Where Casual Meets Cool

Photography by John Rizzo

In 2008, Adam Zuckerman was in his 12th year as vice president of sales for Enyce, the urban sportswear brand, when rapper-turned-entrepreneur Diddy bought the company from Liz Claiborne for a reported $20 million. Just weeks after Diddy’s announcement, Zuckerman left Enyce to pursue his own dream.

The 41-year-old father of two had dreamed of having his own shop for years: after all, his mother had owned a women’s clothing boutique, and, as a child, Zuckerman enjoyed helping her. And then, when he and his wife, Roanne, moved from New York City to Rye Brook eight years ago, he believed that Westchester County could use a hip, quality men’s and women’s clothing shop. “I kept saying to my wife, ‘There’s got to be a cool store here,” Zuckerman says. “Finally, she said, ‘I’m sick of listening to you. Just do it!’”

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So he did. The store he opened in March 2009 at the Rye Ridge Shopping Center is Z Life Denim Lounge, a hub for stylish casual clothes, mostly men’s denims and sportswear, plus shoes and boots.

“I’m trying to create an atmosphere where guys don’t feel like they’re walking into a department store,” Zuckerman says. Instead, he wants his store to feel like a weekend activity for the whole family, even if one member doesn’t feel like shopping. “I have a big-screen TV,” he coaxes. Plus magazines, newspapers, books on sports and fashion, and even toys for kids, not to mention staffers who are ready to get on the floor and keep the little ones entertained. But mostly, Z Life has casual clothes, marked up by 52 to 55 percent (the average retail mark up is 56 percent, according to retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, chairman of a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City). The store targets shoppers at the younger end of the Baby Boomer spectrum and the middle to upper end of GenX, between ages 35 and 50, with the “sweet spot being the 40-year-old dad—or mom—with young kids, who have good jobs and want to dress hip.” And even though the store is geared toward men—“My experience told me that men won’t shop in women’s stores while women will shop anywhere”—purchases by men and women account evenly for the store’s roughly $1 million in annual revenue. “Women shop more frequently,” Zuckerman reports. “Men shop less frequently, but they’ll buy more at one time. They like to get it over with.”

Zuckerman opened his store investing “a little less” than a half-million dollars of his own money, money he had saved from his days in the fashion industry. “I believed in it that much that I was willing to take the risk,” he says, even though opening a men’s boutique is a very risky venture. Indeed, more than half of men’s clothes stores fail within three to five years, Davidowitz notes. In fact, he says, so few businessmen are able to make a living as independent men’s clothing retailers, that the trade group for them, the Menswear Retailers of America, went out of business.

At the higher-priced side, Davidowitz says, men’s casual clothing retailers are fighting upscale powerhouses like Barneys and chains like JoS. A. Bank Clothiers, which has Westchester stores in Rye and Scarsdale. At the lower-priced side, they’re fighting discount chains that can leverage costs over hundreds of stores. Even dowdy Syms has been forced to scale back; today it shares its quarters in Elmsford with recently acquired Filene’s Basement.

“The problem you have, if you’re in the casual end, is more competition,” Davidowitz says. “There are more chains. Take denim. It’s everywhere. You have competition at the high end, the low end, everywhere. It’s a very, very tough business at all levels.” Yet success is still possible. “Paul Stuart succeeded for fifty years with one store,” he notes. “Now they have two.”

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Zuckerman believes he is one of the few who will succeed. He maintains that his store’s revenue “keeps getting better and better”—enough, he says, for him to consider opening another boutique, a store focused on men’s and women’s shoes and accessories, potentially in Connecticut.

Adam Zuckerman graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in general studies, not knowing what career to pursue. “I was undecided,” he says. “I knew that eventually I wanted to open up a store. But I didn’t know if I should do it right out of college.” He decided to go the wholesale route, reasoning it would give him the experience needed to open a store later on.

He moved to New York City, where he spent two years at International News and another two at French Connection. At both companies, he marketed clothes to various retailers.

In 1995, Zuckerman joined Enyce, then a fledgling urban clothing company, starting as a sales associate, then working up to VP of sales. He grew the brand from a $6 million upstart into an urban-apparel powerhouse that was reported to have generated more than $100 million a year and fetched $114 million when sold.

Enyce capitalized on favorable exposure when hip-hop artists donned its duds to make their own fashion statements on television—especially after Eminem wore the company’s clothes at the Grammy awards in 2000. “Not only was the urban inner-city kid buying it, but also the suburban kid wanted to be part of it.”

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Zuckerman didn’t take long to nail down a site for his own store in his home village. The day he left Liz Claiborne, he came to terms with Rye Ridge’s owner, a division of Win Properties Inc., on a lease for 1,600 square feet previously occupied by a Hallmark card shop that had shut down after some 30 years.

The locale appealed to Zuckerman because of the 230,000-square-foot center’s proximity to nearly a dozen communities stretching east to Greenwich, Connecticut, west into Scarsdale, north into Armonk and Chappaqua, and south into Rye, Harrison, and Larchmont.

Zuckerman called Rye Ridge’s leasing agent. “When I presented them the concept, they were really hot on it,” he says. “But when I said, ‘Do you like Denim Lounge?’ they were like, ‘No, we don’t want  a lounge. We don’t want a bar.’ I said ‘No, you don’t get it. It’s a lounge for the customers.’ Once I explained it to them, they understood.”

According to the center’s website, 166,448 people live within five miles of Rye Ridge, with an average household income of $135,229. The tenant mix ranges from longtime mom-and-pop shops like Finch’s Drug, to popular chains like Starbucks. And, of course, now a cool store for men.

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