A RENAISSANCE IN THE CLASSIC CITY
ATHENS, GA., IS ON A COMEBACK, THANKS TO A HOPPING MUSIC BUSINESS AND A RETAIL REVIVAL.
Byline: Georgia Lee
ATHENS, Ga. — This is known as the Classic City.
Besides its classical Greek name, the city has undergone a retail and cultural renaissance, partly sparked by its new performing arts center — the Classic Center — which opened in late 1995. And preferences for fashion include a fair amount of the classics, according to local retailers.
The downtown area, threatened with physical and economic deterioration 15 years ago, has been revitalized. Broad sidewalks, turn-of-the-century lampposts, coffee houses and entertainment-oriented retailing give the area a European flair. Coffee houses, sidewalk cafes, custom jewelry stores, old record shops and specialty clothing have all fed off each other in the past decade.
The Classic Center, which draws big-name national entertainment, has also brought more people to the hub.
Five Points, another area off campus — that’s the University of Georgia campus — is a burgeoning retail hub, with gift stores, florists and clothing boutiques and a neighborhood feeling similar to that of Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands, say locals.
A new highway, Route 316, provided more direct access from Atlanta, one hour away.
“Athens is the retail hub of northeast Georgia and benefits from its proximity to Atlanta,” said Art Jackson, executive director, Athens Downtown Development Authority. Officials estimate 14 percent of Athens’s population of 135,000 is in the 20-to-24 age range, and many businesses target this group.
One of Athens’s most unique features is its position as a music hub. Bands like the B52s and REM started the ball rolling in the Seventies, and the tradition continues today with bands like Widespread Panic. Athens has 10 recording studios and numerous live music clubs. The music scene is one of the biggest influences on the way people dress.
Athens’s style is a mixed bag of conservative-preppy-traditional on one end and casual-earthy-retro-hippie looks on the other. The city’s varying fashion camps, from college kids to grownups, are fertile ground for specialty retailers, who feel that establishing a clear niche is more important here than anywhere.
Below, four retailers talk about life in the Classic City, where classic style is only part of the picture.
“Sometimes people come here just to listen to the music, have a chocolate and relax,” said Sandra Kelly, owner of Blooming Angels. “They might not buy one thing, and that’s fine. The store is a place where people can get away from the rat race and have a moment of peace.”
Blooming Angels, tucked in a little white house in Five Points, sets out to be romantic, ethereal, charming and feminine — and it succeeds. From its handpainted ceiling border to scattered antiques to feathered angel wings hanging on the wall, the store is loaded with ambience.
Browsers can choose an “Angel Card,” and look up its meaning, while enjoying a white chocolate mint or a glass of wine, and thumb through CDs ranging from include romantic classics to Enya. The gift room is filled with lingerie, sleepwear, christening gowns and home accessories, including private label bath products and “angel dust,” decorative confetti to sprinkle around the home for parties.
Not surprisingly, clothing echoes the surroundings. Cocktail and special occasion, including unconventional bridal and bridesmaids dresses, make up 75 percent of the mix.
Looks range from flowing chiffons to sophisticated crepes to edgy corsets with ballerina skirts, from such resources as Nicole Miller, Pamela O’Brien and Chris McLaughlin. The store outfits about 20 weddings a year, offering custom-made jewelry, hats and gloves by local designers. Dressy luncheon suits are by Tina Hagen, Taiga and Nicole Miller.
Kelly also sells casual looks, including jeans, T-shirts, sweaters and shorts that students wear to class and football games. Prices average between $29 and $175, with most dresses less than $300.
Kelly, a petite brunette in her mid-30s, is focused on the niche she has created, one that is not duplicated in Athens, she said. She is as concerned with the spiritual as the commercial aspects of her business.
“I want to make women feel beautiful, and build their self-esteem, rather than have them obsess over a little bit of fat on their thighs,” she said. “I’m not afraid to express these things, but I don’t want to push it on anybody. If people are offended by it, they shouldn’t come in here.
With a laugh, she adds, “We need to keep the devils away.”
While others target college kids, IV Seasons aims for an older, sophisticated customer — locals, often associated with the university, who want classic wardrobing that can be transformed with accessories.
After 15 years in business, (eight years in its current Five Points location), owners Jackie McElwee and Rhoda Matthews know their customer.
“We’re like personal shoppers, in that our customers dictate what we carry,” said Matthews. “They depend on us to scour the Atlanta market and condense it into the best things so that they don’t have to leave here. We shop with specific customers’ needs in mind.”
The store carries more than 100 lines, but it is a look, rather than a specific brand, that attracts customers. Wardrobing and versatility are key concepts for the better-to-bridge lines. Key resources include Teri Jon, Finity Naturals, Kenar and Adrienne Vittadini. Novelty looks, such as patchwork velvet or rayon from J.A. Resort and Nothing Matches, are increasingly in demand by customers who want a specialty store look.
Although sportswear is the biggest category, special occasion is growing, a result of the opening of the Classic Center.
“We can take one jacket and pair it with jeans for a younger customer, or a skirt and a burnout velvet scarf for a more sophisticated look,” said McElwee. Accessories include bold Simon Seebag jewelry, Blair Delmonico beads and bags by The Sak.
The owners said that unique lines, service beyond the call of duty — which includes a liberal return policy and constant telemarketing — and community involvement are key to any small-town retailer. The 2,000-square-foot store, which does around $900,000 in annual sales, has posted an increase each year since its inception.
Each year, the shop sponsors a fall style event, a 360-piece fashion show benefit that includes 20 models — all customers of IV Seasons — with ages ranging from 24 to 70.
The owners, who do all their buying at the Atlanta Apparel Mart, are big proponents of regional shopping.
“We want people to stay and shop in Athens, so we feel we should do all our shopping in the Southeast as well,” said Matthews.
“Only 25 percent of Athens understands us, but that’s OK, because I know I can train them,” said Stefanie Halperin, owner of Almanac, one of Athens’s most cutting-edge boutiques.
Halperin, a daughter of the industry, with parents and an uncle in the garment business, graduated from the University of Georgia and opened her 1,800-square-foot store downtown in 1991.
“I’m the only one with a New York point of view — hip, trendy, not conservative,” she said. “Everyone else is afraid to do it, because the predominant look here is a mixture of extremely casual, from grunge-inspired hippies on one end to conservative preppies in loafers at the other end.”
With resources such as Betsey Johnson, French Connection, Bisou-Bisou, BCBG, Cynthia Rowley and Nanette Lepore, a key look is hip-hugger pants with fitted silk or satin shirts and leopard prints, as well as column dresses for evening. In accessories, sterling silver by Kerri Lyndin is a bestseller, as well as Kenneth Cole handbags.
The store is long and minimalist, with hardwood floors and white walls sprinkled with gold stars and moons. Prices, which range from $10 to $400, have recently been reduced to appeal to the college crowd, although the store often attracts wealthy kids armed with their parents’ credit cards, said Halperin.
The store often holds “Sorority Nights,” an after-hours in-store party with discounts for particular sororities, and will open for private appointments. Store employees are often sorority members as well.
“Customers who know labels respond to us immediately,” said Halperin.
Buoyed by some $250,000 in sales at the Athens store, and a 32 percent sales increase last year, Halperin opened an Atlanta location in September.
“More people are understanding what we’re doing,” she said. “I’m here to do high fashion, and I know my concept will work in other cities.”
Encore, one of Athens’s first contemporary stores, opened in 1980 at the beginning of the small retail explosion that has energized the downtown.
Before all the bars, cafes and bookstores that give the neighborhood its unique ambience opened, Kitty and John Widmer, former students, opened a store to capitalize on the student trade. Starting with accessories and gifts, the store added clothing in the early Eighties and now occupies 5,000 square feet.
The location draws a large walk-in clientele, with college kids making up 70 percent of business. In addition to clothing, the store carries accessories, shoes, gifts and swimwear.
With a mostly casual assortment, including lines such as French Connection, Esprit, CK Jeans and Urban Outfitters, the store is forward yet not cutting-edge, said Kitty Widmer.
“Athens is more conservative than the Atlanta club scene,” said Widmer.
When Gap opened downtown six years ago, Widmer began looking for casual lines that would compete in price, such as Urban Outfitters and Esprit, and more novel, boutique styling that didn’t go too far over the edge. “We want to be novel, but not stupid.”
To further distinguish the store from the basics of Gap, Encore has broadened special occasion, with simple dresses in matte crepe and satin. Shoes and gifts have also taken up the slack in slow apparel seasons.
Widmer has also broadened her assortments to appeal to an older customer, often university associates and students’ mothers. For customers who want the same hip looks as their younger counterparts, with a more generous fit, contemporary resources such as Sigrid Olsen, Kenar and Karen Kane fit the bill, said Widmer.
As a retailer in a college town, Widmer adjusts to seasonal highs and lows that go against traditional retail.
“Fall and spring are our biggest times,” she said. “With students gone at Christmas, December is one of the slowest months, and summer is slow as well.”