By  on November 14, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — Melissa and Catie Grimm have carrot farming in their blood, but they didn't want to make it their careers.

Instead, the sisters, whose father and uncle founded the world's largest grower of carrots, Grimmway Farms, in California's southern San Jaoquin Valley, decided to express their agricultural legacy in a different way. They have embarked on a designer ready-to-wear retail venture here named, of course, Carrots.

"Shockingly, we both love carrots,'' said Catie, 24, standing with Melissa, 26, on opening day last month in a neighborhood that was without fashion shopping until their arrival. "Growing up we had carrot juice every night."

Their father, Rod, who died in 1998 (their uncle Bob died last year) "would have wanted us to do what we are passionate about," Melissa said.

Although bitten by the fashion bug, neither had retail experience, aside from being astute customers during trips as teen-agers to malls in Orange County, a 90-minute drive from their home in Bakersfield.

"We spent a lot of time on Balboa Island and at South Coast Plaza," recalled Melissa, referring to the shopping centers.

Melissa was graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and trained as an accountant. Catie worked as a historian for an art dealer after getting her bachelor's degree at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Deciding to pursue their passion, the sisters found a 4,100-square-foot home for Carrots on Montgomery Street in Jackson Square, a historic area of early 20th-century small red brick buildings in the shadow of financial district skyscrapers. Architects, attorneys and publicists keep offices above and next to antiques galleries and high-end home furnishing stores.

Carrots is located on the street level of a newly renovated building with 13 residential condominiums priced from $1.25 million to $2.25 million, the only housing for blocks.

"We wanted to be off the beaten path and like being part of a design district," Catie Grimm said.

The sisters had just sent a thank-you orchid to their first customer, a lawyer who bought a gray-green cowl-neck cardigan alpaca sweater from the Italian brand Transit ($620), a cotton Transit tailored shirt ($328) and a front crisscross wrap sweater tunic by Jarbo ($250).Carrots has a subtly modern ambience, with exposed brick walls and wooden trim painted mauve, a fig tree, stamped white concrete floors and ceilings more than 15 feet in height, .

It's quite a departure from the space's previous occupant, Ernie's restaurant, where part of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller "Vertigo" was filmed. In homage, the Grimms kept the bar from which James Stewart first spotted Kim Novak, wearing a dark, backless dress with green trim. Now Carrots customers can eat a moist carrot cupcake and watch the movie played on a flat-screen TV.

As merchants, the Grimms' fashion sense has focused on designers and brands they both describe as "classic with a flare." Their fashion retail ideal is Colette in Paris and its mix of cutting-edge rtw and art.

The women's apparel lines carried at Carrots include Alberta Ferretti, Narciso Rodriguez, Peter Som, Thakoon, McQ, Nilli Lotan, Helmut Lang and Metradamo. About 60 percent of the store is dedicated to women's clothing, 20 percent to accessories and home and body and 20 percent to men's wear.

The Grimms faced challenges as first-time store owners carrying marquee designer names. And their connection to a successful family agriculture business didn't necessarily open doors. "A lot of designers won't sell to you until you're open a year," Catie said.

The sisters started their venture with 150 designers in mind — a list drawn up while daydreaming at their first jobs. Designers and wholesalers took more notice once the sisters showed seriousness by buying a commercial storefront instead of following the common practice of renting, Melissa said. Carrots manager Angie McClellan also brought invaluable contacts from her years at fashion specialty destination A'Maree's in Newport Beach, Calif., Catie said.

With 50 designers now on their roster and Stella McCartney and Kaufman Franco set to bow in spring, the Grimms are no longer viewed as strangers to fashion.

"Carrots is already getting a buzz," said Maria Tomei, chief executive officer of Thakoon. "There's nothing like that in the neighborhood."

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