration but in the end it has to sit well in the retail environment. I won’t buy something that will just sell well online if it won’t fit in-store. I won’t buy something camo or something that will sell online but won’t look good in the shop.
TFP: Other than camo, anything that you’ve had go really well online and not at all in-store.
SD: It’s more certain brands. Stephan Schneider or Frank Leder do really well online, Patrick Ervell too. The more flashy stuff I think. We had this jacket from Patrick Ervell, it’s just a ridiculous piece but kinda fun. Sold online really well but barely sold in-store. It was a transparent jacket that was 700 dollars. Minimal function but it looks pretty rad. That didn’t sell so well in store.
TFP: Do you have a favourite piece of things in the store? Anything that stands out?
SD: There’s one Hentsch Man sweater that we just got in. Its a cotton sweater called the Marney sweater. I guess its a take on what Marney does with a lot of block colour. I really like that. And I really like the Porter stuff we just got, it’s pretty amazing.
TFP: Hentsch Man is an interesting one, they’ve been around a while but not a ton of people have taken a shine to them.
SD: They are great staples. It’s a nice thing to have in-store. It’s a little like Our Legacy I’d say. Our Legacy is a bit more playful but it works well.
TFP: You’ve often had a good bit of the basics for Our Legacy but they’ve been expanding their collections out a bit recently, are you going to be doing a bit more buying of their slightly more eclectic pieces?
SD: Our F/W 2013 buy is actually our biggest yet from Our Legacy. They’ve grown a lot, and they’re really easy to work with. They’re really nice guys, definitely one of my favorite brands. For our market and for the price-point its a great value.
TFP: So one last question, where can you see Neighbour headed in the next five years?
SD: I want to expand out the online site, I know there’s a market and I need to get a hold and figure it out and be proactive with it instead of reactive. And also expanding and developing my own clothing. Maybe in the future there’s another retail store somewhere else in Canada, but we’ll see.
TFP: Where would you go in Canada, Montreal?
SD: I’m not sure. Toronto is starting to get more saturated, but maybe somewhere on the West Coast? I don’t know. I’m just trying to do this well first.
– CK and AP
Neighbour can be found at 12 Water St, Vancouver, BC and is open from 1100h-1900h, Monday to Saturday, and from 1200h-1700h on Sunday.
All images via shopneighbour.com