By  on May 8, 2008

MIAMI — Heather Rifkin isn't the dress type.

"Growing up, I was always the first to have the latest [denim] label, whether Guess or Z. Cavaricci," said Rifkin, who opened Forever in Blue Jeans, a women's denim-driven boutique here, in April. "I wanted to focus, to be a one-stop shop for jeans."

Despite the success of dresses as a year-round answer for looking chic in the heat, Rifkin lives in jeans. Their versatility and the constant influx of new brands have captured her.

Rifkin, who was raised in Jacksonville, Fla., acknowledged she is moving into the denim market when most discussion of the category centers on weakening sales and she's heard the skepticism expressed by vendors.

But she's finding support for her denim-centric view from her neighbors, Gail and Ira Blum, who founded Tupelo Honey denim stores in Aventura, Fla., and at The Falls shopping center near Rifkin's store in South Miami. Both of the Blums' stores have been in business for more than 10 years, and they believe Rifkin's focused strategy will be key to surviving the cyclical nature of fashion.

"When everyone jumped on the denim bandwagon, a lot of dress stores got stuck with stacks of $200 jeans," Gail Blum said. "We stayed true to our niche, which is how you remain in business."

Rifkin has balanced her assortment by offering a mix of price points and has included tops and accessories to compliment the denim. She estimated casual tops and accessories account for 35 percent of the assortment at her 1,250-square-foot boutique. The LA Made T-shirt line has established itself as a top performer, offering affordable tops such as a cobalt blue boatneck with raw edges for $22 and an eggplant-colored top with ruffled cap sleeves for $30.

"I carry Beautiful People and Ella Moss, too, but not everyone wants to spend $80 to $115 for a top," she said.

Rifkin takes a similar approach to denim.

"There are tons of $150-plus jeans in the market, but I want everyone to find something here," she said.

The Miss Me and iT Jeans labels, retailing from $70 to $80, are selling, as well as premium offerings with an average price of $210, like Anlo's sailor styles and trousers and Aristocrat's wide-leg cut with novelty buttons. University of Miami students and thirtysomethings primarily gravitate toward Hudson's plentiful range of denim shorts, capris and pants, while older customers make David Kahn a top seller. James, J Brand and Genetics are also on the floor.The bulk of Rifkin's customers are stay-at-home moms whose pocketbooks don't appear to be feeling the pain of a broader economic downturn. Some customers may second-guess purchasing multiple pairs of jeans, but Rifkin said if they don't pick them up the first time, they often return later. With individual sales averaging $250 and April numbers exceeding expectations, she predicts first-year sales of $520,000.

"This customer knows what she wants; I'm a destination store," Rifkin said. "They drop the kids off at school and shop."

Though she only marketed as far north as Coconut Grove, word is spreading about the store. Rifkin and her husband combed antiques shops around the U.S. for a Gulf gas pump, a Golden Crust bread rack and a go-cart. Inspired by Anthropologie's approach to merchandising, Rifkin layers denim and T-shirts on wood crates enclosed by a shabby chic iron bed, functionally strung with wide leather belts, situated beneath a red-painted, wrought-iron chandelier.

A down-home, country theme comes across in tiered, white dressing room curtains, tin wash tubs and a white picket fence that sections off an area with sweats and loungewear by Jake's Dry Goods and Feel Good by E Street Denim Co. Old-fashioned cabinets and farm tables display Lauren Merkin clutches, Jennifer Miller gold and silver bangles and innerwear by Commando, Free People and Yummie Tummie.

With the option to expand to 1,750 square feet, Rifkin intends to add men's and possibly children's sections.

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