Now/It's: An Interview with ROOTED (Alexander McMeen, Jaime Bacalan, Aaron Morrison)

As referenced in our 2017 retrospective and reiterated in our interview with former mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, 2018 is all about breaking new ground for Now/It's. We've entered into the political realm, and now, we're ecstatic to delve into the world of small business in Nashville. Our fair city has become somewhat of a small business mecca, where many a boutique can flourish unabashedly, but by the same token, certain small business ideas have become a little over-saturated in the Nashville market. Luckily, such is not the case for our feature subject(s) this week, ROOTED. Alexander McMeen, Jaime Bacalan, and Aaron Morrison are the brain trust and preeminent purveyors of street style in Nashville, despite being a relatively new business. They've endeavored to break down preconceived notions of Nashville generally held by street style brands, as well as introduced key brands like Stone Island, OAMC, and Martine Rose to the Nashville community. All the same, the trio has made as much a point to ingratiate and further foster goodwill within the community by supporting large portions of Nashville's burgeoning hip-hop and pop scenes, only further solidifying themselves as true mainstays in the ever diversifying Nashville community.

Now/It's met with Alexander McMeen, Jaime Bacalan, and Aaron Morrison of ROOTED at the ROOTED storefront, on 62 Hermitage Avenue, in Nashville.

Alexander McMeen - You just missed it - we had the whole showroom all - we had a big Black Friday Sale - it was filled with shoes. We had shoes here, we had shoes there. It was wild, we were like “We got to get these out of here.”

N/I - But it was pretty solid?

Alexander - Yeah. We had a good weekend for sure. It was nice to move on from stuff that we didn’t need out here.

N/I - I’m sure.

Alexander - So did you just one day decide that you were going to start doing this and then woke up and did it?

N/I - Sort of. I worked for some bigger publications, and then realized that at a certain point there wasn’t as much upward mobility, so to speak, so I decided to start my own thing and see how it goes.

Alexander - Heck yeah. That’s sick. That’s so legit.

N/I - Thanks man. Well what about you? I read that you worked in marketing….

Alexander - I did. So we had wanted to do this for a long time and we couldn’t make it happen. It was one of those things where we had a dream of always being into shoes and clothes, and nowhere in town sold what we desired. So we were like “Let’s just it ourselves.” We were naive, we were young. This was four years ago, we had no idea what it took to start this [motions toward showroom]. The first thing we did was what they teach you not to do - in undergrad I was a biology and chemistry major, planning on going to med school - and I decided I didn’t want to do that, because I talk too much and I don’t like to study. That’s dangerous for a potential doctor.

N/I - Sure.

Alexander - So I got another undergrad degree in business, and then I went to graduate school for business, and everything that we did at the beginning [of ROOTED] they now teach you not to do.

N/I - How so?

Alexander - We were looking at location, who we were going to work with, which shoes we were going to collaborate on, all that crazy stuff. It’s good to have those desires and dreams, because it keeps you going, and it’s way more fun than writing a business plan and all that. I remember going to The Gulch and looking at this space, and the landlord said “We might knock this place down in three years, but we might not, so go ahead and take a look.” I remember we looked at some places there, we looked at some places in 12 South, and then four years later, Nashville has taken off. The spots there were roughly $26 a square foot in 12 South and The Gulch, and now, the second time around, last January, we revisited it and no one had still done it, but that time we decided that we were really going to go for it. If we crash and burn, we crash and burn, but at least we tried, we’ll never have to worry about twenty years down the road when we regretted never opening that shoe and clothing store. So we just went for it, and this time around, it was way more of the boring stuff. We started with the business plan, and it didn’t matter if we sold shoes and clothes or toilet paper, it didn’t matter what we were going to sell, what we were going to do was the exact same. The way we were going to treat people was the exact same. So it’s a lot of fun to look back now, just in that two and a half years that we waited, and we had to grow up, it made a huge difference. The outlook of the space and even the sneaker industry itself has changed dramatically in that amount of time. People care a lot more about clothes no than they did sneakers at one point.

N/I - Sure. It’s shifted quite a bit.

Alexander - There was a lot of Jordan shorts and sweats, and then rocking fresh kicks, and now it's more denim, outerwear matters, what shoe you wear matters, even the - and this is way above my head - even the materials matter. There are people who are like you can’t wear this shoe with this thing.

N/I - Like rayon and polyester, or something like that?

Alexander - Right. That’s the kind of stuff that I leave to Aaron. He’s the creative director, and that’s his role, so I’m always asking him “Can I do this and this, or should I do this and this?” But all that to say, it was just a long process the first time, to get everything wrong, which we needed in order to try it the second time around when we’re cooped up in a room. We all went to Lipscomb [University], and we’d coop up in their rooms and be like “We’re going to hammer this out, we’re going to knock this out, we’re going to get projections,” and then we would allow ourselves to get to the “fun stuff.” Then we could figure out what we were going to carry, what was it going to cost to carry, how were we going to get the brands? There was a lot more actual business the second time around, whereas the first time….

N/I - It was more of a cool idea than a tangible endeavor.

Alexander - We just thought it was fun. We wanted to have fun. We still do, and it was a blast, but we were not adequately prepared for this the first time around. There’s a reason why that [first try] didn’t work out.

 Alexander McMeen

Alexander McMeen

N/I - Right. It wasn’t necessarily a steep learning curve, but it sounds like things caught up to you quicker than anticipated.

Alexander - And it was a shift in what we focused on. It became what mattered versus now, where you pay attention to everything like “Yes, it might be cool if we carried brand x, y, or z, but are we actually going to be able to sell it?” Then it becomes dollars just sitting there. So you have to think of what Nashville wants. It’s what are they ready for? What can we get them ready for?

N/I - So how do you go about determining that stuff? Is it demography? Or something more intuitive?

Alexander - Oh, that is Aaron. He just kind of sees what the trends are, and when you’re in it every day, at first, we were like “Oh, we’re going to be worried about what’s next, what matters.” but it’s a whole lot easier when you keep - not what you care about from a life or death standpoint, but what you care about from an interest standpoint. It made stuff a lot easier to know that “this brand is amazing, this brand is amazing.” Like [the brand] Stone Island is big right now, because of the patch, and kids just want it. It’s a whole lot easier. I was worried about how we were going to project what matters, what sells, and what we care about, so it’s been a lot easier now that we’re in it, because brands don’t leave you high and dry when you’re in these meetings, they’ll help you out by saying “Hey, maybe steer clear of this, or this isn’t doing as well, or if these have been doing well, then think about adding this piece.” They understand Nashville, they want to have a good impression upon this city, not that we’re inherently just Nashville, but they are aware of the fact that we are growing within the Southeast.

N/I - I think I get what you’re saying, but how do they view it more specifically?

Alexander - Just that they’re like “This item might be more of an item that you’d be interested in taking a look at at an introductory piece to a certain brand.” Like when we brought in Stone Island, for instance, they had some crazy jackets, and we didn’t order certain jackets because we felt that Nashville wouldn’t necessarily be used to that. The city just wasn’t quite ready, and Stone Island agreed, they were fine with it. But after that fact, you begin to get people asking….

N/I - For that specific jacket?

Alexander - Right. That particular jacket, and it begins to show that Nashville was in fact spot on with what we have projected and dreamed up. It’s confirming that we weren’t just three delusional guys in a room building up these ideas of what was and wasn’t going to work, there was some merit to it. We’ve had people from all across the board come in and be interested in this stuff. That makes it a whole lot better too, when we can listen to them and make things happen

N/I - I’m sure. That always makes things easier.

Alexander - Granted, there are some brands that you just can’t carry, and when people come in asking for X, Y, or Z, you have to just own up and say no.

N/I - And what are some of those brands?

Alexander - Well no one carries Supreme. You don’t just have a retail shop that has Supreme. So it’s part listening to the customer, and part us getting to be in the driver’s seat and drive what’s next.

N/I - You get to play the role of taste-maker.

Alexander - Right. A lot of people knew about a brand like Stone Island, a lot of people knew about a brand like Stampd, out of LA, but they might not have known about an OAMC, or an Aime Leon Dore, or a couple other brands that we have in here. So it’s fun to educate and show people. There are people who come in and they already know, they know plenty off the bat. And then there are the people who come in and ask “What’s this about?” I remember, for instance, a guy walked by, saw a jacket in the window, and said “I love that jacket. I don’t know anything about clothes,” and Jaime told him about the piece and he was like “You know what, I was already sold, but hearing about the quality, how it’s made,” - that brand had been around for thirty years - he was walking out with the jacket. He didn’t care about the price - it was a $600, $700 jacket - not everybody could do that, but he was a guy that knew nothing about the product, liked the way it looked, learned more about the brand, and he was in.

N/I - Well what was that moment like that for you, Jaime? That’s got to be satisfying, right? Have this guy come in off the street, after seeing something in the window and all you have to do is give him a little more info, and then he’s sold. Is that pretty common?

Jaime Bacalan - Yeah. I think we kind of knew going in that there would have to be an education process, that people weren’t going to know all this stuff, which helps us make decisions, in return. I think being able to describe the quality, materials, and process allows people to latch on in a positive way, because I don’t think you get that all that often anymore. Or maybe you do, in a place like Nashville, but sometimes you don’t. A lot of times, in other stores, people will assume that if you’re in the store and looking at something, you must already know about it. So we’ve had times where we end up spending a couple hours with the customer talking about however many pieces, and sometimes, people can’t afford it that day, but they’ll come back when they can, or maybe they do just pull the trigger. But that effort reinforces what we thought, that people would be scared of price initially, but with education comes an understanding….

 Jaime Bacalan

Jaime Bacalan

N/I - And more belief in the product itself.

Alexander - And there’s some customers who come in and know everything about everything, and in those instances, we can just hang and talk about whatever, since they’re already highly educated. And then there are the other instances when people know nothing, and that’s where we can spend an hour with them, educating them on pieces and fits, they try stuff on, and we can talk about the brands themselves. So it’s fun to have both ends, as opposed to just sitting back and letting them do whatever, but at the same time, we’re not exhausted by saying the same thing every single day in an effort to educate people, because there’s not a ton of stuff in here. There’s only a finite amount of brands to discuss. It also helps having three of us here, too. We’ve been doing this for eight months, and I haven’t felt burnt out once from a description standpoint, because it’s just natural. A person comes in, you chat about the stuff, what they’re looking for, and someone else comes in, and whoever isn’t already with a customer can talk to them. It just rotates.

N/I - So when you guys first started interacting with brands, was it mostly you approaching the brands, or were brands trying to break into Nashville without a means to do so? And what were their ideas about Nashville in general?

Aaron Morrison - You just kind of explore it with each individual brand. We have a concept of what speaks well to each individual brand - aesthetically, every brand we approach fits well here - but a lot of brands are still somewhat skeptical, or completely unfamiliar with the Nashville market. They think it’s boots and warm weather, and somehow you can sell a bunch of denim.

N/I - But that’s as far as the concept of Nashville will venture, at least within their minds.

Aaron - True. But at the same token, there’s segmentation of groups in every city, and that’s what we offer in Nashville, is the proof that there is a desire for much more than that in Nashville. Once people from the brands and people that aren’t from here visit here, they get more of a taste for it, and understand what we’re doing, and better understand the culture here, and where we fit within that culture. And brands have been wanting to work with us more because of that.

N/I - Right.

Aaron - But there are also several brands that are very skeptical.

N/I - Sure. It’s something I’ve found just in trying to talk to as many different people from different communities in Nashville, there’s a prevailing perception of wide brimmed Stetsons, and the Americana culture. It is a very public facing portion of Nashville, but it’s certainly not the only representative portion. So I was curious as far as when you guys go to apparel markets, how do you even approach someone saying that you’re in Nashville? Do you have to stop them before they question it?

Jaime - There have been two elements of a perfect storm. There’s been “Hey, we don’t have anyone there,” and two, the store just kind of spoke for itself, aesthetically. Everyone always says, “Oh wait, that’s in Nashville? I didn’t know Nashville was like that.” so then the conversation starts. And one thing - at least in the past couple years - that people talk about is the whole, “Oh man, I’ve heard that Nashville is growing and booming,” or “I just had some friends who were out there, and they loved it.” So people seem to have a reference point, and they can at least gather what’s going on here. But at the same time, we’ve had brands vouch to other brands on our behalf. Especially early on.

N/I - Okay. How does that play out?

Jaime - We had one particular brand - it was one of our first meetings - that told us they would talk to us after we’d talked to these other few brands first, then it was “we’ll talk again then.” Another one of our biggest brands told us “Yeah, we’d love to be in Nashville, we know it would work,” and then we could leverage that and other brands would be all in. So it was a lot of that. I think that some of the brands we’re going after for 2018 still want to hear that we already have this, this, and this, and here’s our story, or here’s what we’ve done. I think we’ve knocked on the door loud and long enough to where it will pay off. But even if it is this way for a while, we don’t care how we get it, because we know the long game is persistence. I think we’ll eventually get certain brands because we make it apparent that we’re serious, and we’re three seasons into courting them, and we have confidence. We sold every single brand we have now on an eight panel piece of paper.

N/I - As in pitching through what you had on the paper?

Jaime - Exactly. We didn’t have a store, we didn’t have any product, and we literally folded out this card that we built - it was a quad-fold - and we talked about what we were targeting, what we were doing, about the culture here, and the demographics, and the brands were like “Oh man, no one has ever approached us like that.” We won some brands without literally having a space. It was a lot of preparation.

Alexander - They get pitched a lot of stores such as ours, where the final product is not actually what it appears on the front end, whereas that helps us in our case is, because we just had a rendering on this pamphlet that Aaron put together, and we brought it, and then when they saw actual pictures of the actual store, they said “It’s exactly what we thought it would look like and then some.” It wasn’t false promises and letting people down. I think that definitely helps. We delivered on the promise that we set, and we went all in on the fact that from our front doorstep, there are eighteen hotels within a mile of our door. All the people moving here, from 70 a day to 100, just all these things became the perfect storm of what was happening in the city. A lot of the brands had that old perception of the Stetsons and denim, but we showed them otherwise. I was born and raised here, and these two have been here long enough to know that if you see someone wearing that, they’re not from here. That’s not Nashville at all. And the food scene helped a lot too. Having a great food scene helps. The show itself actually helped, too. Nashville helped bring the city to a broader audience that might not have known about it. It was just this storm of everything.

N/I - And then you guys are kind of the first movers on sneaker culture and street wear. It’s been pretty well embraced, or so it seems, judging off the events you guys put on. That’s a big thing to me, is the fact that you guys have instantly ingratiated yourselves into the community as being more than just a destination storefront. I’m curious, how do you deal with community engagement? Does someone head that up?

Alexander - All three of us.

Aaron - Yeah, all three.

 Aaron Morrison

Aaron Morrison

Alexander - It just happened organically. If we didn’t open the space and have someone come in asking Aaron if they could use it for a music video shoot, then who knows? They came in and it sounded amazing. They weren’t necessarily a huge artist, but that led to someone else asking if they could use it for this, and then someone else asking if they could use it for that. If we were in this for just choosing clothes, I think we would get pretty bored at a certain point.

N/I - Sure. I’d imagine so.

Alexander - So the people are what make it so amazing. All the people we met before the doors opened were unreal. There was a guy that wanted to do a podcast, and it was yeah, sure, let’s do it. So it was crazy to have them set up here on the counter and face each other with the microphones. Then there was a gentleman who became a good friend of ours that put on an event with a small audience, which led to a different event. But every event we have, we’re trying to hang out with our friends, and people from other groups we wouldn’t otherwise get to. We try and have one a month, but it’s not necessarily about ROOTED, but also the people who are into this stuff, and this culture. It kind of just happened. That’s one of the best parts of all this.