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October 23, 2017
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The storefront of lost & found, Elias's successful Dundas West boutique (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Elias).

Two-thousand-eleven was a milestone year for Jonathan Elias, who, along with partners Zai Rajkotwala and Justin Veiga, saw his dream of opening a retail store realised in Dundas West's Little Portugal neighbourhood last January. Opening to much curiosity (the clothing boutique boasts an in-house coffee bar), lost & found quickly gained a loyal customer base and exclusive distribution to coveted labels like Charlotte Ronson and Erin Kleinberg's last collection, and was recently declared the best new store to open in Toronto in 2011. Add to that a successful online venture, ShopMyClothes.com - think eBay for designer duds - and Elias is making serious strides in the retail racket. The Genteel spoke with him about the importance of a strong foundation, how customer service can make or break a business and the three things every entrepreneur needs in order to succeed.

What made you realise you wanted to work in fashion?

For me, it was the gratifying feeling of putting on a new piece, finding a new brand or creating an outfit that, in my mind, looked great - these were all elements that attracted me to the fashion industry.

I have always been fascinated by the psychology of buying clothes. It was something I wanted to learn more about and to better understand. After working in fashion for the past nine years I'm still learning [about it] every day. 

What was your first job in the industry? What did it teach you about the business of fashion?

My first "real" job in the industry was with Gap Inc. as a merchandiser for Old Navy. There was definitely a learning curve when I first started. Learning about fabric, production, distribution, planning and design were at the core of my day-to-day job, and [that] has allowed me to grow into the businessperson I am today. 

How did you land that first job?

I got hired at Gap Inc. immediately after earning my MBA [at The Rotman School of Management]. There is no doubt that I wouldn't have been recruited without that degree. Going through that rigorous program taught me about discipline, hard work and critical and creative thinking. I have successfully used these skills throughout my career.   

As for the coffee portion, I can't remember the last time I didn't have a coffee in my hand while I shopped - we felt it was only fitting to have that offering in the store.

In the fashion industry, do you think education or experience is most important?

I think this is a chicken-or-egg dilemma. I don't think you can succeed without both. Without my education and understanding of fashion I don't think I would have opened the store yet. My experience and education allowed me to be comfortable and confident enough to launch both of my businesses, lost & found and ShopMyClothes.com. 

How did lost & found come to be?

I have been passionate about opening up a retail space for a long time. I kept the idea stowed in the back of my head, as it took a long time to put all the pieces together to finally get it up and running. One of my partners, Justin, was living with me at the time and we were biking around looking at potential spots (not necessarily for retail) and happened to come across our current location. We were immediately enamoured with the spot. Zai and I had been talking about opening a retail store for a while so naturally we to let her in on what we'd found. We all got together, made the decision to go forward and have been flying by the seat of our pants ever since. As for the coffee portion, I can't remember the last time I didn't have a coffee in my hand while I shopped - we felt it was only fitting to have that offering in the store.

What does a typical day look like for you?

For us there is no "typical" day. Our store concept is unique to Toronto so we have a bunch of "extras" that a typical store doesn't usually have to deal with. We're making coffees, ordering supplies and then on top of that taking care of customers, placing orders for products, [conducting] financial analyses of our business and researching new brands. You can probably infer from this that there is not one day that goes by that we are not busy from the start to finish!   

Jonathan Elias (Source: thegridto.com).

What's your favourite part of the job?

I love interacting with customers, we usually become friends. There is a camaraderie that you develop by discussing brands or seeing [customers] feel good when they put on a new outfit. 

What's your least favourite part of the job?

My least favourite part of the job is the constant paper work.  If you know me, you know I love the creative side much more. But it is a necessary and important evil!

What other types of industry professionals do you work with regularly?

With regards to ShopMyClothes.com, the company is web-based so we are interacting with our programmers in India, our CTO in New Jersey and we have partnered up with brands, as well as web-based flash sale sites.

With respect to lost & found, I get to work with some pretty amazing designers and brands. We work with the designers directly, which allows for creativity in partnerships, design and product. 

How important is the role of social media in your job?

Social media is extremely important in both businesses, but more so in ShopMyClothes.com. We have been able to develop a relatively strong following across many different social media landscapes, which gives us not only a broad reach, but develops a loyal following. 

Social media makes it easier to start a company from scratch and allows you to promote, especially when you are on a shoestring budget. I am not implying that social media will automatically make you successful, rather you have to work at it, be genuine and true to your followers and do not overwhelm them. 

In your opinion, how important is entrepreneurialism to succeeding in the fashion industry?

I think there is too much emphasis put on entrepreneurialism with respect to the fashion industry. You can be successful in both frameworks; either working for a company or branching out on your own. Fashion, however, can be a fickle industry and can be interpreted differently by so many different people. For people to spread their proverbial creative wings sometimes requires going on out their own. That was definitely the case for me. But I have seen so many successful individuals who have taken the traditional framework approach and I attribute it to two things: hard work and a little bit of luck. Like any industry, those are two things that have now become necessities for any success story. 

Grab a coffee while you
shop at lost & found
(Photograph courtesy of
Jonathan Elias).

What makes your business different? What's you key to success/survival?

I think the keys to success, as I have mentioned before, are hard work and staying atop of your industry. Fashion is ever-changing and you need to be aware of as much as you can, be it brands, shows or trends. Even if your store or your line does not necessarily embrace these changes, you should know about them. Don't allow your brand to become stale. Apathy can and will be the death of many success stories. No matter how good things are going you need to keep pressing and thinking of different things while staying focused.  

Another aspect of separating yourselves from the competition is customer service. Developing a connection with a customer or going above and beyond for them will keep bringing them back.   

I've made many mistakes over the years, but those mistakes have led me to where I am today. It's the best way to learn - just make sure you take those lessons to heart.   

What advice do you have for other people hoping to start their own business in the fashion industry?

Know your business inside and out. If you don't have a solid depth of knowledge about it then maybe now is not the right time. Too many people rush into things for the wrong reasons. Make sure you love what you do, you are passionate about your industry and that you have the experience to succeed. If you have these three things and an idea, then maybe it's time to start writing that business plan.

 

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