Retailers on Milwaukee’s hip Brady Street are carving their niche in a mallcentric town.
When retailer Pamela Flasch first moved to Milwaukee’s Brady Street neighborhood in 1989, she was afraid to walk the streets at night. "It was terrible, with drug dealers," said Flasch.
The drug dealers are gone now, replaced with tourists, locals and wealthy "North Shore Nancies" drawn by Brady Street’s mecca of shops, restaurants and lounges.
Brady Street’s current renaissance is by no means its first. The city’s most densely populated neighborhood, it was settled about 150 years ago as an Italian community. Bounded by Lake Michigan on the east and the Milwaukee River on the west, the street served as a bridge between the well-to-do lakefront residents and poorer riverside dwellers: "Everybody met there to do their shopping," noted Mike Mervis, president of the Brady Street Area Association.
In the late 1960s, however, a new freeway cut off the area from Milwaukee’s downtown, and the area fell into decline. It saw a brief resurgence in the 1970s, when head shops and alternative boutiques attracted a hippie element.
Its current revival will be fueled by a number of city planning projects to make the area more accessible, Mervis said, among them, tearing down the expressway that initially disrupted the neighborhood. For their part, Brady Street merchants and residents remain committed to an ongoing spruce-up. Merchants are banding together to fight what is sure to soon be an encroachment of chain stores. "Taste of Brady," for example, was held on July 25. Retailers provided discounts and for $10, customers could sample food from the dozen or so restaurants on the 18-block street. "Chains only come in when local merchants aren’t as viable as they used to be," Mervis said, adding emphatically, "We will never be a chain street. We won’t let it happen."
Brothers Jason and Jesse Meyer brought contemporary retailing to Brady Street when they opened Detour, a 2,800-square-foot urban fashion haven, five years ago. The brothers had previously worked as manufacturer reps in San Francisco; they jumped to retail "because it’s easier than being a rep," joked Jason Meyer.Women’s wear, mainly denim, accounts for half of Detour’s sales, which the brothers expect to reach about $700,000 this year. The store specializes in European brands such as "Miss Sixty," G-Star, Diesel and Paper, Denim & Cloth. Hush jeans by Diesel are strong sellers at $109 a pair, as are low-slung looks by Paper, Denim & Cloth ($149). Remade denim from Karma Soul ($79 for a skirt, $69 for a halter top) and distressed T-shirts from Religion round out the product mix. The most expensive item in the store is a Miss Sixty printed denim jacket at $269. Detour’s customers hail from southeast Wisconsin, and tend to be young and well-traveled, Jason said.
The store, with its vast expanse of windows, poured-concrete floor and eccentric fixtures (outfits are displayed hanging from vintage doors), is meant to evoke the feeling of a Haight Street shop, Meyer said. The overall snazzy look leads customers to assume the store’s part of a chain, but they’re not far off: Sometime soon, the brothers plan to open an offshoot of Detour in Milwaukee.
Owners Pamela Hedges and Joanne Lukas-Szymaszek offer a mix of shoes, clothing and accessories in their 1,400-square-foot store. Popular lines include Max Studio, BCBG and Anac, as well as To the Max!, Big Star jeans and Kenzie sweaters. All told, clothing accounts for 60 percent of sales and shoes and accessories make up the remainder.
Prices range from $180 for a Max Studio dress to $46 for Awake novelty T-shirts. The average price point is about $75, Lukas-Szymaszek said.
Hedges and Lukas-Szymaszek rang up a 30 percent increase in 2001 over 2000, and expect to post a 10 percent increase this year.
Jewelry, fashion tops and lingerie crowd the 900-square-foot Miss Groove, which opened two years ago. When the store first opened its doors, however, owner Pamela Flasch offered mostly accessories and giftwear, but changed her merchandising mix when customers demanded more clothing. She’s now phasing out housewares and gift items to focus solely on lingerie, daywear and jewelry.One of her biggest brands is Cosabella; prices range from $126 for elastic-waist black viscose pants and $122 for a a matching top with lace-edged sleeves to $57 for a cotton camisole and matching boy-short bottoms. Printed novelty T-shirts by Project E ($20 to $25), printed mesh shirts by Zete ($64) and handbags by Nicole Miller, Sondra Roberts and Claudio Ferrici ($150 to $346) round out the product mix.
Jewelry lines include A.V. Max, Alexia Crawford, Cara Stimmel, M. Walgren and Sparkling Sage. Miss Groove also carries bridal accessories from Tiara Misu and Atlantis. In March, Flasch holds a bridal event complete with cake designer, florist and calligrapher: this year’s event racked up about $3,800 in sales. Thanks to the bridal event and overall robust sales, Flasch expects to post a 40 percent sales increase this year.
Dragonfly owner Annette French moved to Milwaukee from Cambridge, Mass. two years ago, in part just to open her store there.
"I thought Brady Street was the perfect place for a shop," said French. As it turns out, she was right. Sales for the 1,000-square-foot shop have doubled this year over last. The mostly vintage clothing, 75 percent of it women’s wear, runs $20 to $75 per piece. French’s favorite pieces include a green-and-white geometric print Pierre Cardin baby doll dress from the 1960s ($35) and a gray brocade wrap dress from the 1930s ($45).
A mishmash of amusing merchandise, such as vintage linens, jewelry, housewares and even sheet music, underscores the yesteryear theme. Dragonfly also carries belts and bags ($30 to $35) from Olympia, Wash.-based Queen Bee as well as tops from Boston-based Calavera ($30 to $60 for tops, skirts and dresses).
Starship, opened in 1984, still bears vestiges of the "smoke-and-pipe" shop it once was, said owner Jim Purvis. "We have customers in their 50s who know us from the old days," he said.
In modern times, the 1,900-square-foot store’s mix of trendy urbanwear and novelties appeals to a younger crowd as well. Puma, Paul Frank, Cosmic Debris and Triple Five Soul rank as the store’s most popular brands; prices for Triple Five Soul pieces range from $48 for a T-shirt and $48 for a cotton polo dress to $68 for a denim skirt. Purvis said he expects the store, one of three Starship locations in the city, to post sales of $500,000 this year.
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