ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH: EUROPEAN RETAILERS TAKE OFF IN ASPEN
Byline: Hassell Bradley Wright
ASPEN, Colo. — To say that Aspen is a high-rent, high-visibility town is stating the obvious, since the rich and famous have been lining up at the gondolas and filling the seats at the Wheeler Opera House for the last 50 years.
But now, Aspen’s appeal as a year-round destination for power brokers from finance, technology and entertainment from across the country has gotten the full attention of luxury names across the pond.
In the past three years, a host of stores, many of them European, have arrived: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Lana Marks, Tod’s, Fendi, Brioni, Malo, Christopher Walling and Distractions. Chanel and Nuages had already settled in before the influx, and now pricey fashion stores are dotting Aspen’s downtown streets like beads on a Jamin Puech handbag.
The latest wave is giving some locals in this airy town a fresh case of altitude sickness, exacerbating a tight market where retail rents are already $300 a square foot.
With a local population of 7,000, Aspen doesn’t have average income figures that make any sense, because few of the people who work in Aspen can afford to live there. Gary Feldman, a residential expert with Aspen Real Estate Co., said the median price for Aspen homes as listed in the local Board of Realtors’ 2000 MLS is $3.25 million.
“In 1990, billionaires were pushing out the millionaires,” Feldman said. “Today, the billionaires have established a firm beachhead.”
Pitkin County, in which Aspen lies, had a $1 billion economy in 2000 that primarily reflected tourism and second-, third- and fourth-home construction.
South Galena Street is the strip of choice, and that’s where Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton have opened, and where Prada has signed a lease for a store in the historic Andre Building. But it’s also the epicenter of conflict between locals and late arrivals.
Lily Garfield, owner of the high-end beauty retailer Cos Bar on Galena, is a member of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and represents all retailers in town: local, national and international. She said downtown is being changed by landlords like Harley Baldwin, who owns the “Baldwin Block” downtown and who has stuffed the European stores into his Brand and Caribou buildings, and M&W Properties, a partnership between local businessman Tony Mazza and Frank Woods.
Garfield said prestigious national and international stores that can easily swing the $300-per-square-foot rents are being lured to Aspen by the downtown property owners eager to profit from the current boom.
“(The rents) are too high for mom-and-pop businesses,” she said. “Every time one of them leaves, Aspen loses something.”
Garfield has adopted a “give back” mantra. She said she is concerned because not all the prestigious, high-end stores are getting involved with the community.
“Any responsible shop owner in Aspen,” she said, “should emulate the moms-and-pops and give aid to the schools and even to families when the need is there. Not all the European shops in town do this.”
But Grace Varella, manager of Aspen’s Fendi store, said, “One of our priorities is taking care of our community,” noting that the store contributes to the Aspen Art Museum.
Tod’s, which opened Dec. 22, has already begun to participate in Aspen’s charitable events and its auctions as it does in other cities where it has stores, said chief executive officer Claudio Castiglioni.
“Aspen has a growing, year-round business, which will be helpful for our future business,” Castiglioni said. “Also, since we are new to Aspen, we have begun and will continue a client out-reach program which will enable us to use our database for mailings and to contact clients when new products come in. Aspen is definitely a growing international destination of the jet set and since it is a place where our clientele can be found, we are confident that we will have a successful boutique there.”
But Garfield also pointed out Aspen’s major drawback: a dramatic drop in sales during the off-peak months of May, October and November. “It’s brutal,” she conceded.
John Bennett, a former mayor and a vice president at the Aspen Institute, said: “Aspen is a tough marketplace. People see us in the winter and summer and think what a fabulous market it must be. They don’t see the long off seasons in fall and spring that bring the downfall of some new businesses. They do not understand there are only seven or eight good selling months.
“In fact, many businesses just close up in spring and fall. Let’s put it this way: Kentucky Fried Chicken couldn’t make it in Aspen.”
To counter some of that, Aspen’s Commercial Core and Lodging Commission is exploring a late-season “super sale” that would band downtown stores together to pump up business when the skiers are gone.
“A sale like that couldn’t hurt,” said Distractions owner Heidi Friedland. “But I am not sure it would be worth the effort.”
Nevertheless, stores feel they can survive the swings. Locals theorize that the European brand stores are loss leaders that opened just for image.
“The big companies can come here because they can afford to have a loser in order to have Aspen as a flagship location,” said Richards.
Tod’s Castiglioni said: “We are quite pleased so far and in particular with our sales of men’s shoes. However, we have only just opened and do realize we did so during peak season.”
So far, there have been no “shoot-outs” in this Western mining town between moms-and-pops like Bloomingbirds or The Freudian Slip and the upscale retailers, nor are there likely to be. And there is still one small, independent department store — Pitkin’s Dry Goods, owned by local David Fleisher.
“There is a sense that Aspen is middle and upper class, but there are a lot of shop owners who could never afford to pay what the high-end stores are paying in rent,” said Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards. “I am afraid the commonality that once was Aspen is gone forever. But water seeks its own level, and frankly, some of the choicest locations still offer the most affordable shopping. I have to admit that were it not for The Gap, Eddie Bauer and Banana Republic, Aspenites would have to drive 200 miles to Denver to buy a lot of ordinary, everyday goods.”
Nevertheless, Amy Guthrie, Aspen’s historic preservation officer, has an optimistic view of the situation, and she uses negotiations with Prada as an example.
“Things have worked out well,” she said. “We turned down Prada’s first plan for the exterior of the building they will move into at 212 South Galena Street. But they came back with a plan costing a lot more money and it involves restoring the structure to its original state.”
A Prada spokeswoman declined to comment on the Aspen store, saying only, “We expect to be in before the end of the year.”
To ease the luxury “congestion,” no one can just go out and build a glamorous big shopping center to hold all the Europeans. There is a dearth of development land: More than 80 percent of the valley around Aspen is either National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land. Brian Hazen with Coates, Reid & Waldron realtors, explained that only one-fifth of land around Aspen can be bought and sold.
The first luxury store in town was Chanel, which opened in 1994. It is still “right across the street” from Aspen Mountain. In addition, two stores owned by Aspenites, Nuages and Distractions, have been able to compete with the Europeans.
Nuages, owned by Mary Moyer, opened 14 years ago. It carries a number of European designer lines, including Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Azzedine Alaia, Alberta Ferretti, Lainey Keogh, Joseph Tricot, Blumarine, Jil Sander and Marni.
Friedland’s Distractions has been open three years and she and Moyer frequently refer customers back and forth between their two stores, adding “We locals have to stick together.”
Distractions carries lines by Chloe, Olivier Theyskens, Henry Duarte, Balenciaga, Tracy Feith, Clements Ribeiro, Collette Dinnigan, Lucien Pellat-Finet, Mayle, Maharishi, Megan Park and Fake London.
Gucci opened its store in 1998. A spokesman for Gucci said, “Aspen is a world-renowned resort and is an international destination point year round with skiing in the winter months and the art and music festivals in the summer months. It makes perfect sense for Gucci to have a presence in this market. The store carries a full range of all Gucci products.”
With its multiple brands, French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton seems to be making inroads on Aspen. Christian Dior, owned by LVMH’s parent company, shares store space on South Galena with Louis Vuitton.
John Slavinsky, senior vice president of real estate and stores for LVMH Fashion Group, said “Business has been very good. At some point, we may consider bringing in something else, but nothing new is on the drawing board.”
Patti Hecht, marketing manager for the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, said other stores are coming to Aspen for reasons similar to Gucci’s.
“They want to be identified with the name,” Hecht said. “Everyone has seen the ads carrying a retailer’s name followed by something like ‘London, Paris, Milan, Aspen.”‘
At Frette, a new, ready-to-wear fall collection will increase women’s from 10 to 20 percent of the total merchandise mix, which is primarily luxury bedding items. Already featured are silk and satin loungewear, as well as items like mules lined in clipped mink.
The luxury-filled stores are an expensive backdrop for the high-priced rents. One of the new Aspen retailers, who asked not to be identified, said the high rents have come about because Baldwin, who owns the Brand and Caribou buildings, travels to Europe to seek out fashion brands.
Baldwin, a dominant force in Aspen’s business and social circles — last Christmas, he hosted Diana Ross and Kevin Costner at his penthouse apartment in the Brand Building — is also a controversial figure. One local retailer complained that Baldwin forces tenants out if he thinks he can do better. Baldwin shrugged: “If they don’t pay, out they go.”
Baldwin said another European store is headed for Aspen, even though he has run out of space to rent. He declined to name the retailer. He is also working with two other European companies interested in Aspen.
“Aspen is the place where the best people are,” Baldwin said during a recent interview in his art-crammed apartment. “Here, they are relaxed and more effective. But I cannot take credit for the best things that are in Aspen: the mountains and the music. I think all that I did here was just make everything a bit more urbane. Today, Aspen is the most cultural small town in the world.”
Baldwin may have had an impact on the downtown retail landscape, but Mayor Richards pointed out there is a limit to development. The Aspen Area Community Plan, which contains “firm-action measures” such as the so-called Kmart Rule, prohibits the community from discriminating against chains or large businesses, but goes far enough to limit the space of downtown businesses to 6,000 square feet.
There’s also no development in the eight-block historic downtown area, which dates from Aspen’s origins as a silver mining town due to what Guthrie called a “complicated review process, plus mitigation-impact fees aimed at affordable housing for employees, parking, etc.” The fees, she explained, make it too expensive for developers, “but this is being looked at.”
There have been no moves to drive any business out of the downtown area or to curtail the European influx, Richards said. But Garfield thinks Aspen may be facing more serious problems.
“I’m talking about what the Wall Street Journal recently called the ‘luxury slump,’ and it specifically mentioned Aspen,” she said. “Sales of luxury goods are down. It is bound to affect Aspen sooner or later, and I wonder how long the momentum can keep going here.”
Bennett recalled the socks and underwear crisis after a local department store closed in the Eighties.
“People were going around complaining they could buy all the $200,000 necklaces they wanted,” Bennett added. “But they couldn’t just go out and buy boxer shorts and socks.”