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Paola Russo’s secret to running one of the most closely watched ventures mixing fashion and art in Los Angeles lies in both the past and the future.

A former fashion director at Maxfield, the veteran retailer simultaneously adheres to traditional manners and pushes aesthetic boundaries in exclusive collaborations with provocative partners who drum up modern ideas for clothing, accessories and even disaster-survival kits sold at her store, called Just One Eye. 

This story first appeared in the December 11, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Russo, who arrived in L.A. 30 years ago from her native France. “It’s hard to believe that you’re going to spend money and people aren’t nice to you. Forget about retail. You walk into a room and see someone, you say ‘Hi.’ You leave, you say ‘Bye.’”

Russo strives to ensure that visitors to her 5,000-square-foot shop are treated kindly. The complimentary valet greets them in front of the Art Deco building that once housed the headquarters for Howard Hughes’ aviation empire. Inside, down the narrow hallway leading to spacious rooms protected by fireproof metal doors on the first floor, espresso is made to order in porcelain cups gilded with Baroque tessellations for customers who want to gaze at Gary Lang’s giant optical illusion painting or shimmy into dresses by Alexandre Vauthier. A sales clerk seems chipper about driving to Beverly Hills from this nook in Hollywood during the lunch hour to drop off new pieces from Chloé for a client.

“We give service to people. We’re still a small business,” Russo said.

While other retailers girded themselves for the frenzy of Black Friday, Russo spent the Monday before the traditional kick-off of the holiday shopping season in a state of calm. Partly it’s because she doesn’t own enough stock to blow it all in a big sale. But really, she tries to live up to the motto for running her business with a handful of silent partners and a staff of 20: “no chaos.”

“Fashion is tough; art is tough,” she said. “I want to be nice to my people and my people to be nice to me.”

What Russo takes seriously is her buying strategy for Just One Eye. “I make a story with my buys,” she said. “It could be different every season. You have to make a story in your head.”

This holiday, the tale she’s narrating is set in a crisp winter with a futuristic glint. On offer are Trager Delaney’s $5,640 women’s shearling coat accented with gold snakeskin, Seraphin’s $51,040 men’s crocodile skin bomber jacket, Robert Clergerie’s $1,150 bronze metallic booties and Marzio Cecchi’s $25,500 black leather porcupine beanbag. Wilfredo Rosado, a former fashion director for Giorgio Armani and protégé of Andy Warhol, is wooing the local moneyed mavens with his one-of-a-kind fine jewelry displayed in an exclusive in-store shop nestled between Just One Eye’s librarylike foyer and main room.

Exclusivity is important not only to Russo, but also to the future of retail. “People do not want to look like clones,” she said. “There’s so much of the same thing everywhere. Everybody ends up having the same repetitive things.”

Whether it’s Converse high-tops printed with one of Nate Lowman’s paintings or Aurelie Demel’s toy hedgehogs and flamingoes tufted in mink, fox and Mongolian lamb fur, Russo said, “I like the idea of having something that only Just One Eye can distribute.”

The irony is that Russo’s initial proposal for Just One Eye didn’t include brick-and-mortar at all. She first launched a Web site in November 2011. “I wanted to do something different from retail,” she recalled of her cyber debut that featured digital art by Ed Ruscha. She quickly learned that Web sites are, in her words, “tricky.”

 

In late 2012, Russo returned to what she knew best. The accolades for the boutique-cum-gallery soon flowed from fashion magazines and industry insiders. GQ named it one of the “holy temples of men’s wear.” An aura of intimidation billowed when rumor spread that it was accessible only by appointment.

“Everybody is welcome to my store,” Russo said when alerted of the mystique that shrouded Just One Eye, which is open Monday through Friday. “We have everything to welcome everybody. It’s not a snobby situation.”

In an ultracompetitive but still-growing market like Los Angeles, one can’t afford to exclude any potential customer.

“Everybody is opening up in L.A.,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Case in point: Russo’s earliest collaborators, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, who, along with artist Damien Hirst, created wearable art out of $55,000 black patent-leather crocodile backpacks adorned with dots and pills for Just One Eye, added shopkeepers to their multihyphenated careers when they unveiled a midcentury-inspired boutique for The Row on Melrose Place last May.

Ignoring the naysayers who reduce her current efforts as being the next Maxfield, Russo continues to move forward. Her latest collaboration is a $12,500 survival kit that took three years to perfect as she strove to concoct something different from what is readily available at Home Depot — a lot cheaper. Her necessities include a cashmere blanket designed by Raif and a night vision monocle that’s powerful enough for a Navy SEAL to use. Provisions for pets can be added to the backpack for an additional $500. Of the 100 kits that Russo plans to produce, 10 have already been claimed by the well-heeled lying in wait for the apocalypse. Plus, they’re very fashionable. “The designers are inspired a lot by the military,” she said.

Besides, she said, “In the end, everybody wants the same thing, which is to succeed [and] have the best product.”

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