By  on July 23, 2007

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Mansionization and Newport Beach, Calif., go hand in hand like Range Rovers and five-car garages. Even Garys, the area’s leading luxury men’s wear store, has been known to think big. And bigger. And bigger still.

Since it arrived in the affluent seaside community in 1975, the one-stop independent clothier that introduced Orange County men to niche Italian labels and boasts one of the world’s largest independent accounts for Zegna, has expanded its Fashion Island shopping center presence five times. Over the years, it has more than quadrupled its square footage, from a humble 3,500 square feet to a grand total of 15,000 square feet.

“Every time a lease comes up around us, we usually end up taking it,” says Dick Braeger, 69, a former owner of Cole Haan who bought Garys from founder Gary Wasserman in 1984. (He now owns the retailer with his son, John, and daughter, Kari.) “But we’re still bursting at the seams.”

Founded in 1966, Garys’ popularity in the upscale men’s wear world has led to a long-standing, outgrowing-its-digs problem. What began as a men’s boutique in a four-bedroom Brentwood house, expanded into a three-store chain by 1984 when Braeger, who joined the company as a shoe specialist in 1969, bought Wasserman’s share of the company to become sole owner. The company’s two Los Angeles County locations have long since been shuttered, but Garys has intensified its Orange County presence by colonizing much of Fashion Island’s southwest corner. In addition to the flagship store, Fashion Island is now home to Garys Per Donna, a women’s handbag and accessories boutique; Garys Island Home, a beach-themed, home-furnishings store; and Garys Island, a casualwear shop with four additional retail locations. The company also has a discount store in nearby Tustin and smaller boutiques in Mission Viejo and Del Mar. Garys’ next location will be a 1,300-square-foot men’s and women’s apparel shop in The Resort at Pelican Hill, a luxury hotel just south of Newport Beach that is set to open in fall 2008. 

At Fashion Island, the adjacent Pottery Barn now finds itself in Garys’ custom-tailored crosshairs. With an opening slated for holiday season next year, Garys flagship store aims to take over the 10,000-square-foot space and add two designer shop-in-shops—Zegna and Isaia—to complement existing Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani boutiques. Footwear will also find a new home in the planned expansion, as will a full-cut suit department for guys who need a little extra room around the middle

Like the flagship, which offers departments ranging from tailored clothing and footwear to denim and sportswear, the new wing will have its own yet-to-be-determined interior style. “As we grew, I had the choice to make it look like one store. But I wanted to keep it homey, where every room is different, like your house,” Braeger says. “Customers get a kick out of it. To them, it’s not cold.”

The homespun vintage decor, at once refined and unfussy, is a product of Braeger’s penchant for antique hunting, mainly in nearby Laguna Beach or in northern California. Walk through the store’s black-awning-covered main entrance, and you’ll find a line of oak dining tables that likely precede the 1906 founding of Newport Beach. Each showcases Zegna woven shirts, Alberto Jeans and sport shirts by Garys’ private label, Portofino. Leather chairs, model sailboats and a salvaged console organ intersperse Transit deconstructed blazers and Mulholland Bros. leather backpack-cum-wine-bottle carriers. Even the store’s flooring approximates that of an Orange County manse, alternating between hardwood, Berber carpeting and mixed-pattern stone tile.

Other areas of the store exude minimalism. The understated Hugo Boss shop-in-shop, for example, houses the label’s suits, sportswear, footwear and accessories in a 2,000-square-foot room furnished with low-slung couches, flat-screen TVs and a trio of phalaenopsis orchids.

Garys owes its brisk flagship store business, which exceeds $1,000 a square foot, to a loyal customer base that spans the generation gap, says general manager Robb Claiborne, who has been with the store for 11 years. “Our age range is as big as our store, from about 25 to 65. Fathers and sons will shop here together and soon fall in love with it,” he says.

The Denim & Blues department at Garys skews younger—or at least young at heart—with a collection of casual shirts and premium denim that 40-year-old co-owner John Braeger has recently streamlined to be more consistent with customer demand. “Our younger customers often go directly into this room,” says Braeger, who introduced the Denim & Blues section in 1989 when he went into business with his father. But older guys who stop in for a Canali suit are often compelled to step up their casual wardrobe as well, he adds.

AG Adriano Goldschmied, Agave, 1921, True Religion, Replay and 7 For All Mankind are among the denim lines carried, as are button-front shirts by Robert Graham and belts by John Varvatos and Bill Lavin’s Leather Island line.

True, the store faces stiff competition from nearby American Rag, which opened at Fashion Island in 2004 and carries the vanguard of premium denim’s hottest labels. But Dick Braeger says the difference comes down to service: “I like American Rag, but they still have mostly kids who wait on you. Here, we have a variety of professional [sales staff], many who have developed into jeans specialists. So many of our customers become jeans crazy, and come back week after week, month after month to the same salesman.”

Today, the company’s flagship store does about a 50/50 business between tailored clothing and sportswear, according to the Braegers.

But when you’re competing head-to-head with department store behemoths in Fashion Island and nearby South Coast Plaza, a devoted sales staff with acumen in both formal- and casualwear, combined with a top-notch team of tailors, continues to be a must, Braeger says: “The more you get to know your customers, the more you know their needs. We recognize and treat our customers as our friends, because that’s who they are.”

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