Arkadiusz Likus on creating Poland’s most fashionable shopping destination
A decade ago, Arkadiusz Likus opened Vitkac, and realized a long-held dream – launching, what is still today, Warsaw’s one and only truly fashionable department store. He’s a quintessentially Polish character, who speaks excellent English with a serious Slavic tone, and yet he freely confesses that he got his game plan from one of fashion’s greatest ever executives – the late Yves Carcelle of Luis Vuitton.
It was back in 2011 that Likus opened Vitkac in Warsaw when Poland was still a fashion backwater. Creating a rather unique space – a novel hybrid between sophisticated concept boutique and swish specialty department store.
Today, Vitkac, pronounced Vik Kas, is a dynamic business, boasting cult roof-top restaurant; key London, Milan and Paris runway brands; and an eight-figure plus turnover, making it the supreme fashion destination in the Polish capital. Born in the stately Baroque city of Cracow, the 41-year-old Likus studied economics and politics at Queen Mary university in London, before returning to read philosophy at Warsaw University. He comes from a noted commercial family, who also own Warszawa Hotel, the hip new destination where Elle von Unwerth has lensed shoots for Polish Vogue.
With a single-minded focus he has created a destination store. Make that two, as he threw open the doors to a new store in his hometown last year; and a significant online present, notably with a link-up with FarFetch. So, we caught up with Likus to hear his stake on how he reinvented the fashion paradigm in Warsaw; managing a department store during the pandemic; and how Poland’s increasingly intolerant government is impacting his brand and his staff.
FashionNetwork.com: How and why did you found Vitkac?
Arkadiusz Likus: It’s been a dream since I was a small boy. Back when I was 8 years old during Communism my uncle remarkably got a visa to go to Germany. That really didn’t happen that often! And my mother took me out of school for one week, saying ‘who knows the next time you will see the West?’ So we went to Berlin and I saw KaDeWe and right away it became my biggest dream to have a department store in Poland. So, when I came back to gray, Communistic Poland, I promised myself I would do everything not to live in this sort of country.
FN: How did you get into fashion?
AL: I’ve always been interested in it, even when there was nothing in the stores here. I began cutting clothes for myself, and for my mother. My mother was unbelievably fashionable. Then, I even did my own collection, but quickly realized I am better at math’s and business.
FN: What is concept behind Vitkac?
AL: The genesis of Vitkac was supposed to be a Polish Harvey Nichols. I had got to know that store in London, when I studied there. But Harvey Nicks was unable to secure the key tenants and brands for their opening. So, I went to the brands and they asked me did I want to take the risk and do it myself. About that time, I managed to meet Yves Carcelle, when I was just 25. I showed him our project and I still remember he said, ‘I like this, let me give you my advice.’ And I wrote it all down, exactly as he said. Yves was probably the best advice anywhere in the market. And, in the end, it became somewhere between Selfridges and Dover Street Market, a department store that feels like a concept store. A blend of monobrand; shops in shops and lots of curated exclusive collections, which I think Yves would have liked.
FN: What does the name Vitkac mean?
AL: It’s the name of my favorite artist, Witkiewicz, who lived in first half of the 20th century. A painter, poet and writer who revolutionized theater and photography here. The Da Vinci of 20th century Poland. A highly experimental individual – who even painted even under influence of drugs and included cigarettes, coffee and nicotine on his canvases.
FN: Which global brands to you retail?
AL: Over 180 brands: Vuitton, of course, Gucci Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent; balanced with names like Balmain, Givenchy, Ann Demeulemeester, Vetements and Off-White. The key brands in my view. But I want to stress that over the last five years our focus has been on experience, so the feeling of the store is very different. Five years ago I started to explain to my people leading Vikkac, that the era of a beautiful store with beautiful brands is over. Stores now have to bring their own Value Added to their boutique. The personal comforts of our clients is the most important thing. They must want to spend time in our store. So they come in with a smile and leave with a smile. That is the prime objective. Sales will come later, as a positive derivative.
FN: Who designed the building?
AL: Stefan Kurylowicz, who sadly died in plane crash. He was the number one architect in Poland. The building itself belongs to my family and I rent from them. Now, I am in negotiations to buy it!
FN: What is your annual turnover?
AL: Last year – 500 million zlotys, or about 110 million euros.
FN: How has the pandemic impacted Vitkac?
AL: Actually, in a strangely positive. It’s interesting to read about all the trouble with department stores in the US , UK and Paris. It’s true we did close for nearly two months in March and April. But on that very first Saturday, I set out a new strategy to my managers for the next two months. We cut no wages; we fired nobody and I expected everyone to meet Monday morning and listen to what we were going to do. We took every member of staff and organized them with telephones, computers and desks. And, using WhatsApp, Zoom and video we managed in two months to reach close 30% sales for the same period in 2019. We opened up a new chapter; creating a drive-through booth, like McDonald’s, where customers could come to our building. A luxury drive through where you could receive shopping inside a booth. Where one did not have to touch anything - from credit cards to purchases, which were placed directly in boot of the car. We were the first people to do something like this.
FN: Who is the owner?
AL: Well, 96% belongs to me, and the rest to a family friend. We are not listed on a stock exchange.
FN: Who is tour target customer?
AL: Fashion people and forward looking individuals. We have 20,000 SKUs and we buy always fashion forward ideas. Which makes the brands we work with very happy. When I was designing Vitkac 20 years ago, all the major stores had huge beauty departments on the ground floor. I opened up with accessories and shoes on the ground floors. No beauty! I didn’t want fake traffic, but customers who really buy fashion.
FN: How important is your rooftop restaurant Concept 13?
AL: We have great restaurant, Michelin recommended. International cuisine but with a concept that changes four times a year. It has a 360 view of Warsaw, along with a conference area and a free kinder garden. At the weekend, we often have 20 to 30 kids with animations, which makes the dads and the mums who are shopping happy. We thought that the parents would come to get rid of their kids someplace. Now, the kids want to come, and they are our future customers.
FN: What is your long-term strategy?
AL: To grow. I opened a second department store in October in Cracow, our second largest city and the one with the highest number of tourists. All our brands are on board. The only real difference is that the store in Cracow is in a 17th century building.
FN: How has luxury retailing been doing in Poland?
AL: Honestly, at the start it was very difficult. I wondered every morning if I would have to close the business. But then, for last five years, it has developed. Double digit annual growth with 30 or 40 percent increases.
FN: So are you confident in the future?
AL: Yes. Poland is getting richer and richer and there is lots of money coming from the European Union. Unless this huge pandemic really ruins things, we will have a great future, even if only low double digits per year.
FN: Seen from Western Europe, Poland has very problematic politics. Often repressive towards LGBT people. What is your view of your country’s politics?
AL: I don’t like to get involved in politics. However, unfortunately, this is a sad cycle for the country, right when Poland is growing very fast. The government can do a lot of harm internationally. Harm also to my staff, many of whom are from the LGBT community. Maybe not here in Warsaw but in secondary cities. Which is where many of my staff emigrated from. The atmosphere there is not good. Three of my best workers are working in Selfridges because they felt they had to leave Poland and move to London. Colorful amazing people with great manners and humanity.
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