In a city steeped in jazz, cocktails and Cajun cuisine, the Friend men’s wear shop has managed to become a New Orleans destination. It’s an unconventional, contemporary, urbane approach to selling casual weekend wear that drives the business.
“We have a lot of items that are unique to the store from brands that other stores in other cities may carry, but we don’t pick the best sellers off their lines,” said Parker Hutchinson, founder of the four-year-old Friend, explaining his merchandising philosophy. “We pick the things that fit into our idea of being fun, adventurous and a little bit playful, and that other stores might eschew.”
According to Hutchinson, for the past 10 years Americana and heritage styles have done well in men’s wear. “We really steer away from that and go for other styles that are fresh, clever or bright. We try to bring a vibrancy.”
The store sells such lines as Cuisse de Grenouille, a Paris-based surf-inspired casual line with whimsical graphics; 18 Waits, a Canadian label with bright patterns, colors and craftsmanship, and Gitman Bros., a long-standing American shirtmaker known for solids and plaids, though Hutchinson opts for Gitman’s bolder West African and Caribbean tinged prints.
Friend also sells Alex Crane, a New York collection emphasizing linen and uniform basics for work and play; Corridor for city life-inspired trim lightweight shirts, and Burkman Bros. for an “easy masculine” appeal.
In addition, “I work with a lot of local makers doing cool items like incense burners and personal effect boxes,” Hutchinson said, noting he encourages local illustrators to create T-shirt and sweatshirt designs just for the store. Swimwear, accessories, duffel bags, cologne, novels, vinyl records and cassettes by talents in the area are sold “to incorporate some of my other passions,” Hutchinson said.
The appeal has been strengthened since Friend relocated from 2115 Magazine Street to 600 Carondelet Street, at the new Ace Hotel in June. The hotel is in a historic building in New Orlean’s warehouse district. Next door to the hotel is Stumptown Coffee, also in a historic building, followed by Friend, then the Freda women’s boutique which has a second store in Marfa, Tex., and Defend New Orleans, a casual women’s and men’s wear boutique also known as DNO. Those three stores are in the newly constructed building with hotel rooms above.
The 800-square-foot Friend space, designed by Hernandez Greene, has raw concrete floors, custom mill work, vintage doors, a grand hutch for storage and display, clapboard walls, 15-foot tall ceilings and large transom windows letting light flow in.
“Last year, when I was approached by the Ace Hotel to be involved in new property in the central business district, it seemed like a great fit. They like our style and customer,” said Hutchinson, who divides his time between being a lawyer, involved in commercial litigation and mass torts, and a merchant, supervising the buying and sourcing, and working with suppliers to get exclusive product.
Along with its loyal following in town, Friend now draws more visitors from out of town by virtue of being at the Ace and close to other hotels, office buildings and the French Quarter. In addition, the trolley runs right by the store. “This block is pretty wild. People are coming and going,” Hutchinson said.
He said the store attracts a range of customers, from teens to retirees. “Most of my styles translate across the board,” Hutchinson said. So do his prices, which are generally less than $200.
The hotel location requires an expanded schedule of operations. “It will be well worth it,” Hutchinson said. The store is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
In its prior location, Friend last year generated roughly $250,000 in sales, including the web site. “We’re hoping to increase our revenues by 50 percent this year,” Hutchinson said.
The business climate in the Big Easy gives him confidence. “It’s improved drastically for merchants. New ventures are popping up. The new South Market district is showing great signs of responsiveness for the public. We are in an area that has been pretty vacant, a little neglected for a while, with great bones. There’s probably more people moving here than ever. Businesses are opening up everyday. People living here have not been used to that kind of choice.
“It’s competition for dollars here,” he added. “Definitely, this is a food, beverage and music city. People love to eat and drink here, so it’s great to be situated among so many restaurants, bars and cocktail lounges,” Hutchinson observed. “It’s a great tie-in and we kind of serve as cultural guides to what’s going around town. There’s nothing people from New Orleans love more than talking about their city and showing people what to do.”