In This Issue

Suite as can be: Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch explain how they found an untapped niche in the business of high fashion

Monday, March 10, 2014

Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch in Suite 1521

Perched across from Suite 1521 co-founders Lizzie Tisch and Kim Kassel on low, tufted gray couches in the center of the partners’ new members-only fashion salon , I ask what’s going on around me. The room has been transformed into a full-fledged boutique for the high-end brand, Maiyet. “This is a unique situation,” Kassel explains, “because most of the time we would never have anyone who has a store ‘need’ us, but [Maiyet’s boutique] is all the way downtown, so this allows them to get a different customer base—customers that wouldn’t necessarily be able to see the whole world of Maiyet without us.”

A single shopper is trying on pieces she has hand-picked from the collection, while a member of the Maiyet team and an on-staff tailor assist her. Our interview is interrupted so the customer can show Kassel and Tisch what she is wearing, “I tried on something else in two sizes: Ehh. This, I put on; it just needs a little tweaking, and it’s great,” she tells us. Then that night, the Maiyet boutique will be deconstructed so the next day,  Suite 1521 can start welcoming clients to the same space, transformed into a complete Libertine collection. The space itself changes too: I acknowledge the pit in the salon’s central coffee table, festively filled with Hanukkah gelt and blue Tootsie Rolls (it’s early-December). Soon, the co-founders tell me, Suite 1521 will transition to a Christmas motif. A sense of “now” is in the air.

Like many successful businesses, Suite 1521 was conceptualized from what, to high-fashion insiders Tisch and Kassel, was an

obvious hole in the market. “Kim has always worked in the fashion world, and I have always been a good consumer,” says Tisch. Indeed, Tisch, the wife of Loews Hotel chairman Jonathan Tisch, has been on Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List for three years in a row and was inducted into the Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 2012. She will also chair the 2014 Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Gala and chairs the Friends Group of the same institution.

Kassel, meanwhile, has held senior public relations and advertising positions with Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.  After leaving Calvin

Klein, she ran private client sales for the now-defunct, high-end women’s label Tuleh. That’s how she met Tisch 10 years ago. “I

always loved going down there because I got to choose what I wanted from the collection, versus what the stores bought,” says Tisch.  Kassel elaborates: “The rest of the story is that Lizzie would come down and pick, usually, the piece that no store had ordered, and I would’ve loved it also. And [the brand] would say to me, ‘Okay we need to sell five of these in order for us to produce them.’ So we’d be sitting there and we’d both order them, and then we’d be like, ‘Okay, we have to find three more people to get to buy the coat!’”

Lizzie Tisch and Kim Kassel shown here with designers Shaun Leane and Todd Lynne during their event last season
Above: Lizzie Tisch and Kim Kassel shown here with designers Shaun Leane and Todd Lynne during their event last season.

As the economy shrank into a  recession in 2008, the pair noticed that stores were placing smaller and smaller orders from designers, and trunk shows were becoming much more limited—until they devolved into mere expansions on the buyers’ buys. “It was frustrating because, with [the advent of] the internet and everyone seeing the shows immediately, you would see all those fabulous pieces that were going down the runway or appearing in editorial; and you would have no access to them as a regular person,” explains Kassel.

Having recognized this problem, the two women decided to combine Kassel’s experience in private client sales with their mutual love of and savvy about designers and their clothing lines, and combine these interests into a business.

Two years of planning followed before they opened the doors to Suite 1521. It sits prominently on the third floor of 980 Madison and joins hardly shabby neighbors like the Gagosian Gallery at the famed upper Madison Avenue building. The concept is simple: Bring directly to consumers designers who are under-distributed, or don’t have a point of sale in New York or have large collections that are not fully represented by any of their other carriers. The process is equally simple: One becomes a member by paying an annual fee of $500, which grants you access to the calendar of designers. You are then able to claim an appointment to view, try on and shop the full collection, semi-privately, with the designer or the designer’s team present, along with a tailor and, often, the option to customize.

“I think the other benefit to us is the customer service; we really feel that has disappeared a little bit, and we want people to feel comfortable here,” says Kassel. She and Tisch are always present and have established trusting relationships with both the designers and the members—facilitating an atmosphere where nobody is overselling and nobody is feeling pressure to buy. “We want somebody who maybe isn’t a size 2, who doesn’t fit perfectly into everything, to come here and say, ‘I have found a line of clothing that really works for me, and the designer was really sweet, was able to change a sleeve or take out the waist,’” Kassel continues. “I also think it’s nice for the customer to meet the designer, to understand, ‘Why does that jacket cost $2,000?’“

But what’s the benefit to the designers? “That to me has been the most interesting and certainly the most fun part,” says Tisch. “Finding the designers is sort of my passion; I love finding what’s new, what’s interesting. I don’t like going to parties and seeing [someone else] in a similar dress that I just spent $4,000 on. It allows ‘new establishment’ designers to showcase their entire collection in a special selling environment that is different from the normal retail platform. It allows them the chance to explain their vision to clients as well as to get feedback on the collection.”

Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch with Preen designer, Justin Thornton.
Above: Kim Kassel and Lizzie Tisch with Preen designer, Justin Thornton.

So the partners began to look for what was new and unique. First came the British designers: “They’re a very nice community. They’re all friends, so they have been very supportive of us and of each other, and have introduced us to all of their networks. It was like dominos,” says Tisch. Now, she says, they’re expanding their roster of American designers—to those who are mostly cutting edge and young (including a lot of CFDA designers).

The final piece of the puzzle has been connecting the designers with the consumers. “We’ve told people we don’t know, who signed up

after they read something about us: ‘Please, there’s absolutely no pressure; you shouldn’t feel inclined,’” Tisch says. “This is a very friendly environment. It’s good for everybody to see what people respond to. It’s good for us, it’s good for them, it’s good for the designers to see what works, because you can sit here and draw something and have a vision, but it has to work in reality.”

She adds: “We worked with Wes Gordon last season; a lot of people hadn’t been exposed to the clothes in a larger way, in a smaller way; and I think we built up a Wes Gordon following. He was here, and it was really interesting for him to see where people gravitated, where the customer really goes, and what the customer buys, and who the customer really is.”

Kassel and Tisch had a strong opening season of back-to-back events, featuring designers like Bibhu Mohapatra, Libertine,  Prabal Gurung, Rodarte, Peter Pilotto and many more. They then opened their doors again to members in January, starting with The Elder Statesman, and now have a full and impressive roster of designers—many returning, and some new to Suite 1521—lined up through May. They are also taking care to pair complementary accessories and fashion designers: Ostwald Helgason showed with Clarissa by Clarissa Bronfman. Rodarte and Iosselliani were teamed, as was Sophie Theallet with Edie Parker; and Peter Pilotto and Nicholas Kirkwood, to name a few. Kassel and Tisch have also started a “closet,” a small space with key pieces that Kassel and Tisch want to have on hand in case a member is every having a “fashion emergency.”

“I will say, every time I get here in the morning, and I walk through the doors, I still get that rush where I can’t believe that an idea that existed in our heads two years ago actually exists. When I walk in here and I see that we realized the vision that we wanted. . .” says Kassel, trailing off as she momentarily becomes emotional.

“Are you seriously crying??” interjects Tisch, lightening the mood.

Kassel admits she is, then relates an anecdote to illustrate her and her partner’s opposite but complementary demeanors. “Richard Nicolls was in here and he had these sweatshirts; one said ‘strange,’ and one said ‘fragile,’” she recalls. “[Richard Nicolls] said, ‘Not only is fragile for you, I’m buying it for you!’”

Everyone laughs at the story, but Kassel is serious. “I really do still get that rush when I walk in the door, having evolved from that thought process and just talking about it around a table.

“It was a tremendous amount of work to make this happen,” she continues. “It still is, every day. It follows you around, pretty much all the time; it’s a lifestyle. We read a lot about start-ups before we started; it’s like you have to live, sleep, eat and breathe it for it to survive.

“I think we’re definitely doing that at the moment.”

This story has been updated from a version that ran in the March 2014 print issue of AVENUE magazine


Pushing the Puffer

Moncler's new House of Genius is...genius!


A Recipe for Philanthropy

A delicious luncheon overlooking and benefitting Central Park

On The Avenue
On The Avenue

Cinema Society Goes Wilde-ing

A gay and vogueish night at the South Street Seaport

by Debbie BancroftPhotographed by Paul Bruinooge /PMc