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Ron Herman: Retailer as Editor

With 35 years in the business, the quest for newness continues.

Ron Herman

As the sales catalyst for many of the denim brands represented at the WWD Denim Forum, Ron Herman received praise for his efforts to outfit consumers in cutting-edge jeans brands, anniversary wishes and a plea to nab space in his store. Herman, whose 14,000-square-foot flagship on Melrose Avenue and Crescent Heights Boulevard in West Hollywood is celebrating its 35th anniversary, kicked off the daylong session at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles last week with a short video presenting his jeans-centric retail concept that embodies the Southern California lifestyle and highlighting his tight relationship with leading denim designers, including Adriano Goldschmied.

Goldschmied, who has set up an installation of GoldSign and Citizens of Humanity merchandise in Ron Herman’s flagship to mark the store’s anniversary, first encountered Herman in the early days of Herman’s business and was one of several influential European jeans designers Herman introduced to American shoppers. “I was showing my line in Milan. We never had a customer in America,” recounted Goldschmied in Herman’s opening video. Goldschmied, who playfully calls Herman “Mr. Sneakers” for the white sneakers he regularly wears, continued, “An American guy buying jeans in Italy was not making any sense to us.”

But Herman followed his instincts in bringing European flair to classic jeans shopping. After scouring Europe for denim brands in the late Seventies, “Ron came back and was just a different person,” Carol Herman, Ron’s wife and business partner, said in the video. “The lightbulb went on.”

The denim he brought back to the U.S., Herman said, was “different” and “meaningful.” “It wasn’t so functional,” he explained.

Herman’s quest for jeans abroad — and at home — that spoke to the Southern California aesthetic made his store distinct. “We are like a denim resort, a denim spa,” said Herman, discussing the idea behind Ron Herman, which has five stores in Southern California and three stores in Japan. “It’s important for a specialty store to be connected to the community it exists in. I’m very lucky because I get to live in California and our style of life is perfectly suited to denim.”

Herman said what’s kept him in the retail industry — and, more specifically, seeking out new denim brands and styles to sell — is that it is constantly evolving. “One of the things about denim is that it changes. It feels like it’s been around for 200 years, and it is the most changing area of our business that exists,” he said. And Herman encouraged denim producers to continue changing and pushing the envelope. “Embrace it. Have courage. Take risks,” he said.

As a specialty store owner, Herman has relied on his instinct in choosing brands and has focused on denim because, as he said, “I enjoy denim.” He’s well aware that specialty stores must change and freshen up their merchandise to attract shoppers time and time again. “I get to change my store about as often as I get to change my mind and that’s a responsibility. It’s an obligation actually because a specialty store is about invention. It’s not just about inventory,” he said.

Herman indicated that specialty stores remain important arbiters of style, even as many disappeared from the shopping landscape during the Great Recession. He explained their strength is that they create a unique experience and tell a story to shoppers. “A specialty store should have a personality, and a multibrand specialty store should have a point of view and, to that extent, we’re all editors,” he said.

At a store such as Ron Herman that’s become a landmark, that point of view has to speak to all sorts of shoppers across demographic divides. “Shopping is entertainment, like movies. So families come, I would say we’re probably servicing up to four generations of people who have shopped here, and that makes it very, very exciting,” said Herman. “We wanted to make it a destination.”

Herman said the trick to operating a successful specialty store is to make shoppers “feel comfortable, while at the same time we are challenging them to try something different and new.” The key also is to meet the needs of men and women. “They expect different things today,” he said. “A woman walks into a store and she says, ‘You know, I want to see what’s new.’ A guy walks into a store, and he says, ‘You remember those jeans that were here five years ago? Do you still carry those jeans?’”

Herman underscored that he is receptive to new denim entrants — and surprised that there seem to be more and more. “For me, an open-to-buy means open. Otherwise, it would have been called closed-to-buy. We are never really closed. The truth is, if we see something new and we love it, we buy it,” said Herman.