Counter Culture

A collection of stores that get it right in half a dozen cities.

A collection of stores that get it right in half a dozen cities.

São Paulo, Brazil: Adriana Barra
Adriana Barra is a São Paulo boutique whose eponymous, boho chic–inspired apparel has become a must-have for many young, upmarket women. Barra, the brand’s stylist, opened the boutique in 2001, bucking the rage for clinging, revealing outfits. Barra believed there was a market for looser, flowing clothing featuring forward prints that are heavy on florals. Now, her 1,300-square-foot shop grosses $3 million a year. The rustic boutique, tucked inside a cozy villa, looks like the living room of an ex-hippie globe-trotter: bamboo walls, wooden closets, a curving wooden Balinese sofa, Persian throw rugs, a tree-trunk coffee table, an aquarium and her pet golden retriever.

Customers cross a carp-filled, banana tree–fringed, concrete pond to get to the dressing rooms.

The shop’s style also is reflected in the Barra’s current winter 2007 collection, which is heavy on eveningwear. “My collections bring back a flowing, feminine look, with slightly forward prints, that can make a woman look sexy and contemporary without her having to reveal her body or its contours,” says Barra.

Fashion consultant Helena Montanarini agrees: “Adriana Barra’s long, floor-length, printed dresses caused young women, who had been wearing stretch and body-hugging ready-to-wear, to switch to this alternative-chic look, which feels more modern and still looks sensual.”

In April, Barra opened a 650-square-foot space, designed like a Mediterranean cliff house, in Rio de Janeiro. It features white concrete sitting ledges instead of chairs or sofas and a wooden outdoor pool below a wooden deck.

Barra also intends to boost exports, having already sold to 28 foreign boutiques, among them Matches in London and Harvey Nichols in Dubai. To prepare for the export push, Barra will have a showroom at the upcoming Paris Fashion Week, as she did at London Fashion Week in 2005 and last year. —Mike Kepp

Milan: Democratic Department
As its name suggests, this new concept store aims to make fashion “more democratic,” allowing people to look cool without spending a fortune.

“Save the fashion, kill the price!” is the slogan of the 4,305-square-foot store, decorated with a fuchsia chandelier, cactus plants and Goodyear rubber sofas, and showcasing a selection of brands such as the Dutch G-Star, Swedish Cheap Monday, American Ed Hardy and Brazilian Colcci.

“Our goal is to offer a smart price for a trendy product as an alternative to the usual mass products offered in low-cost stores such as Zara and H&M,” says Paolo Giacopelli, one of the owners.

The two-floor multibrand boutique opened in March in Milan’s cool Corso Como shopping area. It is the first of a new concept that Giacopelli and his partner, Vittorio Fabbrini, developed after founding a chain of hip vintage boutiques called Docks Dora, consisting of two doors in Turin, one in Milan and four in Japan.

The first Docks Dora shop was born in 1993 in Rogoredo, a suburb of Milan. The store was a pioneer in introducing Italy to the vintage concept, offering secondhand pieces and cultivating a following with fashion insiders looking for retro inspiration.

“Democratic Department is different from Docks Dora for its wide range of emerging brands and its trendy and urban style,” says Giacopelli, who works with Fabbrini to select new brands for the store. To satisfy their young and choosy clients, they travel all around the world attending trade shows such as CPH Vision in Copenhagen and Bread & Butter in Barcelona. They confess to a preference for Northern European labels offering great-fitting pieces such as Numph and Object.

For those after vintage finds, Democratic Department stocks Docks Dora’s limited edition exclusive pieces created from vintage fabrics, like a sleeveless top made of silk ties for 45 euros, or $60. As for the other brands Democratic Department carries, prices run from 14 euros, or $18.82, for a white cotton top to 80 euros, or $107, for a beige silk knee-length short-sleeved dress. Denim starts at 55 euros, or $74, for a pair of Cheap Monday jeans to 70 euros, or $94, for a pair from Paper. New customers also can sign up for a membership card offering a 20 percent discount off their first purchase. —Vanessa Silva

Hamburg, Germany: Area 51/Feldenkirchen
If the premium denim market is slowing down, the news hasn’t hit Andreas Feldenkirchen or his jeans-loving customers.

The 38-year-old retailer, who founded and runs the three (soon to be four) Feldenkirchen stores in Hamburg with his ex-wife, Claudia, was one of the first to directly import American jeans labels such as Seven For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Paper Denim & Cloth into Germany. And, while Feldenkirchen is known for spotlighting edgy designer collections like Chloé and 3.1 Phillip Lim, jeans and T-shirts always have been a key part of the merchandise mix.

“Our budget for T-shirts is crazy. We sold 5,000 T-shirts and more than 3,000 pairs of jeans in this store, without the outlet,” Feldenkirchen says, while hanging out in the original store at number 51 Poststrasse. But, while they offered selected items from about 100 brands in less than 1,000 square feet, the Feldenkirchens jumped at the chance to branch out in a younger and sportier direction when the Chinese design store two doors down (but still at number 51) quit the premises.

Men’s wear already had been moved to new quarters around the corner and a men’s denim bar is set to open further down Poststrasse in the near future. The neighboring space at number 51 was first used as an outlet store until a new lease was negotiated.

“We only kept the basic construction and the chandeliers, as they were too difficult to move. Plus, the contrast is nice,” Feldenkirchen comments of the huge, inset crystal light fixtures that illuminate the otherwise low-key space outfitted in basic spruce. “Spruce is cheap, cheap, cheap, but we hard-waxed it so it’s totally ecological,” he notes.

The focus is very clearly on the merchandise, cleanly presented on simple trestle tables, built-in shelves and standard racks. While the main store continues to stock Seven, Citizens of Humanity, J Brand and Gold Sign jeans, Area 51 has an 18-label lineup that also includes Acne, C&C California, Chip & Pepper, Dondup, Siwy, Radcliffe, Sass & Bide and True Religion. The shop’s top denim sellers are Seven and True Religion, but “we have customers that buy every new line, like Siwy, which is really going strong. They’ll buy one pair to try it out, and then come back and buy five or six for different lengths to wear with different shoes. They really pay attention to how they wear their jeans,” he says.

However, Area 51—named for the American air base in New Mexico rife with UFO rumors, as well as the store’s street number—is by no means a jeans-only shopping stop. Splendid, C&C California and Linq lead the T-shirt pack, while Velvet, Graham & Spencer, Alice San Diego, Isli, Sarah Arnett and Nu Collection offer some of the dress and top highlights. Accessories and “extras” include funky Shemagh scarves, a hot item since last fall; Cosabella strings and thongs; washed leather bags by Sissi Rossi, plus accessories and apparel by Juicy Couture.

“This is a bit of trial and error at the moment,” he says of the new shop, which he’s projecting will generate 1.5 million euros, or about $2 million, in sales its first year. As a retailer, Feldenkirchen always has made it a policy to introduce new brands each season, regularly attending all the European fashion fairs as well as frequently traveling to the U.S. to scout for new labels. And, having just set up his own agency, the search will only be intensified.

“But we have a devotion and dedication to T-shirts and denim,” he says of the Feldenkirchen team and multidoors. “We love it, we sell it and we know there’s a market for it. And if others say jeans are over, that’s just better for me!” —Melissa Drier

Costa Mesa, Calif.: Evocal

South African–born artist Brett Walker and his mother, Beverly Walker, launched Evocal, a store and performance space hybrid in Costa Mesa, as a way to promote the innovative underground artists they had encountered in Southern California and beyond.

“Artists aren’t usually compensated for their work, so they sit underground with it,” says Brett Walker, a graphic artist who worked as a surfboard and apparel designer for action sports brands including Gotcha before launching Evocal. “We started thinking about how to create a link from artist to buyer. We’re committed to giving artists a voice.”

The resulting concept, which the Walkers opened in August, marries independent artists with grassroots production. The retailers contract work from indie artists such as Anthony Uranga, a graffiti artist who writes under the name Damet, and screens their pieces onto T-shirts and hoodies produced in limited runs. Prices start at $28 for T-shirts designed by less-established artists, but can vault to slightly more than $100 for in-demand pieces.

While most of the artists have a background in graffiti, pedigree is a relative concept at Evocal. One of the best-selling T-shirt collections features abstract work from Luke Bernard, Walker’s four-year-old nephew. “People are into his work,” he says. “He now is a four-year-old with his own bank account.”

A large majority of the store’s merchandise—including funky furniture and stained glass art pieces designed by Walker—is produced in the company’s own warehouse, located in Costa Mesa. The store also features work from outside designers that embody its unshackled spirit. Designer Shiva Schuck, for one, creates a line of reworked vintage tops and dresses, along with bold jewelry made by combining elements from vintage pieces.

More than half of the roughly 2,000-square-foot space is dominated by a bohemian-vibed performance space flanked by low-slung couches and chairs. A small stage hosts regular performances by local bands and a weekly drum circle. In the warmer months, kids file into the store’s grassy, fenced-in backyard for art classes, taught by some of the artists featured in the store. “We’re trying to promote a positive outlet for graffiti,” notes Walker, who also uses the backyard as a party spot for his creative pals. “One of the reasons we’re located where we are, in a strip mall, is so we can be really loud.” —Emili Vesilind

New York: Kaight
For the environmentally conscious, it can be a challenge finding a wardrobe to satisfy the inner fashionista while being kind to Mother Earth at the same time. Kate McGregor knew this struggle all too well: “I was shopping for these kinds of clothes and was not finding them.”

So last August, 32-year-old McGregor opened Kaight in New York’s Lower East Side. The former editor and financial reporter is devoted to developing the image of “green” fashion by housing eco-friendly collections such as Linda Loudermilk, John Patrick Organic and Serfontaine (the store’s best-selling jeans). Along with organic cotton, ecological wood-based fiber and end-of-run fabric ensembles, she offers repurposed jewelry and handbags as well as made-to-order shoes by Beyond Skin. Prices range from $30 for a pair of recycled metal earrings by Annabuilt to $750 for a silk dress by Dutch company Noir Illuminati. For the eco-minded man, McGregor recently added Loomstate jeans and SDN vintage T-shirts enhanced with silk screens. “I’m slowly working men’s in to see how guys react. I’ve had a pretty good response.”

McGregor says all the lines she carries at Kaight use textiles that are gentle on the environment. Even the boutique itself was constructed ecologically with bamboo floors, reclaimed wood furniture—which includes a desk made out of leftover flooring—and walls of low-VOC, or volatile organic compounds, paint.

“When I was a teenager, I had all the books about things you can do to save the planet. Then when I went to college in Colorado [University of Colorado in Boulder], that was definitely the sensibility of all the residents there,” McGregor explains. Last fall, McGregor took her message to potential customers by holding “lobby events” at The Solaire and The Verdesian condominiums in TriBeCa, both of which are environmentally advanced. “I’ve been reaching out to those residences because that’s my target market. It’s not for selling purposes, but more to start a dialogue with people. They want to understand what they’re buying and what the whole philosophy is behind the store.”

Although McGregor is happy to get the message out there and see a change in shopping patterns, she is concerned about green clothing and stores becoming “trendy.”

“You’ll have people who are becoming involved that may be insincere and just want to capitalize on the trend,” she says. “Places like Wal-Mart carry organic cotton and they’re lobbying for the government to reduce the legislation in terms of what labels something organic cotton. If that happens, it’s really not positive because it kind of defeats the purpose.”

As with any type of new fashion, a store dedicated to eco-friendly collections could be a dicey proposition. “I’m not concerned about that because half of my customers just buy the clothes because they like them and it’s an added bonus that they happen to be organic. I love it when people say this is a trend because that makes it sound like it’s a negative thing and it’s a really positive thing. It’s only going to get better.” —Tara Bonet-Black

Johannesburg: Ayoka
When Florida-born thirtysomething Catherine Langston gave up her job in plastics and packaging in 2002 and came to Africa on an extended holiday, she was impressed by how modern the retail landscape seemed to be in Johannesburg. There were expansive malls, she noted, gleaming shop fronts and well-lit stores. But she soon discovered that, apart from Levi’s and Nike, there were no shops selling hip American brands. “I didn’t see one name I recognized,” she says. “No Calypso, no Theory, no Susana Monaco. I went back home to the States thinking this would be an amazing opportunity to open a store in Johannesburg and bring in all these lines from the U.S.”

Langston returned to South Africa in September 2004, armed with the design for her store, Ayoka, and an idea of the clothing lines she wanted to carry. In November 2005, after less than a year in Village Walk, a cozy, manageable arcade in the central business district of Sandton, Langston moved Ayoka to its present location in the newly opened Atholl Square nearby. Dotted with chic cafes and restaurants, Atholl Square is popular among the city’s stylish air-kissing set, who also flock to Langston’s store for the latest fashions from America as worn by celebrities.

This June she opens a second Ayoka boutique in the resort enclave of St. Francis Bay, in the southeast area of the country, where Langston now lives part-time. And she is scouting around for a spot in Cape Town.

Ayoka bowed with a collection of True Religion jeans, Christian Celle for Calypso and Velvet by Graham and Spencer. Being the first to introduce True Religion to South Africa, she sold them then at $200. “They were wildly popular,” she says. A distributor stepped in soon after and today, a pair of True Religion jeans starts at 2,300 South African rands, or $310 at current exchange. She now stocks dresses by Nicole Miller, Miguelina, Ingwa Melero and Michelle Jonas; T-shirts by Michael Stars, Paul Frank and Velvet; separates by Robert Rodriguez and Theory; resortwear by Calypso; swimwear by Melissa Odabash, and lingerie by Cosabella, to name a few. This season, she also is carrying Alice and Trixie, Hallebop and Hudson Jeans. Langston also has introduced newer premium denim brands such as Rock & Republic, J Brand, Earnest Sewn, Paige Premium Denim and Raven Denim. Her Raven Denim stock, in fact, sold out in less than three months, which took her by surprise.

“My goal is to bring in the ultimate in denim and T-shirts, as well as hot tops and dresses. I focus on what’s really hot right now, what the stars are wearing and what works best for the African climate,” Langston says. She identifies Ayoka’s clientele as the young and hip 18-to-40 demographic, with the 25-to-35 age group making up her core customers.

She adds that Ayoka tries to keep prices as reasonable and streamlined as possible, despite the high import duties—anywhere from 40 to 80 percent on clothing. A Nicole Miller cocktail dress, for instance, retails for 3,000 South African rands, or $405; a Velvet top for 550 South African rands, or $74; a Melissa Odabash bikini for 1,200 South African rands, or $162, and a Paul Frank T-shirt for 450 South African rands, or $61.

A celebrity connection helps, she says, because often customers come in asking about a dress Nicole Richie was photographed in, or a pair of jeans Sienna Miller wore at a movie premiere.
She attributes Ayoka’s success in South Africa to “being the first in the country with something different.” Her customers, she says, are “people who are looking for clothing that is different and unique.” —Bambina Wise