adidas group Business model’s own
Nau is ten years old. The company hit the streets in 2007 promising not just a new kind of stylish, eco friendly outdoor apparel, but a new business model. It would have a chain of showroom stores where people could feel clothing then order it for later delivery. It was ingenious, recognizing shoppers tactile needs and the efficiency of computerized supply chains. But before Nau could prove itself in sales the economy tanked and Nau shrank back to a boutique.
After three owners the solitary store on Northwest 11th Avenue in the Pearl District is still selling earth toned hoodies, leggings and rain jackets. As well as the familiar olive, khaki, dun and drab, the company now sells black, grey, white and brown items.
On a recent morning, the store was empty except for the manager Danielle Romeo, 27. Having worked the madhouses of retail the Gap, and the Adidas Employee Store there wasn much folding for her to do (or “recovery” as they call it at The Gap). The solitary Nau store has its moments: crowded weekends and random busy lunchtimes.
Most of the clientele are tourists, Romeo told the Business Tribune, who started working there this summer. With the shelves are stocked with autumnal colors, she expects the locals to come back once the Indian summer ends and people commit to dressing for another nine months of rain.
She calls the clothing “technical but fashionable,” and stresses the sustainability story: Henleys made of cotton blended with Tencel, which is derived from the eucalyptus plant. Insulated jackets are stuffed with cocona, made from coconut husks, rather than down or polyfill. They use micromodal (thin cotton) and boiled wool (felt not on steroids).
Nau tailoring has always been different. Long arms. Asymmetrical placement of pockets, buttons and seams. The quilting on puffa jackets zigzags rather than following boring parallels. Twisted Pants made of thin cotton look like scrubs on the rack but Romeo says they look like jeans on the female body. They sell slimline rain jackets ($298) and fleece lined leggings ($115) rather than typical outdoor technical wear that makes you look like a backpacker.
Big names, no logo
Nau was founded 2005 by executives and designers from Patagonia, Adidas, Nike and Marmot. It was supposed to show that sustainability and style could go together. The model was forward thinking ecommerce too: sales were to come from the web and a chain of stores, without using wholesalers. In what sounded like impressive optimism they raised $35 million in backing and targeted opening 140 stores. (The first was in Tualatin. Until recently, that remained Nau showroom,
where shoppers cold touch and feel garments but then had to order them for delivery.)
Nau also pledged to donate 5 percent of sales to nonprofits. This was another early adopter move, in this case, embracing the trend of corporate self discipline.
It launched in 2007 with around 100 staff. Today that number is 30.
Many hoped it would show that Portland apparel industry had the chops create startups that could scale quickly and go national.
However, 2007 was a difficult time to be reliant on venture capital, and as the economy crashed and lenders drew their horns in, Nau foundered. In 2008 Horny Toad CEO Gordon Seabury bought the company. (It operates the Lizard Lounge clothing store, also in the Pearl.) A D V E R T I S I N G Continue reading below
The company changed hands again in 2013 when it Korean outdoor apparel maker Black Yak bought it. A family business, they saved Nau as a project for their son Jun Suk Kang, who is Nau’s president. There is a Nau store in Seoul and nine shop in shop stores in Korea.
Today Nau store stocks Millican canvas bags to round out the rugged sophisticate look. Nau items are also stocked by some other retailers, such as REI.
“We definitely seeing more a of a model where the physical retail is more of a showroom, a high end place to bring on local partners, things that enhance the brand. And online, direct to consumer, is where the sale is made.”
Bal says Prosper Portland is more about economic development and than helping established companies. The AOI industry is growing here, however, with training programs at Portland State University and the University of Oregon, as well as Pensole MLab.
“These programs draw people from all over the country, they coming here to learn about this industry.” So the industry that gave birth to Nau is alive and well, although independent players are going to have it touch against the apparel giants.
Dan Tiegs is the owner operator of Portland based WILD Outdoor apparel.
“Nau spin was always sustainability: this is recycled polyester and merino you can buy with a good conscience. Their other angle was you can wear it out to dinner or in a storm.” A D V E R T I S I N G Continue reading below
Tiegs WILD clothing concept is similar: wear it anywhere.
“10 years ago Nau was what you call metrosexual. It was sleek, lots of grey and black, not a lot of texture, very urban.”
Definitely the buzz was heady ten years ago.
“They thought they were going to be the Tesla of retail,” says Tiegs.
Yet he notes that today places like Nordstrom are experimenting with the Nau retail model. In Los Angeles there is a small 1,000 square feet store within a store.
“You look at and feel things and then order them for delivery later. It a curated collection of things you can find in Nordstrom, a pared down intimate space you can have a different experience than browsing the racks.”
Maybe Nau was ahead of its time? Nau boutique was just their brand, but Nordstrom has lots of brands.