Over the last few years, a playbook of sorts has emerged for DTC brands: An enterprising soul puts a new spin on a category or product that has stagnated, amasses a following (and sales) online through a combination of fresh branding and smart marketing tactics and then, when online growth begins to plateau, opens a store in SoHo.
But the goal of the Kenny Flowers brand has never been to blend in. The brand — which started back in 2015 with the goal of reinventing the classic Hawaiian shirt — now offers a full range of resort wear for men, women and children and just marked the opening of its first flagship…in Charleston, S.C.
“What has always worked really well for us, regardless of what the business decision is, is making decisions not because of a trend, but in a way that aligns with it,” said Kenny Haisfield, Founder and CEO of Kenny Flowers in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “A big question right now for a lot of DTC brands is how to acquire new customers, how to sell more product. That’s of course one benefit of having a store, but it wasn’t really the ‘why’ for us. For us it was about what we missed during COVID and what we loved most when we were starting the company, which was the community-building side. We saw the store as an opportunity to bring that back.”
Kenny Flowers’ path to Charleston has been shaped by a combination of circumstance, happenstance and a little bit of luck — and the brand now calls the trendy beach town home in more ways than one. The Kenny Flowers flagship has taken up residence in Charleston’s historic King Street district, and Haisfield and his family have taken up a residence of their own just 10 minutes away.
Like many Charleston-based brands, Kenny Flowers has benefitted from the city’s growing popularity among tourists and urban escapists fleeing the high rents and crowded streets of New York, Chicago and LA. The brand is turning that traffic boom into bottom-line business by creating a store experience that includes a tropical-themed event space and eventually a bar.
The store opened Memorial Day weekend, just in time to capitalize on the key summer season. As of July 2023, store sales were up 50% from the opening and now account for 8% of the business, an impressive number for a brand that up until May was almost 100% online.
Designing for a Mood
Kenny Flowers’ path to South Carolina started in New York City where Haisfield was working a typical corporate job. By day he wore the standard Manhattan uniform of slacks and a button-down, but when he was ready to let loose, he invariably wore hand-me-down Hawaiians from his dad. “There was something special every time I put on one of my dad’s shirts,” Haisfield said. “You don’t put on a shirt like that and decide to be in a bad mood.”
But he started to get flak from his friends for wearing the same shirts over and over, and when he looked around to try to find new options, there was nothing that felt fresh or modern — a classic founder’s story of white space uncovered through personal experience. So Haisfield did what anybody would do in that situation (sarcasm) — he quit his job and moved to Bali to create “the new wave of the Hawaiian shirt.” (Fun fact, the company still works with the same factory in Bali that it started with.)
“My theory from the beginning, because I didn’t know anything about fashion, was always more about designing for the experience of wearing it,” said Haisfield. “It wasn’t like, ‘Design 12 floral Hawaiian shirts.’ It was more like, what are a couple of bold shirts that a guy could wear on the beach in the Hamptons on the one Saturday he gets off that month? And then what about the guy who wears black and white tees all the time? What is something subtle that will still make him feel like he’s on vacation?”
One thing Haisfield knew he didn’t want to design was bikinis, which is when his wife, travel writer Christina Haisfield (known as Jetset Christina to her readers) entered the picture. “Kenny Flowers has really evolved and grown with me over the years,” said Haisfield. “When I started it, I was a guy in my mid-20s who wanted to wear a fun shirt and have a good time. But then I started dating, I found ‘the one,’ I got married, and the women’s side started entering [the business]. We were getting into doing a lot of [men’s and women’s] matching sets, and when we had our little boy and were thinking about the next step for the brand, it was kind of obvious. He can’t be wearing other clothes while we’re in Kenny Flowers.”
Making a Home on King Street
Kenny Flowers’ entrance into physical retail continues in that same vein of natural evolution. One of the brand’s few wholesalers was a small boutique on Charleston’s King Street. The store went under during COVID and some friends in Charleston happened to mention to Haisfield that the space was up for rent. Alas, he was too late. The location had already been snapped up and was eventually turned into a Turkish rug shop.
Still, the seed had been planted. Haisfield and his family moved to Charleston anyway and began looking for a different location to make the brand’s brick-and-mortar debut. Haisfield said “no” to a lot of options. “For me, it wasn’t really about having a store, it was about having the right place for the brand to build,” he said.
In mid-February he found it, exactly where he had started. The rug shop closed, and Haisfield hastily entered what he called “competitive” negotiations. “We were bidding against bigger brands that had 12, 15, 20 stores and wanted this to be their Charleston location,” Haisfield recounted. “In the end we got through to the landlord, not on price, but on the story and the fact that this was going to be a flagship store for the brand.”
Haisfield didn’t have long to enjoy his victory. He and his team had just a few months to get ready in time for peak resort wear season. They got the keys on May 1 and had the store open in time for Memorial Day weekend on May 29, but it came down to “literally the last minute and second,” he said.
Located at 345 King Street, the 3,400-square-foot space showcases the brand’s hero products including women’s and men’s swimwear, Hawaiian-inspired shirts, resort dresses, golf polos and a matching kids’ section on the first floor, with an indoor/outdoor event space dubbed the Cabana Club on the second.
The Cabana Club is currently available for event rentals. But by early October, Haisfield hopes to have everything in place to open a happy hour bar, which will not only offer shoppers a nice place to relax, but also introduce a whole different clientele to the Kenny Flowers brand.
To celebrate the store opening, the brand debuted a special Charleston print collection, which proved so popular it had to be taken off the brand’s website and made a store exclusive. “In our mind, it was going to be less of a hero collection and more one that would hit home with people [who had a connection to Charleston], but it ended up being our best-selling collection,” said Haisfield. “It’s really created this special connection to a monumental moment for our company.”
For now, Haisfield is content to continue building and growing in Charleston (and online of course), but that doesn’t mean he’s written off the DTC-stronghold of SoHo completely. “Hopefully, there will be a day when we do get that SoHo store,” he said. “New York is our biggest customer base because of its origins from when I was living there, but also, I want to learn. I don’t want to just blankly sign up for something, have it built out in New York, make one trip there and then suddenly it’s open and there’s no real connection or story to the place. I’ve never owned a store before, so for now, I want to be on the ground.”