It’s about more than just a quality product. Marine Layer tries to connect with customers in unconventional ways
This brand is living proof that physical stores can survive in the age of Amazon.
Mike Natenshon founded Marine Layer in 2009, taking on about $30,000 in credit card debt to create an apparel brand with offerings as soft as the favorite tee his then-girlfriend threw away. Since then, the San Francisco, Calif.-based label has expanded into a chain of over 30 stores nationwide, selling $39 slub neck women’s tees and $98 sweatpants for men.
“We grew up in the wake of people saying retail is dying,” Natenshon tells Moneyish, and indeed, Marine Layer began life as an e-commerce company. After his childhood friend, Adam Lynch, came aboard as chief operating officer, the two stuck a tentative toe in the water and opened a pop-up shop to collect email addresses from potential customers. Encouraged by the performance, the duo, who had abandoned careers in the finance industry, signed a long-term lease on the property.
“It was a big deal for us and we were running numbers of how many clothes we had to sell in order to afford dinner,” the 39-year-old entrepreneur says. “But it was profitable right away and has been every month since it opened.” Marine Layer says that it averages sales per square foot of $800 in each store. That’s significantly higher than $325, the national average for retailers according to a recent CoStar survey. (Marine Layer’s stores also tend to be located in pricier metropolitan locations.)
Since then, Marine Layer has raised more than $3.7 million in funding, data from Crunchbase show. The brand’s success comes when giants like Hudson Bay, the parent of Lord & Taylor, are selling property to startups like WeWork because they no longer find a big brick-and-mortar network sustainable.
The label has thrived by echoing the focus of co-working spaces on a pleasant experience. “The brand fits well with [the image of] California. The clothes are easy and something you can wear skiing or to wine country,” Natenshon says. “There’s a tactile experience and in the store, you get what we’re about.”
To that end, Marine Layer also hosts apartments at its Portland and Chicago locations on Airbnb. A third hospitality option will be added when the brand opens another shop in New Orleans next February. While fashion brands like Missoni and Rubinacci lend, or have previously loaned, their names to hotels, it’s still rare for young labels to enter hospitality.
The idea began when the entrepreneurs acquired a spare loft above their Portland boutique and used it as a crash pad when visiting. Upon realizing they had extra space in prime shopping locations, Marine Layer began putting in options like a mini-bar and vintage board games and leasing the space out.
“We’ve enough headaches making clothes [but] it’s a way to experience our brand more holistically,” says Natenshon. “The [emotional] connection is what makes someone loyal to our brand and hospitality is the same way.”
Marine Layer has had growing pains, including when the two men made the decision to create women’s wear. “There were some nuances lost,” says Natenshon, including when they thought women merely wanted smaller versions of men’s clothes. They subsequently hired women’s wear specialist and today, 55% of the clothes sold are for women. Females make up six in 10 of their customers, since they tend to shop for the men in their lives. “They shop more and are better shoppers,” says Lynch, the COO.
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