The Ensign is an online luxury destination with a refreshing perspective on domestic production. Established by Jason Wagg and Luis Morales in 2016, the New York-based retailer exclusively stocks young American designers who bring an invigorated point of difference to the global menswear market.
Striving to fortify the importance of home-grown businesses, the duo are finding huge value in this market. In conversation with ORDRE, Jason Wagg reveals how the Ensign’s unique concept store operates in his own words.
Luis and I met through mutual friends. At the time, I was working at Tom Ford, whilst he was design director for Ralph Lauren. Over the years, I've worked in operations and marketing for luxury companies and retailers like Neiman Marcus and Anthropologie.
We initially wanted to launch our own menswear line, but as we started to work on the process of building a brand, we discovered there wasn’t a lot of support in the industry for new American designers. There was a reasonably large gap between small local boutiques and huge establishments like Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue. Suddenly our goal shifted from designing to creating the ultimate destination for young designers — a place to discover exciting talents who have not yet reached a high level of fame or success.
One of the biggest reasons we founded the Ensign was not necessarily because the American or global market needed another retailer. We believe many retailers today don’t have a targeted understanding of who their customer base is, or a relevant way to be able to service them.
At the Ensign, we represent American luxury by selectively working with American designers who we believe are a cut above the rest. Whilst every other retailer is chasing the latest Gucci, Balenciaga or Off-White collection, so much opportunity is left for other talented young designers to occupy the space.
“Domestic manufacturing allows designers to create standout products that would otherwise be difficult to execute elsewhere for a lower price point”
ON AMERICAN LUXURY
We’ve found that products made locally tend to have a higher level of quality than a similar product sourced from an overseas factory. Additionally, we maintain that domestic manufacturing allows designers to create standout products that would otherwise be difficult to execute elsewhere, for a lower or equal price point.
We initially started with eight designers with production based exclusively in New York, like Deveaux and Palmiers du Mal. We’ve since expanded to 20 designers who produce across the country, due to the realities of fashion and the global market. Italian knits, for example, remain excellent, so even though we have strictly American designers, we also support those who choose to produce some of their products in Italy or other countries across the globe.
We carry a few American heritage brands like Freeman Sporting Club, a 40-year-old label that produces domestically near their boutique in New York. Agolde is another distinctive label, founded by the creative director of Citizens of Humanity, which produces a huge amount of its product in Los Angeles.
We have a number of athleisure and streetwear designers like Abasi Rosborough or Grei, an under-the-radar label working out of Brooklyn. They make textile-driven, oversized silhouettes. Head of State is another great streetwear brand, helmed by a 19-year-old prodigy from Nigeria, and is currently stocked at SSENSE and Totokaelo.
Our top three sell-throughs at the moment include Agolde, Kramer and Stout, and Carlos Campos, who all resonate with our consumer base very strongly. We like to keep our brand mix varied, and we don’t do mundane jeans and tees, or suits and ties — our goal is to cover the exciting ground in between, and execute a fresh aesthetic using innovative voices. The designers we carry do surprisingly better overseas than here in the US, so we are trying to balance out that disparity.
ONLINE VS BRICKS-AND-MORTAR
As a purely online store, we are able to reach a much larger audience, and it gives us the flexibility to work with designers across the country. We need to be adaptable in order to survive in the global retail landscape, and we can do this more effectively through a digital platform.
Additionally, commercial real estate in America is incredibly expensive at the moment, and we see that type of overhead cost as a big weakness for a number of retailers today. On the other hand, we understand how physical retail is such an important part of a brand’s representation, so a physical store is definitely something we have slated for the future.
In order to stay relevant with today’s digitally driven consumer, we need to take into account how they interact with the digital world and how we can make our content relevant. Our online blog enables us to tell each brand’s story in more depth, giving our designers valuable face time with customers.
We believe consumers crave this extra content from brands and they also want to see our point of view online, so our designer interviews, brand profiles and design trend stories are highly relatable — consumers want to learn about who they are wearing and why they should care about it.
Since launching in 2016, the business has grown at a rapid rate of 60 percent year-on-year. In the future, we want to take on new American designers who are moving the needle, and who are trying to advance American design as a whole. But we also want to continue carrying exclusives from the designers we currently represent. We will never carry the entirety of a brand’s collection, as we want to keep our product edit thoroughly curated.
Beyond that, a physical space is definitely in the works, and we are committed to investing in content curation, over creation. We really want to develop a unique environment based on the ongoing conversation of true American luxury, and what it means to be creative in men’s fashion today.