LOCATED IN THE HEART OF DENVER’S LODO NABE, LARIMER SQUARE IS A MAGNET FOR PARTY-GOERS, AS WELL AS STYLE HOUNDS ON THE PROWL FOR FASHIONABLE FINDS.
Byline: Melissa Knopper
At the turn of the century, Larimer Square was a place to avoid at night. “It used to be Denver’s skid row,” said Denise Snyder, who owns Mariel, a popular boutique in the area. But now, this revitalized shopping district in Denver’s Lower Downtown (known locally as LoDo) has become a hot spot for shopping, dining and nightlife. Larimer attracts thousands of tourists because of its rich history, elaborate Victorian architecture and proximity to sites, including the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the Colorado Convention Center and Coors Field, home to baseball team the Colorado Rockies.
Since the one-block strip (it is a strip, not a square, as its name suggests) was first renovated in the Sixties, developers have worked hard to offer a vibrant mix of shops and services. Located on Larimer Street between 14th and 15th Streets, Larimer Square currently has a few upscale chains, including Ann Taylor and Z Gallerie. But most of the street is lined with restaurants and specialty boutiques. Shoppers may stop by Cos Bar for a facial, pick up motorcycle gear at Iconoclast or treat themselves to sushi for lunch at Tommy Tsunami’s. Independent bookstore Tattered Cover is another popular hangout a few blocks away. When the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains, visitors may enjoy gourmet Mexican cuisine at Tamayo, one of Larimer Square’s hottest new restaurants. The area also has several hip clubs, including the Wynkoop pub and the Samba Room, a Cuban cafe with live music.
Larimer attracts a crowd that is as diverse as its assortment of shops — from skate punks and students at the nearby Auraria campus (home to the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver and the Community College of Denver) to professionals from downtown law firms and hipster loft owners. Larimer Square management makes sure store owners have plenty of customers passing their way by organizing seasonal festivals, such as the Wine Down, which features live jazz, art shows and tastings from Colorado wineries. Oktoberfest and the festival of lights also draw lively crowds.
Even during slower times of the year, merchants said they are pleased with the traffic in the area. In the Nineties, Larimer had a higher percentage of chain stores, including Williams-Sonoma, Talbots and Nine West. But when competition from nearby malls like Cherry Creek Shopping Center dampened the retail climate, Larimer Square management decided to focus on one-of-a-kind destination boutiques. In particular, they wanted to bring more high fashion to the downtown area. “Over the past three years, we’ve been bringing in a lot more fashion-forward shops,” said Margaret Ebeling, director of marketing for Larimer Square. “We’ve got some tenants who pack a major punch.”
Here’s a sampling of some Larimer Square boutiques:
When Denver women want to make sure they’ll be the only person wearing an outfit to a dressy function, they stop by Denise Snyder’s shop, Mariel, for unique formalwear with touches of lace, beading, satin and burnout velvet. “We’re known for our vintage, romantic looks and beautiful fabrics,” Snyder said.
Synder, who has been in business on Larimer Square for 20 years, used to offer mostly knits. About 10 years ago, she introduced a few bridal and special occasion lines, which now make up about one-third of her business. The bridal gowns, which often come from Europe, retail between $200 and $800. Mariel’s evening gowns are by Sue Wong, including a brown flapper-style beaded dress with a sheer panel near the hemline for $398. “When you wear her dresses, they are show-stoppers,” Snyder said. Mariel (named after Snyder’s daughter) also offers casual knits from Roni Rabl, funky T-shirts from Love Amour and footwear from Chinese Laundry and Caparros, as well as an assortment of handbags and jewelry.
Mariel’s soft dressing-friendly offerings are a draw for many local fashionistas, but the 1,300-square-foot shop’s cozy ambience — with garlands of dried flowers and twinkling white lights, racks of wedding dresses and flowing veils — keeps customers coming back. “When you come here, it’s like coming to my home — you get hugs and kisses,” Snyder said. “We don’t sell people things that don’t look good on them.” Currently, sales are up 15 percent over last year, Snyder said. She said she has never regretted being part of Larimer Square’s urban renewal, even in the early days. “It’s a great street,” she said. “It has a fun energy, so different from a mall.”
Cry Baby Ranch
Women who want to emulate the likes of Patsy Cline will find just what they’re looking for at Roxanne Thurman’s colorful shop, Cry Baby Ranch. It’s a cross between a kitschy antique shop and Robert Redford’s high-end Sundance Catalog Co. “My look is a really eclectic, edgy cowgirl look,” Thurman said. “It’s not traditional. I have funky tops and jackets — things that look great with jeans and a pair of boots.”
At Cry Baby Ranch, Thurman also sells vintage western home accessories, a line of cowboy-inspired children’s wear and quirky gifts, including an oversized cardboard statue of Dale Evans and a “Happy Trails” lunch box. But recently, she has decided to emphasize her selection of women’s clothing and Southwestern jewelry.
Western clothing purists will find some gems here, including cowboy boots by Liberty, Old Gringo and Caborca. Prices for boots range from $150 to $800 or more for a handmade pair. Country music fans will recognize a line of embellished jackets by the Nashville tailor Manuel, who designs costumes for singers like Dwight Yoakam. An embroidered, beaded red wool jacket retails for $595. Simple white Tencel shirts with silver-star buttons by Rock Mount also sell well at $175. Local college students have been snapping up sleeveless vintage western-print T-shirts by Project E for $22, Thurman said.
For spring, Thurman has scoured the Southwest to bring in Native American jewelry. Chunky turquoise chokers by Navajo artisans have been hot sellers at $195 each, she said. Another popular jewelry designer is New Mexico-based Susan Skinner, who creates necklaces and bracelets from turquoise, coral and sterling silver. Skinner’s whimsical hammered-copper bowls decorated with cowgirl charms, which sell for $288, have become a sought-after collector’s item. Other customers like to splurge on $475 hand-crafted, heart-shaped sterling silver belt buckles by Houston silversmith Clint Orms.
Over the past 12 years, Thurman has seen her store evolve from its humble beginnings as a seasonal antique stall. Today, her goal is to promote all kinds of high-quality items that embody the Western lifestyle. “Part of my long-range plan is to…bring in some really great artists that are known nationally,” Thurman said. It’s a strategy that already appears to be working: Thurman reports annual sales of $400,000.
When Nancy Paley decided to trade gloomy Midwest winters for Denver’s mountains and sunshine, she had to learn to think like a local. Paley, who owns another Edward Dorian shop in Birmingham, Mich., brought in a large selection of suits when she opened the Larimer Square location last year. In Birmingham — a wealthy, conservative suburb of Detroit — most professional women wear suits to work every day, Paley said. To her surprise, the suits didn’t sell in downtown Denver.
“I think it’s because the job market is different,” she said. “People have more casual jobs. They’re looking for daytime separates — a new pair of pants and a cute top.”
Paley still carries a few suits by edgier designers like Zion and Philippe Adec. The designers’ suits have distinctive looks, such as an asymmetrical hem, that make them stand out from the typical double-breasted blazer. An eggplant glen plaid wool jacket by Philippe Adec retails for $365, with matching pants for $195. But most of Paley’s stock in the Denver store is made up of separates and eveningwear. Some of the lines Paley carries are Poleci, Cynthia Steffe and knits by Margaret O’Leary. For spring, Paley will add a new line of lace slipdresses, camisoles and skirts by Tracey Reese. Shoes by Donald Pliner, Franco Sarto and Martinez Valero also do well in the store. “My store is stylish, but it’s not conservative, and it’s not trendy,” Paley said.
The 1,800-square-foot shop has a serene interior, with pale lavender walls and silver beaded light fixtures. “We kept the decor clean and airy so it shows off the clothing,” Paley said. To add some decorative details, she created intricate dried floral arrangements and hung some of her own original artwork on the walls. To generate word-of-mouth referrals about the new store, Paley sent mailers to potential customers, and she has started to build a loyal clientele. She said sales are up 72 percent over January 2001. Now, this Midwestern transplant is starting to feel a lot more like a native.
When rock stars perform in Denver, Hub is where they shop for the latest trendy looks. For example, Larry Mullen, Jr., the drummer for U2, recently bought a pair of jeans and had them delivered to his backstage dressing room.
This casual jeans and T-shirt emporium is popular with local college students for the same reason: Here, they can dress like their favorite divas and rock stars. Hub carries 13 different denim lines, including Earl Jean, Diesel, Seven and Holland-based G Star. T-shirts by Three Dot and Michael Stars also are hot-sellers. Dressier ‘going-out’ clothes by Miss Sixty and Betsey Johnson round out their selection.
While Hub appeals to a younger crowd, the store also attracts downtown professionals looking for the right thing to wear on casual Fridays, said manager Marco Rojas. Classic apparel by J. Lindeberg appeals to Hub’s older clientele. Retail prices range from $46 for a Michael Stars cotton T-shirt to $425 for a Reaction Kenneth Cole leather coat. Rojas said sales have been down about 15 percent since Sept. 11, but he’s hoping business will improve in the spring.
After working as a business consultant in her native Dallas, Amber Feltman bought a loft in LoDo and moved to Colorado to make a fresh start. Her original plan was to make and sell jewelry, but one day, she went out shopping and hit on an idea. Frustrated by the traffic and the sameness of Denver-area malls, Feltman wished there were more places to shop for cutting-edge fashion in her own neighborhood. So she decided to open a boutique of her own, Eve, on Larimer Square in July 2000. “I could see there wasn’t very much for residents,” Feltman said. “It seemed like the right place at the right time.”
Now, locals can find everything from a black leather biker-chic miniskirt for $250 to a sleek satin beaded gown by Mandalay for $500 in her luxurious shop. She also carries a few lines by local designers, including tops by Telluride, Colo.-based July Five and brocade bags by Denver-based Alice’s Tapestry. The store has the feel of a boutique in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, where Feltman does much of her buying. “I try to carry a majority of things you won’t find anywhere else in Denver,” she said. Feltman, who wears a size zero, carved out a niche by selling lines that offer smaller sizes for petite women. As it turns out, there was a huge demand for fashionable petites in Denver, so Eve quickly built up a loyal following. That, in turn, has caused sales to double in the past year.
Feltman’s artistic flair shines in the 828-square-foot store’s interior, which has warm, yellow walls. She hired Rolando Diaz, a friend from Dallas, to paint a large Art Deco mural of a woman’s face on the wall behind the curvaceous gold and black counter. A shimmering metallic curtain suspended from cables shields customers while they try on clothing. And they can perch on a whimsical gilded chair while trying on sexy stilettos by Charles David and fun denim patch boots by Rebel.
In 1978, when Mary Eckels purchased Gusterman Silversmiths from the original owners, Larimer Square looked more like an artist’s colony. “There was a candle maker, a weaver and somebody who made stained glass,” Eckels recalled. Today, her tiny 595-square-foot studio is the only place left in the area where customers can still watch artisans make handcrafted pieces.
At the back of the store, Eckels and another designer, Teresa Castaneda, work on their jewelry designs at a workbench. Their creative presence is a big draw for customers. About 40 percent of the company’s business comes from custom orders. The other 60 percent is from over-the-counter sales and repairs. In addition to her own work, Eckels also sells jewelry from six other designers who live in New Mexico, Montana and California. Eckels is an award-winning jewelry artist and among her winnings is an award from the Platinum Passion Design Competition for a pair of drop pearl earrings.
For customers who want something unusual, Eckels creates custom pieces, such as a pair of gray South Sea pearl drop earrings surrounded by a platinum spiral for $2,500. She also made a pendant from a piece of blue opal shaped like a fish attached to a sparkling green stone made of uvarite garnet, which retails for $1,800. Custom gold wedding bands sell for $700, but customers also may find chunky sterling silver earrings and rings for between $40 and $90.
Eckels said she pays attention to trends, like the latest turquoise craze, but keeps her designs timeless. “I’ll do a few select pieces, but in something tasteful so they will have something that will still be nice to wear after the turquoise trend peaks,” she said. With $250,000 in average annual sales, Eckels knows there would be enough demand to expand her business, but she purposely chooses to stay small. “I want to be able to give customers personal attention,” she said. “I think the public is still attracted to the notion of a place where people are still personally involved with their product.”