The Real DELIA'S; Baltimore-bred Chris Edgar taps into the teen clothing market big time with a catalog chain aimed at young girls. Today, it's a million-dollar business.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before "Dawson's Creek," before Old Navy polar fleece, before every retailer in America began mining the powerful pre-teen market, there was Delia's.

It started as a catalog with a decidedly Gen Y attitude (clever phrases, cool clothes). It's exploded into a mega-bucks business that reaches more than 11 million girls. Internet properties and stores -- including a new one in Towson -- have extended its reach.

Who's behind this can't-miss retail mix of retro toys, hip housewares and Soho-style clothes?

Young women rummaging through the racks imagine it's some fabulous fashion designer. Or maybe a band of shopaholic teens?

Wrong.

One of Delia's founders is sitting in the middle of the store right now.

Chris Edgar is no teen-ager. There's no fashion diploma hanging on his wall. He's a 34-year-old businessman from Baltimore County who's used his savvy and intellect to charm the change out of teen-age girls.

That change adds up: Last year, Delia's had net sales of $158.4 million.

He may have trouble imagining what he'd buy from his own store if he were a teen-age girl, but he does have a soft spot for the pink bunny slippers on a nearby shelf. "They really won my heart," he says, breaking out of business mode for a moment.

But the slippers don't fit his post-preppie look: the casual olive-colored blazer, faded blue jeans and loafers. It all works with his boyish face and thick, dark hair that flops over his brow.

Right now he's feeling a little antsy. Checking his watch, he's mentally reviewing everything he must accomplish today. It's about 10: 45 in the morning, and he has a train to catch back to New York in an hour.

When Edgar and partner Stephen Kahn started Delia's in 1993, they were shocked no one had yet tapped into the fertile, fashion-conscious teen market, which would later dominate magazine covers, inspire countless niche brands and make superstars of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a New York-based firm that tracks teen buying, says: "They were among the first to offer girls a look and an attitude that was a little more contemporary and edgy, with this girl-power feel to it."

His young customers may spice their speech with "likes," "you know," and whatever, but Edgar, a McDonogh High School and Yale grad, has a different vocabulary.

Opening a store translates into "growing the business." A catalog is a "media organ." He works with "the team."

It's easy to picture Edgar as the international banker his father Richard advised him to become.

"What more glamorous, exciting life could you have?" Richard Edgar, 62, wonders. But he's thrilled with his son's chosen line.

"I think the clothes are zippy and joyful, just like young girls are," says his father, who lives in downtown Baltimore.

But his son appears to have more of a mind for management and goal-setting than barrettes and butterfly-embroidered jeans.

And that's OK. Edgar may not be able to tell you if the miniskirt is so out this season, but he has a knack for hiring people who can.

But he's not totally clueless. Watching the natives stroll through his Greenwich Village neighborhood helps keep him up to date on fashion. And, a faithful subscriber to Teen People, Seventeen and YM, the former comparative literature major does his teen rag research.

Edgar has little time for frivolity. His dad can attest to that.

On a recent trip to Williamsburg, Richard Edgar noticed his son "was on his cell phone more than he was enjoying the trip."

Edgar arrives at the Delia's office, right around the corner from his "crummy" New York studio apartment, around 8 a.m. He's no stranger to a 12-hour workday. As the company's chief operating officer, Edgar's days are a mess of meetings, check-up calls to retailers and right now, tons of restructuring, as the company grows.

When he cuts out a rare slice of personal time, he spends it with his girlfriend (he prefers to keep his relationship "under wraps") and tries to squeeze in a more solitary passion, reading historical nonfiction and favorite writers like John Updike and Philip Roth.

If the mega-disciplined businessman was in the market to splurge on himself, he would travel. Maybe to Argentina, Amsterdam or Vietnam. Already a seasoned globe-trotter, the adventure-seeking Edgar learned Swahili and taught school in Kenya after graduating from Yale. He also spent time in Yemen, where he absorbed Arabic.

He definitely wouldn't spend the money on clothing. He goes shopping about two or three times a year and sticks to the basics: leather boots, khakis, turtlenecks.

Swathing himself in high-style was never his priority. While growing up in Phoenix, Md., he wasn't impressed by what he saw.

"There weren't that many options. In the late '70s, early '80s, that was really the first of the preppie phase. Every guy my age went to Finkelstein's [of Towson] to buy their corduroys."

The Izod alligator, however, gave way to flannel and torn jeans in the early '90s.

"Gen X was just too small and had too few dollars to command a lot of attention in the marketplace," he says. "Grunge was kids rummaging through flea markets. There was no research and development on teens in 1990."

And there wasn't much in the years directly following, when Kahn and Edgar hatched their plan: a catalog featuring up-to-the-minute styles in a fun format, which would quench a thirst for sometimes inaccessible downtown style. "For a girl who's reading YM or watching MTV, it's frustrating to see a bunch of cool stuff on TV and be living in a small town and not having a place to go buy it," Edgar says.

Getting started

Kahn, also 34, and Edgar were roommates at Yale. They later crossed paths at Columbia University, where Edgar was working toward a doctorate in comparative literature. Kahn got the idea to sell clothes to the women on campus. But it was their younger sisters who were responding eagerly. So the two decided to tailor their business to the 10-to-24-year-old market.

Edgar, who wasn't particularly interested in teaching or research, dropped out of Columbia to become Kahn's full-time business partner. It didn't take much sweet-talking.

"I believe he volunteered," Kahn says. "I feel like I'm married to Chris at some level. He's very intense, a very quick study."

Even Edgar's father could sense his risk-taking son would choose an unexpected career.

"I think Christopher was wary of getting set up to live his life in the ivory tower of academia," he says.

Flattery by imitation

Edgar was one of a dream-trio of children, according to his dad. An All-American golden boy, he acted, played lacrosse, was class president and the list goes on.

At McDonogh's graduation, Edgar "won so many awards, they wouldn't let him leave the stage," says brother Jack, 36, a partner at the downtown Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard.

The same success appears to have followed him into the business world. But not everything is perfect.

Delia's has "been knocked off in every possible way," says Hayley Hill, fashion editor at Teen People.

Enter Alloy, Just Nikki and a slew of other catalog competitors.

Plus, Delia's-esque styles have cropped up throughout the country. Niche brands are being spawned and ad campaigns a la the Gap and Old Navy have also hipped up accordingly.

On top of the teen appeal game or not, Edgar is not the type to sit back and bask for too long.

"I don't think anybody who manages a business scrupulously is ever willing to take for granted any success," he says earnestly. "At every step of the way we've been evaluating the needs and the possibilities for the business. There's always some growth or management imperative."

With that, Edgar dashes to Delia's back room to confer with a manager, says a hasty goodbye and bolts for the door.

He's caught the attention of millions of teen girls. But will he catch his train?

Screening 'Nappy'

Lydia Douglas' documentary film, "Nappy," will be screened tonight at UMI/Liberty Village (formerly Liberty Medical Center), 2600 Liberty Height Ave. at 6: 30 p.m.

Douglas will be present to answer questions after the show. "Nappy," which was filmed in and around Washington, is a short documentary about the tender, troublesome and sometimes tortured relationship between black women and their hair. Admission is $10. Call 410-578-1184.

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