MIAMI — Contemporary retailers are finding new life here in once dingy strip malls and desolate side streets. Their merchandise reflects an under-the-radar spirit, as each vies for a fresh mix of emerging, local and eco-friendly lines in an effort to stand out in the Miami area's flourishing boutique scene.
"I didn't want to put in all this hard work for a landlord," said Ana Maria Garcia-Ordonez, who bypassed South Beach and other pricy neighborhoods for an overlooked section of Route 1 in Coral Gables, where she opened her shop, Jolie, last month.
Jolie doesn't even have a sign out front, but the store has managed to catch on with students at the University of Miami nearby, as well as moms taking yoga classes or visiting doctors in the building. The 1,000-square-foot store beckons these seasoned shoppers with glossy terrazzo floors, lavender walls and girly accents such as framed vintage Jantzen and Catalina swimwear ads. Helping themselves to complimentary cupcakes, customers can flip through well-spaced racks of dresses such as a black printed satin frock by Yoana Baraschi retailing for $371, and Flora Kung's wraps and shifts in colorful prints, averaging $360.
"Her prints are very Pucci, so perfect for Miami," said Garcia-Ordonez, who added that her first-year sales projection of $120,000 is on target. "One lady bought one of each."
She also writes dresses from Frenzii and Voom, as well as Public Library's witty T-shirts. True to her Colombian roots, Garcia-Ordonez returns home to order Limon Piel's leather bags with hand-braided straps for $320, Palmarosa's bikinis in mix-and-match prints for $140 to $158, and affordable, ethnic jewelry such as handwoven cuffs and necklaces for $27 each.
Aleksandra Simanic, owner of Crimson Carbon boutique tucked inside an artist co-op in the Wynwood warehouse district, prefers to look locally for designers. Her pool includes Claudia E., whose strapless sack dress in a silk print retails for $159; Meadow, an eco-friendly collection with simple, beachy shapes like bubble and Empire minidresses for $108 to $200, and A Different Fur, limited edition T-shirts with quirky, minimal art for $55."If I buy locally, I have a better understanding if that company adheres to fair practice," said Simanic, who also believes in an overall green lifestyle. "I only carry leather or fur if it's recycled."
Local or eco-conscious accessories bolster sales, which she estimates will total $150,000 for 2008. A hot item is Miami-based Street Couture's round handbag made of canvas and African sugar sacks for $167. The popularity of $65 Melissa jellies hasn't waned, and customers are attracted to Mad Imports' rich hues, though Simanic also orders its wood, raffia and coconut shell clutches. She sources swimwear locally, including from Bianca Coletti, which uses Italian fabrics in tropical foliage prints and bright solids for bikinis averaging $130.
"I like creating an art gallery feel, where everything has a story," said Simanic, who sparingly decorates her 500-square-foot space of white walls and cement floors with the odd canary yellow vintage chair or heart-shaped Venetian mirror.
More like a best friend's closet, Ericka Saleh crams her 700-square-foot boutique, Rumeur, with colorful frocks, baubles and shoes. Launched in February, the lively atmosphere contrasts with its location on a quiet street in the northern suburb of Miami Shores.
"Since I feature up-and-coming labels, I wanted an up-and-coming location," said Saleh, who gives affluent clientele sticker shock of the welcome sort. "They think most items are underpriced."
Her top seller is from Nikki Poulos, an Australian-born, Miami-based designer who specializes in long, sexy styles retailing for around $170. Her crowd instantly gets Frenzii and its higher-priced sister line, Jully Kang, but they're more excited about Shumaq's glamorously cut minidress in a blurry, cobalt blue and black zebra print.
"People ask for it all the time," Saleh said of pieces that average $210. "We get types who know all the brands or who want to learn."
The store also carries Fluxus T-shirts, Fresh Ink denim and Kristina Ashley bikinis. She can't keep Lavazzon's organic leather cuffs and holsters at $85 to $130 in stock, and also does well with Aria Nero's jewelry made from bits of lava stone and copper for $150. She also sells her own line of handbags, called Amour."Because of the economy, I probably won't do more than $150,000 in sales my first year," she said.
Accessed through a leafy tropical courtyard in a Sixties' strip mall in Coral Gables, Emporium's lifestyle store is an unexpected trove.
Owner Sara Zamikoff, a former pastry chef, creates and sells exotic coffee and tea blends, along with delicacies such as French candies and edible hibiscus flowers. Women's and children's fashions thread around Blissen stationery, Caldrea cleaning supplies and Kenyan beaded dog collars.
"The variety and prices reach everyone without sacrificing quality," Zamikoff said. "They're grateful when the same crocodile clutch costs double on Miami Beach."
Hunting for emerging brands and obscure novelties at showrooms, apparel markets and art fairs, Zamikoff said she focuses on tops, dresses and accessories to fill Emporium. Embroidered, boho chic looks from Fourtys, asymmetrical halters from Vive La Reine and one-of-a-kind concoctions of recycled fabrics, such as silk scarves by SuperLuckyCat, retail from $80 to $165.
"It helps me sell if I meet designers and learn their stories," she said, marveling at the detail of Nuvula's butterfly top in eyelet bamboo. "Can you believe it's just $100?"
Bags run the gamut from an enormous yellow patent leather tote by Caprice Bianca to Matt & Nat's Japanese paper styles with heavy top stitching in neutrals. The jewelry assortment is wide, too, with rings sporting vintage typewriter keys, Turkish classics by Bozkurt and charm bracelets dangling tortoiseshell hearts and antique keys by local designer Nancy Gonzalez.
"I'm doing much better than expected in these times," said Zamikoff, who plans $175,000 in sales for 2008.
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