FASHION WITH AN EDGE EVEN DEEP IN TEXAS
Byline: Holly Haber
HOUSTON — Don’t tell Evelyn Gorman that fashion retail is suffering.
She just moved into a store that is seven times bigger than her former space. It’s sleek and it’s chic — stocked with such trend-setting designers as Helmut Lang, Balenciaga and Imitation of Christ. And it’s a Cinderella story that seems increasingly rare these days.
Gorman opened a small, 420-square-foot boutique called “Mix: modern clothes” in her living room in Houston’s Upper Kirby district of art galleries in 1999. Though home shops are usually met with sniffs of disdain in the industry, Gorman’s little space was styled as a minimalist store with an all-white decor, and it earned a reputation for stocking edgy fashions that weren’t sold in Houston.
Comme des Garcons and its bridge line, Comme Comme, were the leading labels and remain a mainstay in Mix’s new home.
Capitalizing on a lack of retail competition for avant-garde fashions in the nation’s fourth-most-populous city (with a population of 1.78 million), Mix grew.
“What happened in that little space is I got to know my customer,” she mused. “I spend a lot of time with new customers talking about their lifestyle. If I have a customer with three children, I’m not going to sell her a white cotton suit. I’m going to talk to her about Helmut Lang jeans and a T-shirt and maybe one nice cocktail dress.”
Since Mix’s potential was cramped by its tiny space, Gorman last October signed a lease for a 3,000-square-foot former Stop ‘N Go convenience store just four blocks from her house. She forged ahead, despite the retail slowdown, disastrous floods and other problems that plagued Houston’s economy last year.
“I felt very shaky about going forward after Sept. 11,” Gorman admitted. “I thought, are people going to stop being interested in pretty things? But my customers and my husband, who is very active in my business, kept telling me, ‘You can do it’ and ‘Go for it.”‘
More recently, the fall of Enron vaporized quite a bit of wealth in the city. But Gorman said she has not felt that particular pinch.
The new Mix opened for business on Feb. 26, and Gorman is already scrambling to buy more, since she underestimated her spring inventory. She’s done best with Shirt, a unisex shirt line; Comme Comme, Helmut Lang, Balenciaga, Mayle, Sonia Speciale, Sage jewelry and Diana Broussard shoes.
“I have a waiting list for Lang’s white hopsack suit that you see everywhere in the press,” Gorman said.
She attributes Mix’s success to her personal connection with customers and resources, along with a mandate to stock only exclusive labels. To her knowledge, Petit Bateau, a French upscale children’s line that makes cotton T-shirts suitable for women, is the only label in Mix that is sold elsewhere in the city.
“It’s got to be different for me to carry it,” she affirmed. “And the people who I buy from don’t want to oversaturate the market.”
Houston women have a long-held reputation for adoring glitzy and girlie fashions, but Gorman has found an audience hungry for something different.
“There is a very sophisticated, cultured and refined woman here that I believe has been an untapped market,” she said. “A lot of my customers until now have shopped in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Milan, but not bought a lot [locally].”
Gorman aims to do $1 million in first-year sales in her new space, but she declined to reveal Mix’s revenue for last year.
The new store quickly generated a buzz not only for its expanded inventory, but also for its hip, minimalist design. Local architect Albert Marichal held a lid on costs by using common building materials in an innovative way.
Four-by-eight-foot rectangles of raw plankboard stained dark gray were nailed onto plaster to form walls, with the architect reportedly supervising the placement of each nail. Dressing rooms are separated by Plexiglas and hung with blue-gray mohair curtains suspended from steel rods and clips. A steel grid across the front window provides security at night, but slides out of sight during the day. Furnishings are modern, including a molded black leather chair and a Le Corbusier chaise and sofa.
Gorman gained maximum flexibility from the Rho merchandising system of vertical brushed-aluminum poles anchored to the ceiling and floor by tension rods. Mirrors, display vitrines and bars for hanging clothing are bolted to the poles, which can be relocated.
Mix also has a “swing” room intended for art exhibitions or book signings. An opening party on Thursday will feature a slide show and benefit Habitat for Humanity.
“I can create a large area or a small area, add vertical bars or take them away,” Gorman said. “We want to keep it simple and spacious.”