Claire Chan


Much more than just a spot to catch a caffeinated boost on the go, today’s coffee shop is at the intersection of leisure and style—a place where customers are going to see and be seen. Claire Chan, owner of the West Village café and eatery The Elk, knows just how to tackle the unique interplay between fashion, lifestyle, and coffee culture; the savvy Vancouver native draws from her background in both restaurant hospitality and fashion retail to create the inviting, fashion-forward aesthetic that’s been lighting up New York City’s café scene and our foodie Instagram feeds. “From that kind of social media standpoint, I recognize the importance of detail,” she explains. “That’s what I try to do with The Elk—focus on giving people a nice experience that’s thoughtful and mindful of those.” With Interview x NARS Cosmetics’ “The Art of Throwing Shade,” Chan discusses becoming comfortable as a business owner, developing her tastes, and finding empowerment through a positive work environment. 

STARTING OUT: Growing up I worked in a number of retail stores and also restaurants. It was a great way to get into the professional world, because in a restaurant you learn so much about every aspect. They teach you to manage a business, or to manage your role, rather. You work as a hostess, then as an expeditor, then you move from there to be a server; you really get a full spectrum of the entire business. So that was really an interesting start. With retail, I worked with a Canadian company for a number of years called Aritzia, and they were really great because they taught you in the same way; you started as a salesperson on the floor, then you move over to floor managing, then you learn about merchandising, so I really got the full view of everything. When I moved to New York, I worked at Bergdorf Goodman as a buyer for a number of years. I worked in the event designer category and we bought for some amazing brands. The quality of the products I was working with—the designers and the inspiration—was just so exciting. But it was very fast paced, and I think I came to a point where the industry was just so big for me and I felt very, very small in it. More than that, I wanted to merge my interest in food. I grew up developing an obsession with food and hospitality, the experiences that you have when you go to restaurants, especially in a city like New York. That’s what led me to open The Elk. My background in retail helped me develop a taste for kind of beautiful things and things that make you feel good.

ON SEXISM: I think that there’s a line that women have to be conscious of between being assertive and being bossy. That line is a little tighter for women. It’s been said that women have stronger experiences of emotion, so I think it’s about controlling and honing in on those emotions in a way where they can come across as powerful. I think it’s a natural thing to compare yourself to men in the same position, but really it’s about, “Who are you as an individual and as a boss?” And not letting strong emotions get control of you, but setting the tone for people who are looking up to you: realizing that you’re in a position where you can affect people. It’s inevitably challenging.

FEELING EMPOWERED: I’ve been super lucky to have wonderful people in my life who have helped me along the way in fashion and also have helped me open The Elk. So just surrounding myself with really strong, wonderful people both in my personal and professional life has helped me tremendously. Then really taking moments to enjoy and celebrate with where you are in life. The Elk’s been open now for two years and I’ve really had to take time to look around and celebrate that this all happened and is being realized. You set these goals for yourself, and once you’ve reached them it’s like, “What’s the next goal?” It’s awesome to have that kind of ambition, but important to take those moments to enjoy where you’re at right now. That, to me, is really empowering, when you take those small, even minute moments to look at what you’ve done.

We have powerful emotions and that doesn’t necessarily need to have a bad connotation to it. You can channel those emotions and they can be the driving force behind you in such a unique way. The whole point of view can be shifted a little bit more, to where expressing emotions can be a really positive thing. In the past, there hasn’t been a lot of space for emotion within a professional work setting—You leave all that at home, there’s a right and wrong way to conduct yourself, et cetera. I think we’re evolving past that, and I hope so.

BEAUTY AND CONFIDENCE: As far as style goes, I think that feeling good about what you’re putting out there—whether that be at The Elk or just my personal style—feeling like you’re putting the best version of yourself forward, it gives you confidence. Also just feeling comfortable; it’s true that it’s an expression of yourself, and that will drive you to be the best you can be.