By  on April 27, 2006

DALLAS — Denim is the driving force behind Ort Varona's retail expansion plans.

Varona opened Octane, a 3,000-square-foot store targeting the 25- to 35-year-old women's and men's market, at a West Village shopping center here in 2003. Denim now accounts for half of Octane's $2.1 million in annual sales and is a cornerstone of Varona's plans to take Octane nationwide.

Varona is hunting for potential store locations in Houston, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with backing from Hillwood Capital — a Dallas developer led by Ross Perot Jr. that is a partner in the $450 million Victory Park project opening here this fall. He prefers street-level space or pedestrian centers instead of malls and envisions the stores as "community retailers." The units will range from 2,500 square feet to 3,000 square feet. He also envisions five Octane units in Dallas.

Brands such as A.G. Adriano Goldschmied, Chip & Pepper, Ernest Sewn, Rogan and Eden are driving sales. Fresh brand T-shirts round out the selection, along with Ella Moss knitwear and sportswear by James Perse, Trovata, Triple Five Soul, Notice, Joie and Tamara Catz. Prices range from $50 to $550.

"Will denim slow down? Sure," Varona said. "Will it die? No. People won't stop wearing denim."

The concept has worked in Dallas and has already begun to take hold in new locations. Varona opened an Octane in Denver's Larimer Square last September and bowed in the new 2nd Street District mixed-use development in Austin on April 10.

While Octane is the parent brand, Varona has two other retail concepts, as well. Premium 93 opened in 2004 at West Village as an Octane spin-off selling pricier labels and collections, such as Daryl K, Wyeth and Ted Baker. Premium 93 will be renamed Octane 93 as it expands to other cities, though Varona expects Octane 93 will be suited to fewer markets than the denim shops.

Varona also plans to introduce a third concept, Octane LFT (pronounced "lift"), in September at the new Victory Park center near downtown Dallas. At 30,000 square feet and two levels, LFT will feature 13 storefront shops for individual designers merchandised by Varona, as well as 10,000 square feet of space leased to a hair salon, a café, an art gallery and a music store. His sales plan projects $400 a square foot.Varona said LFT will carry Chip & Pepper, Eden and Z Zegna, and offer a Malin & Goetz apothecary.

He expects to do custom finishing of denim on site and in view of customers, and also plans to bring alterations out into the open. "It's a craft and we want to expose it," said Varona.

Varona got retail experience during his college and graduate school years at a variety of retailers, including Gadzooks and Ralph Lauren, and had always planned to open a store of his own. Before Octane, which he launched with his brother, Orlando, he spent nine years in human resources at SouthWest Airlines, where he was team leader for technical recruiting and employment support.

"With my background at SouthWest, we empower our employees to make decisions and be creative because ultimately these stores become their stores," he said. "You make a decision and you go."

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