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Khajak Keledjian on How He Started Intermix at Just 19

Intermix CEO and founder Khajak Keledjian

It’s undisputed that Khajak Keledjian is one of the most influential people in fashion. He started Intermix when he was just 19 and steadily grew the chain of high-end boutiques until eventually selling the fashion empire to the Gap for $130 million in 2013. Khajak is still very actively involved, however, and acts as the company’s CEO. We spoke with him about how he came to start Intermix, how things have changed since its acquisition and the power of meditation when it comes to running a business.

theFashionSpot: The idea for Intermix came about when you were only 19. How so? Can you elaborate on your background at that point?

Khajak Keledjian: I’d just moved to New York and got an afterschool job at United Colors of Benetton. I realized I had a knack for retail — I spoke a few languages and was good at reading the customers and knowing what they wanted. Then a shoe store called Botticelli asked me to work for them. I got exposed to the buying side of retail through that position. My girlfriend at the time was wearing a $2,000 Alaïa dress and I couldn’t believe she paid that much money for a dress she’d wear once while also paying for school. She challenged me to walk around Manhattan and find something she’d like. I realized there was a void in the women’s marketplace — there weren’t fashionable options at accessible price points that felt luxe but modern. There was a lack of cool, stylish clothing in the market beyond the high-end European designers. Once we identified this void, my brother Haro and I decided to start Intermix, leaning on our joint experience in retail. On top of that, we were born into retail, it’s in our blood … both our grandparents and our father were retailers. So, we funded the business with the money we saved, we used our credit cards and we even pawned some jewelry. We knew the concept was strong and we went all-in.

tFS: What skills do you have that you think were key in your finding and maintaining success?

KK: Three key factors have contributed to my success: resilience, an unwavering dedication and a clear vision. My determination, especially being so ambitious and entrepreneurial when I was younger, combined with determination, meant I didn’t have enough experience to know not to take the risks I was taking, and it meant I was tactical and visionary at the same time. When people would say something couldn’t be done, I’d ask why not and figure out how to make it happen, whatever it took. Today, meditation is another factor which impacts how I lead the organization. It helps me channel my intuition — I see things clearly and with different perspective. It helps me compartmentalize and also view things as they relate to each other. Further, it allows me to see things through a more creative, unobstructed viewpoint.

tFS: Has the vision for Intermix changed over the years?

KK: Our vision has remained the same, but our mission and how we achieve it has evolved based on the retail environment — we’re more omni-channel now and continuing along that path — and our social media has taken off, which didn’t exist for us a few years ago. We also evolve based on where we open new doors; our assortment, styling and associates are specific to each neighborhood. When we opened our doors in 1993, we tailored our experience for the New York girl and the girl who wanted to feel like a New York client. Now that we have more stores, we’re localizing so the customer can leave feeling “Intermix,” but the experience and styling match her neighborhood vibe.

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tFS: At what point did you think about expansion and what were some of the biggest challenges?

KK: We thought of expansion in the first year, but in 1997, four years after we opened our store on Fifth Avenue, we decided to take the concept to Madison Avenue. After the success of that store, we realized our customers were vacationing in Miami, so we opened a store there. By September 2001, we had six stores. In 2007, we sold a minority stake to an equity firm, which helped us grow from 17 to 32 locations. The biggest challenge of expansion is keeping the culture and integrity of a smaller entrepreneurial company. Each of our stores is unique and has a tailored mix of designers, depending on location, but the essence has to stay the same. The other challenges involve distribution — there is a science for both vendors and retailers regarding which merchandise retails at which location; scouting the exact locations we want and finding the ideal property within that specific area; people — we seek sharp talent that understand our vision, both in the various roles at our offices and in the field; new markets — we need to truly understand the neighborhoods where we open, their locals and how we’ll shape our experience to match.

tFS: How does your team go about deciding what brands to stock?

KK: In retail, you need to be different, and set yourself apart. We see the same runway shows that our competition sees, but we imagine telling a different story. Then we select designers and only certain pieces from their collections for us to style in a unique way — with an Intermix twist. We’re always out in market and in meetings with vendors and designers. Intermix is an incubator for up-and-coming designers. We love discovering what’s next, and our clients expect us to deliver it. This spring, we added about 80 new vendors. 

tFS: At what point did you think you might sell? Can you talk to us a little about the process?

KK: After opening our first international store in Toronto in 2011, we realized we were at a point where we wanted to take the company to the next level. I was at a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat and at the end it was clear to me that we needed both financing and a strategic partner. After much consideration, we decided Gap was the best fit. They’re a global platform, and were founded by an entrepreneurial husband and wife team — and we started as a company founded by two brothers. Additionally, an American-based company with a global platform felt right for our potential international growth and because they already had distinct brands under their umbrella, all with unique identities, we felt confident we would not lose our essence. Our joint goal was not to change Intermix, but to take the best parts of Intermix and make them better.

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tFS:  Can you tell us how lifestyle and meditation factor into your business success?

KK: My lifestyle and mediation allow me to find mental clarity and alertness. Also, through meditation, my intuition, imagination and creativity opens up. This leads to clearer, faster decision-making. Also, meditation leads to balance — our vibe is calm, we’re moving at a fast pace, but we’re not chaotic.

tFS: What key things do you look for when hiring people?

KK: I like to see an ambitious spirit — you can see if someone’s passionate. A sense of determination and eagerness is important. If someone will strive even more once they’re empowered, that’s valuable. Character is important. Not only the ethics, but also how someone works on a team and if they can make decisions confidently. I like to say “one dream, one team.” We started as a family business, and Intermix still has that spirit. We work as one big team with input coming from all departments and we have all hands on deck. We look for employees who want to make big things happen, and push our bar higher. 

tFS: What keeps you excited to come to work?

KK: I’m excited to come to work because of the challenge, the complexity, the people — vendors and coworkers — and the energy. Beyond that, we keep raising the bar. We say around the office, “How high is high?” when we wonder how high we can raise the bar. We’re making footprints in new markets, diving into technology even further and we’re discovering and incubating new designers every day. It’s inspiring.

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