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Independent specialty stores are adding art installations, yoga classes and a slew of other unconventional activities to their apparel mix.
Linda Burton sees it all the time: a customer comes in looking for a coat and leaves with a lamp. Another seeks the perfect pair of pants, and finds a great cushion instead.
Burton and partner Holly Devlin, owners of Cricket in Wichita, Kansas, are firm believers in offering choices to the consumer. So much so that what started out as a small boutique selling a limited selection of contemporary women’s clothes has now tripled in size and offers a staggering variety of, well, stuff. There are chandeliers and oil paintings, silk floral arrangements and embroidered pillows. And although Burton and Devlin put in almost $450,000 into expanding their boutique, they’re not quite done yet.
Later this year, Cricket is moving a couple of blocks down the street, changing its name and almost doubling in size. Come Thanksgiving, the decade-old store will be known as “Eccentricity,” will take up some 4,000 square feet of space, and will carry even more diverse merchandise, including plants, fountains and statues. There will also be a cafe serving tea and gourmet sandwiches and salads. “It really will be a one-stop shop,” said Burton.
This extent of retail diversification is a reflection of a trend sweeping retailers across the country. While it’s one thing for larger stores to offer a variety of services, for example, the Fred Segal cafe in Los Angeles and New York’s Rem-Koolhaas-designed Prada boutique, which is outfitted with a performance space), smaller independent boutiques are also getting in on the act. In addition to trying on a new pair of low-slung jeans, shoppers can also order flowers, pick up a brioche, get their hair cut, take in a dance performance — and even participate in a yoga class.
“For us, it was a way to give something back,” said Tamara Tatkus, owner of Chicago store Clever Alice, which carries fashion-forward lines like Tufi Duek from Brazil and Twist and Tango, a Swedish line. Last year, Tatkus introduced Wednesday evening yoga classes, which are held in a wide open space in the middle of the 1,200-square-foot store. The wooden floors, high cathedral ceilings and sense of airiness are perfect for a meditative, relaxing activity.
“It’s a nice thing to offer our customers,” said Tatkus of the classes, which were originally arranged just for her and her staff. “People can do something that makes them feel good and get into shape, and it creates an overall sense of well-being.”
The $10 charged for the 90-minute sessions goes to the yoga instructor, so the classes are much more a goodwill gesture than a tactic to generate profits. Nonetheless, Tatkus said that the classes certainly “wouldn’t hurt” business: existing customers bring in their friends and tell others about the store.
“It’s lovely to have a service to offer that isn’t directly related to shopping,” said Tatkus, who added that the space is also used for trunk shows.
Retail experts say the mushrooming of new “hybrid venues” is an indication of things to come. “[Hybrid venues] will continue to be a very creative and strong category,” said Ron Pompei, owner of Pompei AD, a New York-based retail design firm. Pompei described the trend as “C3″ — commerce, culture and community, and said when a store offers additional services and creates “immersive experiences,” it can only enhance the image of the store or brand.
“Hybrids speak to lifestyle,” he said, citing examples such as Anthropologie in Wayne, Penn., which boasts a coffee bar and entices customers to relax by an indoor fountain while checking out the brand’s clothing, accessories and home products. At certain Urban Outfitters stores in the U.S., shoppers can produce their own music CDs on site. And Pompei believes that the more customers demand that retailers “multitask,” the more popular hybrid venues will become.
Designer Shelly Steffee, in opening her eponymous New York boutique last year, already envisioned a multifunctional space. “As a first-time retailer, I wanted the store to be able to convert into a place to have a runway show, to set up during market week, to evolve and grow within the fashion arena and also for other things to take place,” she said.
In May, Steffee hosted a showing of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair which included pieces by graphic and industrial designers and architects. There has also been an improvisational dance performance entitled “Iam.”
“Clothes are my business, but I have lots of different interests — art, dance, music,” she said. “It’s more stimulating to myself and to customers.”
The 2,000-square-foot-store, located in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District, is almost tailor-made for avant-garde activities. An 8-by-11-foot pane of glass at the front of the store opens to the sidewalk, yet the area just behind it is perfect for the events that Steffee has set out to create. Steffee tries to plan monthly events, although she said sometimes they tend to happen spontaneously. She provides the space to performers and exhibitors rent-free.
“I really wanted to offer something special for the woman who is my customer — usually an independent, forward-thinking woman,” she said. “So it seemed to line up organically. They are not just coming in here and trying out clothes, but also feeling inspired, nurtured and comforted.”
For in-store diversification to work, it helps if a particular theme is adhered to. At B.NY in Santa Monica, Calif., owner Greg Niebel sells three-dimensional wooden sculpture, collapsible chairs and jewelry. In such a serene, Zen-like space, fashions from the likes of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela complement the aesthetic purity of the artwork.
“I wanted to add warmth to the store,” said Niebel. “Customers that gravitate to the store appreciate the unusual, asymmetrical lines and art in general. If they enjoy the clothes, they are going to enjoy the art.”
Like with most aspects of retail, it’s all in the mix. Johnny Nixon hit onto a winning — if somewhat unusual — concept when he served up cocktails alongside vintage shoes. A year ago, he opened Star Shoes in Hollywood; you have to be a night owl to shop there, as the earliest it opens for business is 6 p.m. During the day, shoe shoppers have to make an appointment. In addition to the more than 100,000 pairs of shoes and bags offered, some dating back to the Forties, shoppers can sip on Cosmopolitans and champagne cocktails. Different DJs play there every night and the walls become screens for some of the 5,000 16-millimeter films owned by the in-store visual projectionist.
If it sounds like a mishmash of pop cultural elements, that’s just what Nixon had in mind. “The place is a platform for up-and-comers in the worlds of art, fashion, movies, music and photography,” he said.
During L.A. fashion week, he hosts runway events. Once a month, boutiques arrange exhibitions and sales of designer clothes. On average, the ambience is that of a big shopping party, with customers that Nixon described as “urban to upscale.”
“There is an explosion of film, fashion, art and music, and we want to be host to it all,” he said.
Indeed, there doesn’t appear to be anything that is considered off-limits to retailers wanting to expand their offerings, although it helps to focus on what they do best.
At Naissance on Melrose in Los Angeles, a boutique known for its sexy, fashionable maternity clothes, Jennifer Noonan started holding yoga classes for her clients. After a competing class down the street caused Noonan’s attendance to drop off, she closed her studio and came up with a new plan: the Nom Nursery, a loft-style space selling high-end nursery furniture, and a baby gift registry, which opened for business six months ago. Among the items offered are Corsican custom-made wrought-iron cribs retailing between $1,100 and $3,000 and bedding made from vintage fabrics by the Cottage Dreams label. For Noonan, Nom was a “natural extension,” and something that was easily and relatively affordably added: about $8,000 worth of painting, decorating, airbrushing and murals.
For Joanne McCorkle, owner of the Islamorada, Fla., boutique Eye Candy, apparel was something of an afterthought. Four years ago, McCorkle set up a one-chair hair salon on the scenic Florida Keys island, but noticed that “there wasn’t a place here where you could get trendy clothes.” So two years later, she brought in labels like Betsey Johnson, Nanette Lepore and Free People and some fashionable accessories. “I took a big chance doing what I was doing,” she said, citing the island’s small population and predominantly resort-oriented market.
“I have a captive audience,” she said. “While someone has highlights in her hair, instead of reading a magazine she can try on shoes.” In order for her to have a hair-salon-cum-fashion-boutique, McCorkle had to move from her original 200-square-foot space into one four times the size a mile down the street. She and her husband spent three months renovating from scratch, painting the plain concrete block walls a dramatic shade of hot pink to create a funky and fun atmosphere.
“It’s like running two businesses, as I keep the hair salon separate from the retail,” said McCorkle, who whips up hairdos while an assistant helps customers with clothes. “Clients getting their hair cut can see what’s going on in the retail store, but they’re not bothered by it and they still feel like they’re in a private space.”
Evelyn Gorman is about to join the ranks of multifunctional boutiques: she will soon host a photographic exhibition, her first nonclothing related event, at her Houston store, Mix.
“I’m still formulating a plan about how best to use this space,” she said of the location she has been in since early this year (she was in a smaller venue for three years previously). “I feel strongly that people in retail have to be able to offer something new and different, that there has to be a reason other than what you do for the customer to visit you.”
Like retail designer Pompei, Gorman sees the fusion of fashion, art and music — what she described as “the merging of all these right-brain activities in a huge way.”
Mix is unusual in Houston, in that the majority of brands carried by Gorman are exclusive to her; these include edgy names such as Comme des Garçons, Helmut Lang and Balenciaga. About 300 square feet of the store — which totals 2,800 square feet — has been set aside for alternative events; sliding doors on tracks separate all the spaces, walls are made of hardy oak instead of sheetrock and Russian river birch covers the floors.
The event space lies in a passageway in the store, with limestone flooring to clearly separate it. Gorman is also planning to hold musical performances there. “It’s not just about bringing in new customers, but also about bringing in a new dimension to what we do, to connect all the dots between the worlds of music, fashion, art and architecture,” said Gorman, who intends to plan events that complement the nature of the apparel, perhaps showcasing new artists.
Cricket’s Burton said it’s all about fun and excitement. “It’s a way to keep customers in there,” she said of her to-be-unveiled 4,000-square-foot space, which will even have a special room for pets to hang out in while their owners are browsing. “We’re thinking of bringing in a hairstylist, maybe. We have all these ideas and we want to keep growing and expanding. It’s the only way to do things now.”