In case you haven’t realised, the worlds of food and fashion are colliding. Rag & Bone’s Meatpacking store is home to Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee and Jasmine Hemsley (one half of the Hemsley & Hemsley sister duo) just opened a restaurant with a fully operating kitchen in Maiyet’s London flagship store. Restaurants like Dimes, Nourish Kitchen Table and Victory Garden are getting in on the action by breaking out from just food to sell lifestyle items too. And if anyone’s career represents that movement it’s Claire Chan’s.
Two years ago she left her job as a womenswear buyer for Bergdorf Goodman, moved to San Francisco for a few months to work at her brother’s café and learn the ropes, before moving back to New York and launching a coffee-shop-meets-lifestyle-store of her own. Hidden away on Charles Street in the West Village, The Elk pulls in creative types in their droves who flock there for its Sightglass coffee, thoughtfully-devised menu by chef Sam Talbot and the wall of well-curated artisanal products. Think Prospector Co beard Oil and Bees Knees Spicy Honey to the latest issues of your favourite style titles. And FYI – Karlie Kloss was there the last time we visited.
We caught up with her recently to talk about food, the power of leaning into our vulnerabilities and her decision to leave Bergdorfs and venture into the unknown.
ON STARTING HER CAREER IN RETAIL: I worked for a number of years in retail. Many can affirm, it’s a tough industry to be in – now more so than ever. Consumers are savvy and protective of their hard earned money – and rightfully so! That aside, I was always drawn to retail because of the ways I could interact with people. I worked as a merchant buyer, and I enjoyed analyzing people’s buying habits and trying to decipher the motivations for the choices they made. I also love and appreciate beautiful product. It was an exciting space to start my professional career and I learned a lot working with and for some wonderful people.
LEAVING HER ROLE AT BERGDORF GOODMAN TO START THE ELK: I had just turned 27, and I took a hard look at where I was in my career. I asked myself what I wanted out of life and what would make me most fulfilled. While I was so inspired by the team of supportive and intelligent people that I was lucky enough to work with at Bergdorfs, I had an inner voice that encouraged me to pursue something that was all my own. When I told friends and family what I was doing, most were excited for me. There were some concerned individuals who wanted to make sure I was making the right decisions for the right reasons, and that I was setting out on a safe path. These were all important considerations for me.
ON RUNNING TOWARDS YOUR FEARS: I think it’s important for everyone to follow their dreams. Naturally, there are so many considerations layered into this and it is truly a hard-earned privilege to be able to do what you are passionate about. But I don’t think it is ever impossible. It can always be scary to step out on your own, but never be afraid of what you can’t imagine. Instead, let your imagination be the motor to drive you to new and exciting places. I think we are somewhat of a risk-averse society and it is the management of risk that prevents many of us from taking bold leaps. But I believe if you have a well thought-out plan, paired with a passion for whatever your leaping into then go for it! I think most things can be accomplished with hard work and determination. And in whatever ways you can, maintain and nourish confidence in yourself. Get comfortable being vulnerable at times.
CONFIDENCE COMES FROM CHALLENGING YOURSELF: Unexpected opportunities definitely broaden horizons, because it challenges you to go outside the boundaries of what you can imagine and perhaps what you’re comfortable with. The very first interview I had about THE ELK was uncomfortable and scary for me, because I had to take what I created and articulate it for an audience. I was worried they wouldn’t understand and I felt super exposed. But by saying ‘yes’ and putting myself out there, I ultimately felt growth and fulfillment around the choices I had made. Saying ‘yes’ is a great thing – it can challenge you and build complexities in your character that help boost self-confidence and further define you as an individual in this big scary world. Those earlier experiences have helped me feel empowered and more confident in the work I do. When I think about how far I have come, I feel more excited about all the places I might go. And while I know I have only scratched the surface in many ways, I look forward to finding out what lays beneath.
ON LAUNCHING THE ELK: I have always loved food, and I was fortunate enough to be exposed to many different types of food growing up and always worked in restaurants throughout university. I look back on that time and realize it was where I learned the most about people, business, and hard-work. I would recommend it for everyone to experience at least once! It is definitely character building. Starting The Elk allowed me to bring all my experiences and loves together in a comprehensive way. Before it opened, I moved to San Francisco to work at my brother’s café to learn about the business before starting on my own. It was so important for me to make that move after I left the fashion industry. I had worked in a very different industry for a long time, and the transition was abrupt. Thankfully I had the support of talented people who knew a lot about the coffee industry. It was important for me to learn from them – to not only understand the how’s but also the why’s. If I couldn’t talk the talk then I knew walking would be infinitely more difficult. I find coffee culture fascinating. It’s is such an integral part of people’s day and life, and yet so many people are unaware of how it gets into their cup every day. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to dig into it. I figured, if I found it this compelling, then there must be a story to tell. I wanted to present an approachable side to specialty coffee that I felt had not been properly represented, in a comfortable space that also served excellent food. The West Village is a wonderful setting in which to do this, and I am grateful that I found our space at the time I did.
ON CREATING A COMMUNITY SPIRIT: That is something I enjoy about coffee shops, so it was definitely something I wanted to foster for THE ELK. I have enjoyed seeing how this spirit has grown and evolved over time. I have a great group of staff who are like family to me, and I think they are really the core and energy source for it all. The fact that we’re in the West Village definitely adds to that feeling. It’s so charming, and it has a really special neighborhood feel that is rare to find in a big city like New York. There is also a great appreciation here amongst people who enjoy good food and drink. Next up, I would like to find another pocket much like the WV, where community plays an important role in everyday life.
ON MERGING HOSPITALITY & LIFESTYLE: I have a personal affinity for well-designed products (I may have left fashion, but I don’t think it has ever left me!) so, it was important for me to incorporate that into my product offering. Over time we have seen what sells, what does not, and listened to what people react to. I really love how simple things can add such a special quality to life, and I think our customers appreciate that as well. The worlds of fashion and food are closer now than they ever have been. I think generally, people’s taste level is progressing and expanding. It has become fashionable to eat well. There is a beautiful story that can be told with food, and people are curious to listen and learn more.
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