Industry Interview: Jenny Chung

In today’s Industry Interview, Fashion School Daily sat down with Jenny Chung, the owner and creative mastermind behind one of San Francisco’s most loved boutiques, Acrimony. They’ve just opened a second store, ACRE/SF, in North Beach – Acrimony’s little sister that also offers Blue Bottle Coffee and delicious pastries. The space is seriously cool, sitting atop Telegraph Hill with some breathtaking views of the city. Jenny has developed a cult following since opening Acrimony, known for her expert eye and always stocking the latest designers you might not have heard of but will soon be obsessed with. We took a trip to North Beach to check out the new space – and it was definitely worth the hike.

You first opened Acrimony in 2008, in Hayes Valley. Why did you decide to open your own boutique?

I think I always knew I wanted to own my own boutique, it was just a matter of how I was going to do it, when I was going to do it, and when I was really ready to do it. I’ve always liked to work for myself and for some people it takes twenty years of working in the corporate world before they’re ready to go out on their own and for others it’s five – for me it was about five. To me, there is no better satisfaction than owning my own business and I come from a family of entrepreneurs so I’ve grown up with that. I really wanted to be able to see my own vision come to light so that’s what my goal was from the very beginning.

That being said, I’m not a hasty person and I don’t just jump into things, I’m definitely a planner. So I knew that I wasn’t ready to do this right out of college, I worked first and gained experience.

What was your work experience prior to that?

When I was going to school at Cal [University of California, Berkeley] I interned at some advertising agencies because I thought I might want to get into marketing or advertising. But then I decided I didn’t want to do that and thought maybe I should pursue my passion. A lot of people have an interest in fashion but they don’t know if they just want to work to be able to buy great clothes or if they want to really work in the fashion industry. At the time, I did a full round of recruiting at Saks in New York and I didn’t end up getting that job, which was really one of those turning points in my life where I felt like everything was falling into place and then it didn’t. But it ended up probably being the best thing for me because I would be in a very different place.

So I ended up working at Target Corporation right after I graduated as a financial analyst and planner. I went through their whole program so I learned the business side of it, doing fashion math and all of that stuff. I did that for two years, and then moved to BCBG doing almost the same thing but on the wholesale side, it was still very financially driven.

And then I finally had a chance to work with product. I got a job with Bruno Magli, an Italian shoe company who a lot of people know because they were the shoes that O.J. Simpson wore during his trial. I worked with them for 6 years as their West Coast sales manager. I got to work with the product, but also work with and maintain relationships with clients, as well as still doing the financial side. I also got to go to Italy, and help with the design process – because for all of the big accounts they would want to do something a bit different. So it was really a chance for me to work every facet of the business, and I’d never had that opportunity before, so it really shaped me.

And while I was working that job I was able to make the right connections and really find out more about myself. So after that it just felt like the right time for me to open the store.

Why did you choose San Francisco?

It’s my hometown, I’m from here originally. I lived in LA for four years and the inception of the store came while I was living there. Actually, all of the planning and details happened when I was still in LA, but I knew that I wanted to be in San Francisco because my friends and family are here. And San Francisco needed it more than LA, there are so many great shops down there and back in 2008 there weren’t that many great shops in San Francisco, really just a handful. It was kind of San Francisco’s moment and my moment too so it worked out nicely.

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You’ve now opened a second store, ACRE/SF – what brought about that decision and why did you choose North Beach?

We really just outgrew our space – our business was doing really well and we had a lot of momentum. I don’t ever want to leave Hayes Valley, I love it there, but there are so many other neighborhoods that need more and I felt like North Beach was one of those places. When we first told people we were opening our second location in North Beach people would say, “Oh, I’m never over there.” Which is the truth, because a lot of it is mostly a tourist trap, so people don’t really see a reason to come here. But after spending a lot of time here we’re realizing that there is so much great stuff. It is kind of spread out with one thing here and then another over there, partly because this neighborhood is a lot of old school Italian families who have owned their property for generations and generations and they have no interest in changing things. But there are also a lot of new people moving in that want to do something different and that’s like my entire motto, kind of my life saying. Get better, move-on, do something different. Being in Hayes Valley I felt like we had the best of everything – you have Blue Bottle, Fatted Calf and Miette, and there are all these really great shops like MAC [Modern Appealing Clothing], and Gimme Shoes, and we’re there, and I just felt like, “Why does that pocket of SF not exist elsewhere?”. And yes, that makes Hayes Valley special but that’s very San Francisco too, so we decided to bring a little bit of what we do to North Beach and bring Blue Bottle with us.

Like our sign outside says, “Don’t let the location fool you, this isn’t a shop for souvenirs” it’s an authentic little piece of San Francisco. And 99% of the people that shop here are locals, even in Hayes Valley probably 40% of the people that shop with us are tourists. So it’s a really different demographic here and we wanted to be able to offer something that was very San Francisco to a neighborhood that doesn’t have it as much.

What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of owning your own business?

The most rewarding part of it is actually putting into motion an idea and really seeing it happen. You almost never get to see that working at a big company – you have your own ideas and often you don’t really get to see the end result or it’s not the way you intended it, which can be good and bad. But for me, even with something so little as decorating the racks in the store – I had the idea in my head a couple of weeks ago, we started this morning, and now it’s done. And those are the things you don’t really get working at a larger company.

And then the hard part is that you work a lot and everything that goes wrong is on you. But for me, it has taught me so much about responsibility – I have this profound sense of responsibility that a lot of people don’t have. And I hold myself and everyone that works for me accountable for what they do. You know people make jokes about the weatherman and how he’s never really accountable for what he does – he can be wrong all the time and never get fired. But I think that happens way too much in this world in general, people aren’t held responsible for what they do. And owning your own business makes you accountable for everything. It’s carried over into my personal life, which I really like. I don’t act without thinking, I don’t do things without careful thought behind it.

How does ACRE/SF differ from Acrimony?

The price point is little more accessible at ACRE/SF than Acrimony, we carry brands like Unif and Funktional. And we also have housewares here which is a new element for us, which I really love because I feel like when people think of a boutique it’s not just what you’re wearing, it’s how you live and your lifestyle. No matter if you are renting a room or have your own house, you still want to have cool stuff in there that is a reflection of you. Everything around you should be interesting and I feel like the housewares are really lending to that overall lifestyle. And it’s a new outlet not only for myself but also for our shoppers – things that aren’t just clothing that add to their sense of style.

Your stores definitely have a signature style, how would describe the aesthetic behind Acrimony and ACRE/SF?

I’m really and always have been interested in emerging designers. It becomes a bit more difficult as I get older because my tastes change, but I want to keep the look and the feel of the store the same. Emerging designers are always going to be really important to me and that means catching them before they get huge and are in every department store. You won’t really find the brands that we carry in the department stores, because we really want to focus on designers that are harder to find. We want you to be able to buy a dress from us, and not see it on 20 other people or on a celebrity in People magazine, that’s just not what we do.

And my intention has never been to compete with Barneys Co-Op, because I love Barney’s Co-Op, they’re great! Why shop that at a smaller store when you have the benefit of getting it at a department store? You shop at a boutique because you want something you’ve never seen before. So that is what we really try to do with men’s and women’s – find the brands that people are scouting for online, wondering “Where do I get this?” You just want to evoke a feeling in someone when they walk into your store that feels cool.

How do you find all of the up-and-coming designers that Acrimony and ACRE/SF carry?

I travel a lot, going to Paris at least twice a year and New York about four times a year, and then I’ll usually choose one country to do something outside of the box. I did Tokyo this year and I’ll do Sweden next year, and possibly Korea because there is so much emerging talent there. And I keep up on my blogroll and read a lot too. There is no better way to find new things than looking at all the blogs, even personal style blogs.

What blogs do you follow personally or for inspiration for the store?

I love the Man Repeller – she’s great. But I look at street style a lot so websites like Lookbook, Streetpeeper and things like that because they show a full age range. I want to know what everyone is wearing, even what teenage girls are wearing, because a lot of things start from the bottom and move up. And I love Swedish street style – it’s very designer and magazine-esque but still has that personal touch.

I also really like this blog Stop it Right Now. She’s got a really mean sense of style, and she’s a little bit older too, maybe her early thirties, but just a great sense of style. And she mixes it up wearing a lot of designer with stuff from Unif and other smaller brands. She really has a point of view which I like. For me I’m an observer so I like to look at all of these different things and kind of create a package of what’s happening now for our stores.

What advice would you give to someone looking to open their own space?

You have to work first. Either work for someone who is doing it or just work to gain experience. No matter how good your idea is, if you don’t have experience you are likely to fail. And I even learned that with my very first shop on Gough Street, where I first opened Acrimony. That to me was a failure in its own right because I was so new and so fresh and didn’t really consult anyone before making the decision. And the location itself was the wrong decision – thank goodness I was able to save the store and move to Hayes Valley, but if I hadn’t been able to do that I just wouldn’t have made it. So those kinds of things I think show it’s just so important to have experience. I know it’s a cliché but it really is so true.

Thank you so much to Jenny for taking the time to chat with us and share your wisdom! And be sure to check out Acrimony (if you haven’t already) and ACRE/SF!

ACRE/SF offers emerging labels for both men and women, as well as fun accessories – perfect for gifts!

The shopping cart was in the space when they bought it, so they re-purposed it as decoration. Some of the awesome home items at ACRE/SF.

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