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SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Sun Valley doesn’t have the string of designer shops such as Prada, Chanel, Gucci and Fendi that line the streets of Aspen, but visitors and residents aren’t lacking for upscale merchandise.

This story first appeared in the January 7, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Over the last few years, the 67-year-old mountain resort and the neighboring town of Ketchum, the main commerce district, has seen a growth in the number of high-end retail square footage, largely in part due to two new mixed-use retail, office and residential developments on Sun Valley Road here.

The Shops at the Colonnade and The Christiania are two separate projects built by Palo Alto-based developer Jack Bariteau in 1999 and 2001 respectively. They offer over 35,000-square-feet of retail space combined and only one small store remains unleased.

Bariteau said he originally approached Gap and Banana Republic to fill spots in the developments, but said a resort market was a tough sell since the projects were new concepts for Ketchum. Now, Bariteau said he thinks it could be a different story.

“Now that the [developments] are in place, we will probably end up with more chain interest expanding into these markets because they know the business is here,” Bariteau said. “I don’t think there is a resistance from the community because the families that survive on the nature of the market and the service business, they’re tired of driving to Boise to shop.”

Further, Bariteau said there are no zoning ordinances or city rules restricting their entry.

However, when Starbucks — the only national chain to date — opened on Main Street in 1999, slapping its name on the front of a historic building, it provoked a flurry of anticorporate sentiments. Possibly along the same lines, while former Gap Inc. chief executive Millard (Mickey) Drexler has a home here, there are no Gap Inc. stores — Aspen has Gap and Banana Republic shops.

Second home owners and tourists are mainly from Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and New York, and come during the busy seasons: July through September and December through March. While there is a contrast between the local and visiting community, retailers said the two groups agree on one thing: They want the town to remain low-key, and chain retail might not fit in to that equation.

Visitor spending generated 26 percent of all jobs in Blaine County in 2000, according to the Ketchum/Sun Valley Chamber & Visitors Bureau, and the retail industry represents more than a quarter of all jobs. In the small towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley where tourists concentrate — and where the year-round population is only 3,003 and 1,427 persons, respectively — the ratios are more dramatic. It is estimated that the two towns see at least 95,000 visitors in the winter and 130,000 in the summer, according to a spokeswoman at the Chamber & Visitors Bureau.

Though ostentation is somewhat frowned upon here, the Valley’s inflated real estate market more clearly shows there is cash to throw around. The median household income in 2000 was $45,793, but the second-home market begins at $1 million and megacabins can easily run up to $13 million, according to Sherry Daech, a high-end real estate broker who has worked in the area for 25 years.

Founded by former New York Gov. and Union Pacific Railroad president Averell Harriman in 1936, the resort of Sun Valley was modeled after the fashionable Swiss ski resorts of St. Moritz and Gstaad. Ketchum, a deserted mining town with a population of less than 100 year-round residents at the time, is today a blend of outdoor apparel stores, jewelers, high-end furniture shops, galleries and various specialty stores. Apparel ranges from the obvious ski and outdoor lines to the most in-demand luxury brands from Milan, Paris and London.

In an effort to bring a little bit of Via Montenapoleone out West, Elle Rose carries Loro Piana, Piazza Sempione, Céline, Bottega Veneta and Moschino. Elle Rose owner Rochelle Runge moved to a new 1,825-square-foot location in The Christiania just over a year ago. Her former 500-square-foot space, which she had for nine-and-a-half years, is now Elle Rose Cashmere, the town’s only store devoted exclusively to the category.

Prices at Elle Rose range from a $45 Three Dots T-shirt to a $4,000 Piazza Sempione shearling.

Sister, which opened six years ago, is situated in a small house built in the Forties. Its white picket fence and handpainted sign evoke country charm from the outside, but inside, fashion-forward European brands and top-notch customer service are the main draw. Martin Margiela, Vivienne Westwood and Jurgi Persoons are paired with limited vintage pieces that owner Annette Frehling collects and uses for the store’s private label. Other designers found there include Los Angeles-based lines Magda Berliner, Rozae Nichols and Burning Torch. Katayone Adeli, Catherine Malandrino and Mayle are her New York-based resources.

“It’s the best place to shop in Sun Valley,” Jamie Lee Curtis told WWD as she shopped there with her daughter over the holidays.

Designer Magda Berliner said selling her collection in Ketchum is a roundabout way of exposing her brand in Los Angeles, since many celebrities and high-powered Hollywood types have second homes there.

“I really like that it’s a natural atmosphere because so much of my inspiration comes from nature,” Berliner said. “It’s nice that the collection sells in such a leisurely location.”

Frehling, a former New Yorker, said she opened her 2,500-square-foot store because of the lack of merchandise in town. She claimed it all “looked like Nordstrom.”

As a selling technique, Frehling organizes the store to be somewhat crowded, with merchandise to ignite one-on-one attention. In addition to the selling floor, there is an apartment she uses for private shopping. That’s a big draw for celebrities, she said.

Customer service is a top priority for all local businesses, most of which are year-round, retailers said. But slack time — the local phrase for the quietest months of April through June — makes cash flow extremely difficult.

For Frehling, one way to improve it is to keep her top customers in mind during market week buys. After the clothes are delivered to her, Frehling will separate the merchandise and send out personalized boxes to clients. What doesn’t suit a customer’s taste is sent back and the rest is charged to the recipient’s credit card.

“That’s what gets me through slack time,” Frehling said. “And I think it surprises them that I’m able to do that. A New York girl would have to run all over the city to get Mayle and that takes time and energy.”

Frehling even has one customer from Los Angeles who’s never been to the store. The customer read about Sister in a magazine and now receives customized shipments.

Since many vacationers come from big cities where fashion is readily available, retailers are forced to carry less-mainstream lines to spur purchases. For Tracy Fink, owner of Theodore, this helps create relationships because a customer will buy something, leave town and then call back and buy more when they realize they can’t find it in their hometown.

“During those dead times, you end up developing that type of business,” Fink said. “If you didn’t have that, it would be a challenge. We’re reliant on second-home owners and even though they’re not living here full time, they still buy from us and are really supportive. If they want a mountain bike, for example, they’ll buy it from one of the outdoor stores they know up here.”

Special lines carried at Theodore include designer apparel by People of the Labyrinths — which is made by artists in Holland — ski and sportswear from Jet Set, St. Moritz skiwear, Blumarine, Roberto Cavalli, TSE, Cuccinnelli and Richard Grand.

Fink said Theodore itself is a look that people have come to know. While the Ketchum-based store Fink owns is only six years old, her father, Herb, opened the original Theodore boutique on North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1972. The Beverly Hills store is still open today, but is run separately. Fink said the Theodore look was originally inspired by St. Tropez in the Seventies — body-conscious and sporty with sexy sophistication.

Price points at Theodore run the gamut, so Fink can accommodate a local clientele during the slower months. Domestic resources such as jeans by AG Adriano Goldschmied and Sharagano and T-shirts by Michael Stars and James Perse fill the lower price category.

“The other challenge is receiving merchandise,” Fink said. “You could get merchandise delivered in March and sit with it until July. You can sometimes negotiate with vendors but Europe is not going to hold the merchandise, so I sit with it because I have the money. But that could be a killer for a person with a resort business.”

The flip side is that there is more merchandise in the store during the tourist season. Fink said she does 80 percent of her business in the July through August and December through March seasons.

Housed in the same building as Theodore is Deja Vu, a vintage shop with designer duds including dresses and suits from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Pucci, Oleg Cassini, Halston and less-well-known lines popular from the heyday of Hollywood, such as Lillian and Lilli Diamond.

“Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of Versace from the Eighties,” said Suzy Hart, owner. “I also specialize in vintage Westernwear, like fringe jackets and cowgirl suits.”

Hart has had her business in Ketchum for 20 years, but recently changed locations to a higher-profile spot, giving her direct street access on one side and indoor access to a restaurant and more stores on the other.

Retailers said foot traffic is not usually a problem given the pro-outdoor mind-set of a mountain town. But there aren’t a whole lot of new faces, said Fink.

“I get maybe two people a day that I’ve never seen,” she said, adding that this makes merchandising more challenging. “If they come in the summer and they come in the winter, there’d better be new stuff. I have a customer base of a few hundred people, whereas Aspen has tons of new people every day. People in Boise and Twin Falls are not our customer base. Aspen has Denver and direct flights from [numerous] big cities.”

Girl Street, a vibrant hot spot for the local and visiting junior crowd, is housed inside the 14-year-old Board Bin, Ketchum’s top skate and snowboard shop. Girl Street is one of the few places that carries junior lines such as Paul Frank, Free People, Steve Madden, Roxy, Billabong and Dickies Girl. But since the store is housed in the same space as Board Bin, owners Karin Reichow and Jim Slanetz said getting new clients is sometimes difficult.

“We have a lot of fashion in the store,” Reichow said. “People that have been in once, they’re hooked and they keep coming back. But when a new person comes in, [sometimes] they see the snowboard stuff and don’t think about the clothing.”

Since Girl Street, which has been open for eight years, is a hit with juniors, Reichow said she tries to keep merchandise under $100, which bodes well for her local and visiting business. Reichow also said she’s started to carry the children’s line Teeny Wahine from Roxy and Billabong’s girls’ line.

“The amount of new retail space has been staggering,” said Tim Eagan, president of Eagan Real Estate, which managed the leasing for The Christiania and The Shops at the Colonnade. “The high-end retailers here work their butts off and the ones that are successful are profoundly good at what they do.”

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