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Duarte Joins Retail Fraternity

LOS ANGELES — Henry Duarte has never believed in rushing.<br><br>His labor-intensive jeans, made from dozens of carefully cut pieces with hand-hammered seams, are a far cry from the fast turnaround pairs that are a cornerstone of the surrounding...

LOS ANGELES — Henry Duarte has never believed in rushing.

His labor-intensive jeans, made from dozens of carefully cut pieces with hand-hammered seams, are a far cry from the fast turnaround pairs that are a cornerstone of the surrounding denim industry.

So it should come as no surprise that months passed, and then a year, before he finally opened his boutique at 7977 Melrose Avenue on Nov. 1.

Not that everyone could wait. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland broke in the shiny new credit card machine weeks before the doors officially opened. (Longtime client Tyler thanked Duarte in his speech when he took his Rock Style trophy at last month’s VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.)

This is Duarte’s second venture into retail. Previously, he only saw private clients at his atelier, with its backdoor access on Beverly Boulevard, in the early Nineties. The Los Angeles native courted his rock and civilian fans at a Sunset Boulevard door for three years, but walked away in early 2001, after a falling out with former partner Mink Vox Corp. He set up his workshop soon after on Fairfax Avenue, a two-minute drive from the new store.

The white-walled, 1,000-square-foot space, directly across the street from Costume National in the chic Melrose Heights neighborhood, had just been vacated by British swimwear designer Liza Bruce when Duarte found himself on his own.

“It’s a good neighborhood,” Duarte said, “and like a lot of buildings in L.A., I like that it’s right in front of you, but you don’t know it’s there. I felt my clothes are so detailed that I had to have a modern space.”

The oversized windows and glass door have been frosted, except for small letters spelling out the designer’s name in type resembling Led Zeppelin’s logo that glows purple from an interior light.

Fuchsia, green and blue gel interior lighting also help draw customers through the narrow space, with its heightened ceilings and terrazzo floors. Knotted and twisted tree stumps lend an organic element to the otherwise stark space.

“I designed it like a small runway,” said the laid-back designer. As usual, he was a perfect advertisement for his clothes, squeezed into a lace-up pair of denim pants, and sporting his own snakeskin platforms and ornate belt buckle and rings. The heavy intricate bronze belts are priced between $900 and $1,400; ornate bronze rings are $275 to $1,100 and chunky cuffs are $480. All are encased in vitrines at the entrance.

Duarte’s signature men’s and women’s collections — inspired by Sixties rock culture in California and London — neatly line the main selling floor on shoulder-high steel fixtures illuminated by floor-level lighting. Jim Morrison-inspired deerskin pants hang alongside lace-up jeans and dandy morning coats. Prices range from $325 for a printed shirt to $2,200 for a ruched leather jacket.

A mirrored lounge with a modern couch near the dressing rooms at the back of the store has good hangout value and no doubt will be Duarte’s favorite perch when he entertains his many private clients.

Private is the operative word here. The front door is always locked; clients have to be buzzed in. It’s something his famous clients — from Sheryl Crow and Jennifer Lopez to Bob Dylan and Robert Plant — expect.

As for mere mortals, Duarte’s banking on word-of-mouth to make the registers sing. He expects the store to tack on $800,000 to his $1.5 million-a-year wholesale business during its first year in business.