Representing the creative future

Eckhaus Latta: Fashion’s slow burners

What makes a brand forever emerging?

What makes an independent brand survive for 12 years? This was the million-dollar question we wanted Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta to answer in our conversation. Within a context of indie labels closing at manic rhythms and e-commerce platforms creating a wholesale frenzy, the duo behind the New York-based label sound put together, direct, and most importantly, not stressed out. Eckhaus and Latta didn’t study fashion, and that might be their strongest asset when it comes to starting a brand. Knowing too little and trying to figure everything out themselves, from pattern cutting to putting together a business plan, is the polar opposite of how today’s generation of designers is raised, and it is probably what made them discover earlier than others the recipe for surviving in fashion.

Zoe and Mike founded their brand pre-Instagram and pre-SSENSE. Hence, they attribute the lack of awareness that this time gave them (when not all brands were hosted on the same landing page) as their starting point. With a recession and a NYC scene full of polished brands as a backdrop, they returned to their childhood instincts of modifying clothes and used their professionally driven friendship as a foundation to run their own business.

One could attribute their success to timing, casting, good communication, a devoted community, good clothes, or New York fashion’s need for more ‘creative’ labels. Talking to them, however, makes it glaringly obvious that Eckhaus Latta are very driven creatives and even smarter thinkers. In a world where hype leads design decisions, they devoted themselves to creating strong and timeless products – such as the iconic EL jeans. During a period when independent brands often heavily rely on e-commerce platforms with high promises, Zoe and Mike have their own physical stores in LA and NYC and refuse to put all their eggs in one basket. When big and small brands move from city to city to chase relevance, Eckhaus Latta stay where they started, adamantly believing that the people who work with and wear their clothes are what make their label.

It is freeing and comforting to see brand owners say they are marching to the beat of their own drum and truly mean it. This is probably what makes them what they call ‘forever emerging,’ but with ‘emerging’ holding onto its original definition: authentic, different, and new.

Natassa Stamouli: You met at university. Do you remember the moment you realized you wanted to work together?

Zoe Latta: I don’t think it was a conscious choice. The basis of our friendship wasn’t like, “let’s hang out on the weekends.” It was more like, “let’s go to each other’s studios and critique each other on a Tuesday night.” To talk about the work, try to make it better, and teach each other how to do things. Mike was studying sculpture and I studied textiles, so we both were learning really different technical craft skill sets. We both had a very strong kind of preoccupation and extracurricular bent towards clothing but weren’t interested in studying fashion. I can’t speak for Mike, but I think he considered going into the apparel department. I never thought about it. We were never friends; we were always collaborators. We definitely had fun and did crazy things together, but our bond was more based on making stuff – whether that was throwing a party, making a meal, or what we were individually working on. We were very cutthroat confidants for each other.

“Our friendship has always been about collaboration.” – Zoe Latta

NS: It’s super interesting you say that. Most designer duos are like, “We were friends, and this came along.” Of course, you are friends because you spent a lot of time together, but would you say your relationship is more professional than personal?

ZL: Yes, but we know each other so well that it’s all personal. We can kind of read what the other person is thinking or is about to say so well that nothing about it is impersonal. Our friendship has always been about collaboration.

Mike Eckhaus: Totally.

ZL: Still to this day, we live in different cities, and we operate in different studios. We don’t publicly say who does what in the company. We’re so deeply involved in what the other person is doing, and we serve as each other’s consultants, in a way.

“When we started Eckhaus Latta, we were teaching ourselves everything.” – Mike Eckhaus

NS: Zoe mentioned that she wasn’t thinking of studying apparel, but you were, right?

ME: I was interested. I thought I was going to study fashion for a long part of growing up and even going to school. Then I decided not to because the conversation around it wasn’t something that I was interested in. I was more interested in the kind of dialogue structure within the fine art department. So I decided to study sculpture. But for better or for worse, I circled back into the world of fashion and clothing. Sculpture gave me space and a different sense of critical thinking. It allowed me to come to the foundational elements of making clothing through less traditional means, considering that when we started Eckhaus Latta, we were teaching ourselves everything. I did a night class at FIT. That was the only formal training I had. Everything else was like: “We want to figure this out,” and, “How are we going to make these pants?” It made things even more challenging since we were doing all the pattern cutting ourselves.

“If Mike had studied apparel, I wonder if we would have had the naivety and desire to start something.” – Zoe Latta

NS: How did you learn?

ZL: It was a combination of so many things and so many mistakes. If Mike had studied apparel, I wonder if we would have had the naivety and desire to start something. I wonder if we would have felt discouraged by all the hurdles that we can now see so clearly. When we started, there wasn’t a business model or a plan. We were like: “Let’s try to make a collection and see what happens.” I had some institutional training from studying knitwear, but we learned a lot from working and figuring out relationships with factories. We learned from them what they needed, how to present it, and obviously, what makes a good garment. Looking at the patterns of our first collection, they’re very rudimentary, but we didn’t see it that way. So, we weren’t discouraged.

ME: It was so naive and crude, educating ourselves, but there was still a lot of confidence. We thought we were doing things right, but we were just doing things that made sense to us. Especially in our first few years, we’d get a book on pattern making and start working with other people, often interns. They were fashion students who understood how to make things in new ways. We were learning from them because we just didn’t have that foundational idea of how things were made.

ZL: To our credit, we were always modifying things from thrift stores. We still do this in our daily lives, and we did that as kids. When we met, we had a lot of weird garments that we would share with each other and change. I do think we were complete idiots.

ME: We both had a very intuitive understanding of clothing and the way people dressed. In that familiarity, everything felt very natural as we started to figure things out. The one thing I remember doing that was instructional is when we first wanted to do jeans. I remember finding a pattern and a step-by-step online guide on how to make a pair of jeans. That was how we created the EL jeans. It wasn’t like: “Here’s this perfect pair of vintage Levi’s we want to replicate.” It was more like: “Let’s make a pair of jeans and I’m going to try and figure out where our point of entry is for it.”

ZL: That’s a really good example. That jean happened in 2014, and it’s been a product that we’ve refreshed and made better. It’s turned into this very public dialogue since our first collection: this product is out in the world, we’re making it, and the next season we question how we can do it better.

NS: That’s very freeing to hear. There is a dominant understanding that to become a designer you need to follow formal training, go to the top school, and follow a very specific career path. I’ve noticed designers have become a bit more narrow-minded when it comes to making. They experiment only during the first years of school, and then they get into a formulaic way of working. Do you think that if you went to fashion school and felt this pressure following specific steps of starting a brand, or working in-house, you would’ve ended up on a completely different path? Or maybe you would’ve ended up with a brand that doesn’t experiment with communication, form and inclusivity as much as you do?

ZL: I hear you, and I wonder if we would have even started a brand if we had the formal training.

ME: It’s a lot of things. I would not recommend it to anyone, when I look back on it, it’s so absurd. There are times when there’s some business plan or proposal, and we start doing things in the way we started: intuitive, irrational, naive, and excited. And that’s something that I don’t know if we would have allowed ourselves to do if we were intimidated. I remember talking to a friend who went to CSM and worked at Louis Vuitton at the time. She was visiting other friends of mine and was like, “I can’t believe you guys started a fashion line. I would need someone to give me a million dollars to begin something.” It’s so crazy, that you would do that with a million dollars I would not encourage them to start a fashion line. You have to be a bit crazy and willing to do things that are just a lot of work and be down for that. And be excited and driven in that way.

“[When we started the brand] it was a different time, and there was no Instagram. There was another bubble we were in, a lack of awareness of what other people were doing there. The only way to see other young designers was to go to specific boutiques.” – Zoe Latta

NS: Do you remember the first moment that this started to become a real business, taking your first orders, figuring out how to do the production, how to deal with it?

ME: We did small orders during our first season. Everything was always little steps. In our first season, we were picked up by Opening Ceremony.

ZL: We were both on consignment, and we had no idea what that meant. It was something we were Googling, and it seemed great. It was still such an honour to us. But I have to say that it was a different time. There was no Instagram. There was another bubble we were in, a lack of awareness of what other people were doing. The only way to see other young designers was to go to specific boutiques. There wasn’t SSENSE, there wasn’t this extreme visibility of what other people were doing. There was also a recession, so we didn’t feel like there were other jobs we could get. We were freelancing and working part-time, but the bar was pretty low in terms of what else we could be doing, which I think was the real opportunity.

ME: Absolutely. We were both working in fashion, and that’s what the New York fashion landscape looked like at that time. When we started, it was peak Alexander Wang. I think he was just appointed at Balenciaga. These young brands all felt so polished and structured. This didn’t speak to us; it was just not relatable. So, we just started doing things that made sense to us even though there was no idea of inclusivity or buzzwords like that. We were casting our friends. We didn’t know how to find models.

“With Proenza or Wang, they were all still emerging brands, and they were 10 years old. And now we’re 12 years old, and we’re still an emerging brand. It’s a very confusing landscape for anyone.” – Mike Eckhaus

NS: It was authentic – it wasn’t like a strategy.

ME: No, that’s the thing. It’s been too many years for it to be a strategy.

ZL: With Proenza or Wang, they were all still emerging brands, and they were 10 years old. And now we’re 12 years old, and we’re still an emerging brand. It’s a very confusing landscape for anyone.

“It kind of feels like we’re forever emerging, like weirdos.” – Mike Eckhaus

NS: Have you ever thought of what your trajectory would be if you were in Europe or London? London is so oversaturated with emerging brands, and there is this idea that it is more supportive than the US. Did you ever feel like you’re not supported as an emerging brand?

ZL: We did the CFDA Award three years after we did the LVMH Prize. There is support in the US in its own weird way. London looks supportive but I know it’s probably as challenging as it is anywhere else. And with those structures of support, there are a lot of restrictions and guidelines. For years, we didn’t apply to the CFDA because it was like an reality TV show, and we just didn’t feel comfortable doing it. It’s not that we’re better than it by any means, but by marching to the beat of our own drum – for better or for worse – sometimes it means we can’t ask for this support that might be available globally.

“It’s funny to me how it’s about the cities, and who’s showing in what city. It’s fashion month, it’s not even fashion week anymore.” – Mike Eckhaus

ME: Fashion has also just become more and more a mono-channel recently. When people talk about the 90s, they have a point: they were different. What it meant to be Margiela, the infrastructure and how it was financially structured… These are things that I don’t think we can replicate post-recession. We are in this world with DTC brands, the Kerings and the LVMHs and now it kind of feels like we’re forever emerging, like weirdos. To your question, if we had been in Europe – since our aesthetics are not in line with what is traditionally considered to be American fashion – maybe things would have been different for us if we had started to show in Paris or London. At the same time, it’s funny to me how it’s about the cities, and who’s showing in what city. It’s fashion month, it’s not even fashion week anymore. It’s this ongoing thing that happens. Each city has its own vibe, reasoning, and a type of brand. But it’s always funny to me, even since Fashion Week became this endlessness. It’s funny that we are still segmented.

ZL: I went to the Balenciaga show in LA, and it was such a treat to get invited to someone else’s show. It was a real trip but watching this obviously provocative brand cosplay in LA, and doing their kind of tourism of another place in a very surface-level way… It’s always fashion week somewhere. For us, New York is always where we’ve done it, and what makes our shows are all the people behind the scenes. To be meaningful, we would need to have that kind of community based there.

NS: When you started getting more orders and more stockists, did the business become more complex? Did you have to expand your team and get business people in it? An accountant, a team member to handle the admin part of it all? Or do you still do that yourselves?

ME: We still do. The team definitely shifted, but we’re still very involved. We’re a very small team. Zoe and I have five full-time people. And then we have a bunch of people that come in and out of the picture. But for the most part, it’s a crew of the seven of us. We were never afraid to ask questions to see what resources people were willing to share. There’s a network within certain factories that we’ve worked with for a while, but it’s often through a friend who has a friend that works at a larger fashion company, and they know this place in China, Peru, or Portugal that you would never have access to. Then you start working with them, you visit them, and you build a relationship with these companies. You start to have some money where you can start to pay yourself and hire people, so there are people in the team who start to be able to oversee certain elements of development or production.

ZL: In terms of the strategic business planning, that’s just me and Mike. We approached it in a very similar way to how we approached making clothes and learning about it.

ME: There was this competition we did where they basically taught you how to build a business plan. It was like a summer course.

ZL: I saw that business plan recently and it was 90 pages long. But through that, we were able to get an angel investor that we still have. They gave us a very small chunk of change that enabled us to hire an intern, and Mike’s boyfriend at the time, and get more support to formalise it all. It was more like, “We’re the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker; how can we shift this so that this person can take on some more of that?” Still to this day, we are trying to figure out how to streamline people more, so they can be better at the things they’re good at, and that the company needs, and not have everyone wearing every hat.

“Fashion isn’t for the light-hearted if you want to have your own company.” – Zoe Latta

NS: Most designers that run their own brands have an energy of “I can’t do this anymore.” You don’t sound like that. Do you ever get to the point of being fed up?

ME: We have a high threshold. Now, after doing it for a while, we have each other, so we can freak out with each other over things. But it’s incredibly stressful. Fashion isn’t for the light-hearted if you want to have your own company.

ZL: We’re growing up in our mid-30s and seeing where this is going, it’s not linear. I just hung out with some friends from college, and they are like, “I’ve been working at Nike for 10 years.” They’re very interested in this path that has been delineated. It’s a very clear ladder of how you climb it. When you go to art school, it’s like a binary. You either are gonna go into this unwavering chaos of being a freelancer or having your own company, or this fictional structure that is probably very comforting and will have its compromises. After hanging out with him, I was just thinking back on how nice it is to think that your next raise, your next promotion, or the next team that you will be working on is a very clear goal, and you’re motivated to do it. Therefore, you work harder for it. But we’re very motivated and destined to have this company. Our name’s on the door; we care about it deeply. It’s a huge responsibility. But there’s no real thought about what else.

ME: Exactly. I just had a bunch of samples come in two days late during lunch, and I have these other samples that are delayed, but if there’s some reason why those don’t make this season, it’s fine. At times, things work out, and you just have to be willing to adapt constantly and figure out how you can expand. It’s not ideal, but it’s comforting at times to just tell yourself that there’s a space to be like, “There’s nothing else for me to do right now, except pull my hair out over this.” It’s stressful and it’s frustrating, but we’ve been doing this for so long. We can hopefully keep going a bit further because we’ve gotten this far. It’s fashion. We’re facing relatively similar problems in new forms. That used to make me hyperventilate, and now I’m just like, “It’s gonna be fine.” Those pieces might be delivered a little later. It’s stressful, yes, but my team is managing those parts of production. At the end of the day, this will all click together on some level.

ZL: It’s an exercise of setting a boundary, as Mike said. You can flip out over it, or you can just say: it is what it is.

NS: Do you ever get the stress of relevance? Do you ever find yourself looking at other brands that are emerging and be like: “Oh, they’re doing this, we have to do that, they’re on TikTok, we have to be there too.”

ME: Absolutely.

ZL: I remember you guys publishing something on the idea of the small brands being held to the same standard or level of accountability with big brands… I don’t think people often know or understand our scale.

NS: At the end of the day, they’re all on the same e-commerce website, basically.

ME: The number of times friends – sometimes even friends who work in fashion – would be like, “What about Balenciaga?” But Balenciaga is owned by a multi-billion-dollar international luxury conglomerate. It’s hard, but it’s understandable. We want to be in this dialogue about clothing and identity. For us, it’s always been about this larger dialogue. This niche. We’re not new in the slightest; we’ve been around for 14 years, so it’s about how we make things feel new for us. We see other brands emerge that are cool, but the grass is always greener.

NS: You’ve done a lot of collaborations, and you mentioned investors as well. Is it hard to book these collaborations? 

ZL: I think the landscape has changed a lot. We’re naive and really lucky that we always had one that filled our plate, with varying amounts of support or money but still an extracurricular activity that was going alongside our seasonal releases. And we kind of always had that until we didn’t. We’ve also always been engaging in conversations around what support we can have for our show, and there has been an effort to try to get with various other publicists and people helping us find these relationships. I think it’s now something that we’re really trying to be deliberate about. We kind of had this lightbulb moment where we realised we could also approach people and propose ideas. We’re not just kids; we have a platform that’s really compelling and exciting. And it’s fun to do these things.

“We’ve always been a slow burn. Things move for us in ways that are good and healthy. We trained for how to improve that, but we’ve never had that day where everything’s different. Maybe one day we will.” – Mike Eckhaus

ME: We’ve always been a slow burn. Things move for us in ways that are good and healthy. We trained for how to improve that, but we’ve never had that day where everything’s different. Maybe one day we will.

NS: Brands that have these big moments tend to die afterwards.

ME: We’ve also been around long enough to see a lot of brands that were so popular that don’t exist anymore. During fashion week, every single buyer is wearing this brand head to toe, and then they’re gone. We’ve always been like, “How can we be a slow burn? How can we not be a flash in the pan?” We’re cautious in these ways.

ZL: But it’s nice to turn back and see that with no individual influence, with no celebrity wearing something – or something defined as an IT product – our jeans have sustained support and continued growth. That feels so much better than what we’ve seen. As Mike said, so many other brands are like, “We need to make 10,000 of these things and we need to take on these investors.” I’m trying to think of a situation where that worked out for someone…

ME: There’s an element of exterior support of sponsorships or collaboration that has always been important, and that’s stuff that we’re still working on. We’re very open to it. And it’s fun to do these other things, learn something new, work with different people, make products that we wouldn’t necessarily have the accessibility to make. But whoever is paying attention to business news knows about the struggles of wholesale at the moment, and the ripple effects of that. It’s this element where we’re lucky to have our own stores, and a platform where we can speak directly with our customers. We’ve always wanted Eckhaus Latta to be in the most accessible. We read about the prices of all of these things going up; there are ways to not be crazy expensive. There’s this progressive desire of it being something obtainable to a customer and a person who’s interested in what we’re saying and does not feel like it’s too outside.

NS: I wanted to ask you about the stores, because for London or Paris designers, having stores seems so farfetched. It feels like just an expense, nothing profitable. I want to ask if the stores, besides presence and the communication you want with your customers, are good for your business.

ME: Our New York store is really good. Our New York store is great for our business. We’re also not talking about 30,000 euros or $25,000 monthly rent, but we’re talking about locations that are within our means, that we can rent, and that are not going to be extravagant like Le Marais or Soho.

NS: New York is more expensive than London, but the concept of a store is something that isn’t introduced as an option to young designers anymore. It used to be in the past.

ZL: Our first store in LA happened because we had a studio that was cheap enough, that happened to be a storefront. We started having a rack in there that people could shop, and then we built it out with our friends to make a beautiful space. We were working in the back; someone would ring the bell, and we had to let them in. We’ve always had that in LA; it’s been part of our studio. And now we have designated people in the store. But that was the first one. It’s always been about paying rent for the studio and seeing how we can combine these two things. And in New York we’re in a mall in Chinatown that literally supports the Manhattan Bridge and is owned by the city. It’s a very odd architectural structure. Now, we’re just trying to figure out how we can have this atelier-store in New York, which is obviously difficult and a bit of a journey to find that. It’s never been these hot retail foot traffic zones. It’s more of a destination. So, it needs to be low for them to be profitable.

“We never really put all of our eggs in any one basket. Whether that’s who we manufacture with, so we’re working with 10 different factories all over the world at different times, or a bunch of different wholesalers and then our e-commerce and two stores, and then various levels of partners or sponsors at the same time.” – Zoe Latta

NS: Is it important that you have stores? Because what most emerging designers do is rely too much on e-commerce and the terms of these e-commerce spaces. They’re independent brands, but they’re not independent brands really. They end up following what e-commerce stores need or want in terms of orders, styles, colors.

ZL: Another thing that Mike and I have done is, for better or for worse, we never really put all of our eggs in any one basket. Whether that’s who we manufacture with, so we’re working with 10 different factories all over the world at different times, or a bunch of different wholesalers and then our e-commerce and two stores, and then various levels of partners or sponsors at the same time. We diversified the revenue stream, which again was not strategic, but something we’ve always done. There was a time we got a huge order from Net-a-porter years ago that was beyond our means, and the terms were really difficult. We were like, “Fuck it, we’re gonna do it; it’s such an amazing amount of money,” and then we fucked it up and delivered it late and stopped selling to them. It was a lesson learned. We did deliver it, but we couldn’t deliver it too late.

ME: You can’t deliver to Net-a-porter late for two seasons and then expect they’re gonna come back. When people warn you about that, that’s true. We were lucky that some people have more grace than others, and you understand why it’s true as you get older. It’s true. The selling windows are small, especially with wholesale. It’s a hard business. But also for us infrastructurally at the time, we had these other larger luxury brands delivering in ways that were smooth, efficient, and on time. Five people trying to do this amongst everything else is hard. Now we’ve gotten better at it. Much better. But it’s also still challenging. I think it’s again, it’s that same scope where you ask how you hold these and how everyone is held to the same level at times because the playing field is so not leveled.

NS: Many designers who have developed successful brands like yours follow the pattern or have the dream that at some point they will get an in-house creative director position. Many people even start their brands with that in mind, like it’s the easiest way to have a portfolio brand and build the community, build a name for yourself so you get this big job. Has this ever crossed your mind? Or have you ever got an offer? But most importantly, would you ever do it?

ZL: We’ve been offered things that didn’t feel right. It really would just depend on what it was for us to say yes.

ME: I think everything’s about the right partnerships and the right opportunities. What I often find most alluring about that is the resources and infrastructure; access to something that is not usually within our means. That’s exciting. We’re very open to it, to the right opportunity when it comes along.

NS: You mentioned earlier that you’re a small team. Do you think that because you didn’t over-expand is why you still keep going?

ME: There’s Zoe and I, and then we have three people who are with us on development, design, and production in different categories. And then we have our wholesale director, we have a retail director, and somebody who focuses on production and development. Our wholesale director also works on distribution. I do a lot of bookkeeping stuff myself. We don’t have a CEO or that type of figure.

ZL: We don’t have a marketing person. We have some freelance people that do marketing things with us.

ME: We have a freelance social media manager.

ZL: People might think they need a CFO or CMO… Those people are incredibly talented and they’re incredibly expensive. So, finding specialised help on a consultant or freelance basis and figuring out how to employ their knowledge yourself is a great cost-saving mechanism. I could use a full in-house marketing team of people with that experience, but we can’t afford that. It’s something we’ve learned a little bit later. Same with business advice or merchandising. Things like this to bring on help that might be expensive on an hourly level, but it’s correct and concise. And then learn from that, and figure out how to employ the knowledge yourself.

NS: To close, do you have specific learnings or advice? 

ME: I would say work with your friends. We started this very soon after college. If you go to art school, no matter where, you create a community that you should think of as resources, as your friends and collaborators in all these different ways. Also, don’t think you’re not going to have a day job for a handful of years. It’s a lot of work, and you’ll do it simultaneously until one day, hopefully, you can make enough money off of it to have a salary. There are times when people think that you just jump into it and you’re like, “Cool, we’re just doing it.” And it’s taken many years for us to not have to do other work in relation to it.

ZL: I agree with both things Mike said. Also, learn early how to mitigate your expectations, go with the flow. And oftentimes, the flow feels like a river you’re just in. And other times, rare but good times, it feels like something you get to steer. And you have to kind of realise that you don’t get to choose who your customer is. You don’t get to choose who or how your work is written about. Just don’t expect too much and just try to be present with it.