To many foreign clothing retailers, there's no tougher place to set up shop than the U.S. For every recent hit, like Sweden's H&M, several imports have come unstitched. Britain's Next and Marks & Spencer have both gone home, while Topshop has just one U.S. store, three years after trumpeting plans to open a trio.
That hasn't deterred AllSaints. In perhaps the pluckiest expansion by a foreign fashion retailer in years, the London-based company plans to open as many as 50 U.S. shops by 2015. In less than a year, it has unveiled six, one each in New York and Boston, two in Miami, and two in the L.A. area; three more are due by the end of 2010. AllSaints brings "affordable luxury to the U.S. market," claims Paul McAdam, the company's CEO for North America. "I don't think that's been done before." While the novelty of its distressed aesthetic — from $400 leather jackets to crumpled jeans (starting at $110) for women and men — is debatable, the audacity of the stateside move is not.
AllSaints has been a British retail star over the past four years, with sales growing almost tenfold, to nearly $200 million. Jessica Brown, editor of the U.K. fashion-business bible Drapers, credits not the clothing's noirish palette but the collections' "much more unusual shapes and fits." With much of the fashion world focused on form-hugging clothes, AllSaints has offered an abundance of pleats, gatherings, and figure-forgiving loose fabrics that are somehow "still sexy," she says.
AllSaints sits at the high end of affordable, with lower prices than major fashion houses but more exclusivity than Zara and H&M. McAdam says the firm's "sweet spot" is in the $150 to $200 range — a price point that makes it "very difficult for other, cheaper operators to replicate what they do," says analyst Sarah Peters of the retail consultancy Verdict.
The store interiors — brick, iron, weathered wood — complement the garments. Old sewing machines fill one L.A. shop's windows, creating an air of history (AllSaints is just 16 years old) and mystery. Concealing your collection is "a completely different way of thinking about retailing," says Brown. "Imagining what lies behind the windows makes you want to enter the store."
One of AllSaints's biggest risks and potential shortcomings is its narrow aesthetic — you'd better like black and gray. That could be a particular concern as the firm expands both demographically and geographically beyond its core British-hipster market. (AllSaints hopes to add stores in Europe and Asia too.)
McAdam will brook no skepticism. He says AllSaints's top-end quality and midmarket pricing are "a real strength." In other words, the look may be distressed and dark, but the outlook is unquestionably bright.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.