LOS ANGELES — Prime West Hollywood real estate. Famed brand. Experiential retail.
Fred Segal’s ambitious plans to reboot yet again checks a bunch of buzzword-filled boxes, with an announcement on the incoming flagship teeming with descriptors such as “highly curated mix of luxury products,” “iconic features” and “curated experiential retail.”
What any of this looks like is up to the imagination, but come fall 2017, a roughly 40,000-square-foot box at the corner of Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards will be the new home of a 55-year-old brand that at one time defined California casual.
The boutique mall, of which 22,000 square feet are leased by the company, with the remainder — while still operating under the Fred Segal flag — are separate deals with the building’s landlord. The mix — the specifics of which are forthcoming — will include temporary and permanent shop-in-shop concepts that will consist of multibrand retailers and individual brands, according to Fred Segal president John Frierson. A glance at the company’s site could portend the direction of the merchandising mix with the Schott NYC, Clare V., Stephen Kenn and Retrosuperfuture brands played up there. The store will also see a bakery-café concept, Tartine coffee bar, gym, salon, wine shop, florist and restaurant.
News of a third flagship in Japan was also disclosed in a separate release, although Frierson said expansion in Asia is not at the forefront of the company’s strategy.
“First and foremost, we want to be strong in L.A.,” he said. “So that’s really our primary goal in the next couple of years…but we have already started building a business in Asia and we certainly intend to keep doing that.”
Fred Segal has tried its hand at a few tactics in recent years but it hasn’t won over everyone.
“They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks versus taking an ongoing name with respect for the heritage, having around the people who actually pioneered it and are still catering to those customers,” said Ron Robinson, who began working for Fred Segal as a salesman in 1968 before working his way up to vice president and later operated his own namesake store within the Melrose and later Santa Monica locations. “It’s just baffling.”
Robinson, along with Ron Herman and the late Ron Ross, helped founder Fred Segal develop the shop-in-shop concept that became synonymous with the Fred Segal boutiques. Robinson initially handled men’s sportswear and later brought in kids and cosmetics, Herman did the buys for women and Ross did men’s wear. Over the years, all three built personal brands in their own right as did so many after.
The story of the Fred Segal brand and business is a bit of a tricky one to navigate.
The Segal family sold the rights to the brand to Sandow Media in the spring of 2012, during which time an ambitious plan was outlined to develop a global business via Fred Segal-branded apparel and other products. In 2014 a partnership was struck with investor Evolution Media Partners — a joint venture between the bank Evolution Media Capital along with Creative Artists Agency, TPG Growth and Participant Media.
It’s been a bit touch-and-go since. The company went into the SLS Las Vegas hotel in 2014, exiting the property the following year. Last February it was confirmed a flagship would be planted in Playa Vista in a deal that dissolved with the switch to West Hollywood. Frierson confirmed, “We love Playa Vista and that’s an interesting place, but we needed to build a flagship.”
The need for one is certainly pressing given the sole representation of the brand in the U.S. is the store at Los Angeles International Airport. That’s not counting the former Melrose Avenue location if the company has its way in court to force the building’s new owner to remove the Fred Segal signage. The Santa Monica outpost shuttered earlier this year with that building’s owner looking to redevelop the property.
Then there is the Fred by Fred Segal apparel line — denim, cashmere crewnecks and bodysuits ranging from $50 to $425 — unveiled to the market in August, with a launch party held in November. Frierson, when asked about the branded apparel’s performance since its launch called it a private label endeavor.
Perhaps key to the retailer’s reinvention is former Ron Herman operations executive Allison Samek, who joined the company about a month ago as chief executive officer.
“We’re just so excited to have her because she really has specific knowledge having worked in the Fred Segal building and world for years,” Frierson said, referencing Samek’s time at Ron Herman.
He pointed out Samek’s strong “understanding of what Fred Segal is and what it isn’t.”
What it is has certainly changed over the years. Fraser Ross, who founded the popular Kitson chain in 2000, recalled being told by a showroom operator when he came to Los Angeles to start his business he wouldn’t make it if he competed in the same space as Fred Segal, seen then as the purveyor of Los Angeles cool. Even as Ross still views it as competition against his new concept Kitross, the power of the Fred Segal brand within the marketplace is not what it once was, he said, pointing out it’s not enough to assemble a bunch of popular brands under one roof.
“You’ve got to adhere to the market you’re in and you can’t be hoity-toity and have the best Frame denim collection out and think that’s it,” Ross said. “You’ve got to make the store be that L.A. vibe and they didn’t do that in Vegas. I think the brands [going in as shop-in-shops] are going to have a hard time….It’s all changed because we have the internet. I don’t want to downplay the brand. I think it’s gone in a transition and Ron Robinson and Ron Herman are owners and hands-on businesses and that’s what you need today. You’ve got to pound the pavement.”
Some, such as Jeannine Braden — fashion director and buyer at Santa Monica-based boho retailer Planet Blue and the former operator of the Fred Segal Flair store at the Santa Monica location for 17 years — views the move to West Hollywood as a potential positive for the brand and a better real estate choice over Playa Vista, although admitted “It’s been kind of confusing what they’ve been doing.”
Still, she’s optimistic about the brand’s prospects.
“It looks superglamorous,” she said of the new locale. “It looks, of course, not as grassroots as Fred Segal was. Fred Segal, the magic was the authenticity and you can’t just buy authenticity so either you need to talk to people at a more grassroots level and bring some of that back in or maybe it’s [about] the new Millennial perception.”
Braden recalled being approached by executives at Sandow early on after the acquisition as they researched the brand’s heritage but hadn’t been in touch since on anything related to offers of coming back for either Playa or West Hollywood.
Robinson was approached to join the Playa store to do children’s.
“I looked at the deal and it said, ‘Here’s the space you’ll have. It will be smaller than what you have now,’ and I questioned that, ‘and here’s the bag you’ll use.’ And it was all packaged as something that wasn’t me and I had to pay money for that,” he said. “That was on top of it all. I figured if you wanted me to do all that, give me some money. I’m not being totally facetious; I’m being a little bit.”
Robinson said he inquired about cosmetics, a category he helped bring initially to Fred Segal, and was told a different brand would handle that at Playa Vista. He said he respectfully declined the offer and said he has not been approached about West Hollywood.
What happens to Fred Segal is of interest personally to Robinson — from the standpoint of someone who was there from nearly the beginning of what the retail concept is known for today — but also professionally as someone whose own brand was incubated and cultivated under the Fred Segal umbrella like so many others. However, as his own brand grew, the confines of requirements to use Fred Segal-branded bags or even just operating with the Fred Segal signage out front became more of a hindrance to individual brand growth than it was a platform for expansion.
And that’s where much of the confusion in the marketplace now exists. Is Ron Robinson or Ron Herman — two of the stalwart retailers under the Fred Segal umbrella — part of or the same as Fred Segal? Even American Apparel founder Dov Charney, who operated a business for decades in Los Angeles, admitted recently he was always confused by the relationship between the brands, wondering aloud if Ron Herman is part of Fred Segal.
“It’s important that there’s respect for [brands’] heritage,” said Charney, who should know considering his own battles throughout the last year to reinsert himself back into the company he founded and was fired from. “It’s not just one person always. It’s about a team. I think that’s critically important.”
And there’s the rub for business owners such as Robinson, who is now more focused on his own brand and building out the flagship, named Ron Robinson, that he opened in Santa Monica in late 2014, if the roots of the Fred Segal business are not going to be respected as he asserts.
Robinson, originally from El Paso, met Fred Segal in 1967 through a friend and a year later ended up getting a job at the Fred Segal Men’s Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, the precursor to the Melrose store.
“I learned a great deal from him,” Robinson said of Segal. “I made it a point to learn a great deal from him. I looked at him as a thoughtful inventive, creative individual — and he is.”
The tricks of the trade are something Robinson is himself now proficient at, having cultivated an oasis of cool curiosities—ranging from apparel and fine jewelry to gifts and tech gadgets — at his stand-alone Santa Monica store on Fifth Street, which has hosted yoga on Saturdays and served as a gallery at times for launches such as this past summer’s debut of a collection of mixed-media photographs of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“Running a fashion business, it’s not like an octopus where this tentacle does dot.com and this tentacle over here does retail leasing and this one over here does some jeans and then we’re going to call it all Fred Segal and it’s just going to be cohesive,” Robinson said. “This comes from myself getting up in the middle of the night going, ‘Sh-t, this is what we should do. This would be really cool. Why don’t we do that?’ And then convincing three other people in my group that this would be cool to do….It’s coming from the soul and coming from the core rather than trying to put it all together and sewn together. That’s the difference and that’s the disappointment and that’s the hurt.”
It was never about renting out space or creating a formula with stuff on a shelf that motivated that initial group, Robinson said.
“The ideas for the things we would do were all communicated between this group — myself, Ron Ross, Ron Herman and Fred,” he said. “Where are we going with this [retail concept]? What’s new and different? Walking around shows, talking, going out to dinners, going out to have a drink, whatever — all of this time spent just thinking about how to make this thing uniquely different.
“It was a wonderful time and it was a wonderful idea….Over the years, the work that I did became much more valuable to the [Fred Segal] umbrella than it did to myself. I’ve switched and changed that now.”
That melting pot of creativity is what some like Robinson believe is missing. Frierson sees it differently.
“I think if you look back at Fred Segal over the years it was constantly changing and constantly reinventing and constantly bringing new things to life so that’s part of our story,” he said. “What we’re going to be two years from now is not what we were two years ago. It’s an ever-changing and fresh attitude that Fred had so I’m just really excited that we’re going to have a home where we can do that again. Where we can really create some excitement.”
When asked if the characterization that the brand is in need of a reboot was accurate, Frierson stuck to the same sentiment: “I think that we are more excited than we have ever been about Fred Segal and the opportunity to do unique programming, expose new brands, have new partners — all in a new location on Sunset. So I think we have a very excited team right now. I think that’s how we feel.”