SAN ANTONIO’S STYLE UPGRADE
THE RIVER CITY IS ROLLING TO A CONTEMPORARY RETAIL BEAT.

Byline: Holly Haber

Contemporary fever has finally hit south Texas. Long typified by casual style and traditional taste, San Antonio is now doing a brisk business in more forward clothing.
It only makes sense in a city that last year eclipsed Dallas as the second largest in Texas, where the population of 1.2 million has a median age of 32. (Of course, if the greater metropolitan areas are included, Dallas is much bigger than San Antonio, whose metro population is 1.6 million.)
Traditional stalwart Julian Gold, high-fashion Tootsies, bridge and contemporary store Grove Hill Ltd. and trendy newcomer Anniegogglyn all report that their strongest action now is in contemporary clothing. But the city retains its laid-back lifestyle and passion for bright color, and that also is reflected in its stores.
“I grew up here, and there was nothing for us to wear,” complained Catharine Whittenburg, the young assistant manager in the coolest shop in town, 18-month-old Anniegogglyn. “People say our store has revolutionized fashion. The young girls want to wear fun stuff and the latest attire.”
With its novelty array of inexpensive sportswear, glittery accessories and fun shoes that reflect hot trends from Los Angeles, Anniegogglyn did more than $1 million in sales its first year and is trending well ahead of that for 2001, said owner Donna Kaler.
“My customers are so hip,” Kaler asserted. “They read InStyle and see something and they want it. We also have a lot of customers from Austin and Houston, and we’ll have a Web site by March.”
Kaler, who for eight years operated Imagination in Corpus Christi, sensed an opportunity for a trendy clothing store after she moved to San Antonio in 1997. She infused whimsy into Anniegogglyn, (a play on the Southern slang term “antigoggle,” meaning “off-kilter”), by decorating it with quirky, painted vintage chandeliers and old furniture — all of which are for sale.
For inventory, Kaler heads to Los Angeles and New York to find trendy looks at reasonable prices, like $49 printed T-shirts by John Eshaya T’s.
“My customers want me to be on the money. They want to buy four $39 T-shirts for their daughters — they don’t want each one to be $160,” Kaler noted.
But she has moved up a grade this spring by bringing D&G sportswear and shoes into the mix. Key resources are Juicy Couture denim, Eberjay and Hippies lingerie, Christiana handbags, Joomi Joolz jewelry, glitter tattoos by Melrose Body Jewels, Dirty Girl beauty products and Yellow Box shoes.
“We have to stay on the cutting edge and have what the customer wants,” Kaler noted. “Everything we do we have to keep different. Jewelry is huge — the bigger the better — especially anklets and bracelets.”
Located on Broadway, Anniegogglyn draws from the affluent communities of Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills and Olmos Park.
Julian Gold, founded in 1945 and the doyenne of San Antonio retailing, has a more conservative customer base, but is achieving its greatest growth with contemporary lines like C’est Duo, View, Cambio, DKNY and Geometrie in a department that opened four years ago. The retailer also has units in Midland and Corpus Christi and is scouting for space in Austin.
“We’re developing a younger clientele,” noted jewelry and dress buyer Cheryl Ernst, who has picked up Muse and other semiprecious jewelry lines. “We had to, otherwise we would be gone.”
Other hot areas are sportswear, bridal and lingerie, which all benefited from a 9,000-square-foot expansion in January that created a balcony bridal boutique.
“We do such an evening and mother-of-the-bride business that we had a lot of people request that we do bridal,” explained Stephen Skoda, merchandise manager. “Our only competition is mom-and-pop stores and Saks.”
The shop, which offers spacious dressing rooms and a new stationery boutique, displays looks by Reem Acra, Lazaro, Christos, plus Yolanda veils and Vera Wang bridesmaid dresses, among others. The gift area offers premium papers by Kate Spade, Anna Griffin and Surtout Pour Vous, as well as jeweled picture frames.
Right next door is a spacious meeting room built specifically to accommodate groups of attorneys, insurance executives, women’s groups and the like who have asked store employees for a place to convene.
“We make an appointment for them to meet in the morning for coffee, and then they shop afterward, and they spend,” Skoda asserted. “The room is big enough for a runway. Many of our sales staff and buyers are members of these groups. This is the way you get involved with a community.”
Bob Gurwitz, owner, added, “We sent a letter to all charities and invited them to use this as a meeting room. We feel very strongly that charities are our big focus for advertising and it is our way of giving back to the community.”
The retailer also stages big charity events, such as runway shows and in-store parties, to cater to its affluent clientele. Along with television advertising, these have become the most important marketing strategies for the company.
With the expansion, more space was allotted to such sportswear resources as St. John, Garfield & Marks and Votre Nom — the store’s biggest resource. The 30,000-square-foot store also sells such designer labels as Escada and Luca Luca, and bridge stalwarts Lafayette 148, Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman.
“Our customer is very sophisticated, and at the same time she wants to look young,” Skoda observed.
The shop covers the bases of many department stores for customers who disdain malls. It stocks cosmetics by Estee Lauder, La Prairie and Alexandra de Markoff; fragrances including Creed; handbags by Kate Spade, Monsac, Furla, Maxx and Longchamps; jewelry by Judith Jack, Ciner, Dian Malouf and locals Jan Leslie and Carroll Dorsey Walker; and shoes by Ferragamo, Pancaldi and Yves Saint Laurent. Business is so strong that in one week, the shop sold seven pairs of $365 lizard sandals by Pancaldi.
“The economy is really good,” Gurwitz observed. “We had a 17 percent increase last year for all three of our stores. This year, we are projecting 6 to 8 percent [in San Antonio], primarily through bridal and added sportswear because it’s starting to look like we’re having a bit of a downturn, though so far San Antonio hasn’t felt it. January was a good month for us, and December was excellent.”
Sales are solid at Tootsies, which does a disproportionate jean and T-shirt business at its San Antonio store, compared with its units in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. The store is located at The Quarry, a former cement factory that was bulldozed about three years ago to create a spacious open-air shopping center with lots of national chains such as the Gap, Pottery Barn, Old Navy, James Avery, Restoration Hardware and Borders Books, plus a multiplex cinema.
“San Antonio is a more casual lifestyle and very family oriented,” reported Mickey Rosmarin, who owns the Tootsies chain of five stores. “It’s not quite as charity-circuit driven as Houston and Dallas. We sell a lot of forward jeans, like Earl and Frankie B, which did a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ denim jumpsuit that blew out of there.”
The shop, decorated in Tootsies’ typical ivory and black sleek style with dramatic columns, features boutiques for Nicole Miller, Laundry and Via Spiga and also sees a lot of action in Jenne Maag and Trina Turk. It does a steady business, but generates $400 to $500 per square foot, compared with $700 to $900 a foot at its brethren in Dallas and Houston.
One of the reasons for the discrepancy is that it is especially difficult to find sales staff in San Antonio, Rosmarin noted.
“Casual contemporary is the bulk of the business,” reported Sharon Sizemore, who manages Tootsies here. “We don’t have the kind of driven ladies like in Dallas who will grab it and run like: ‘It won’t be here in two or three days; if I don’t buy it now….”‘
Sales edged up a few percent last year at Grove Hill Ltd.’s two stores here, said owner Gretchen Richards. Both units are about 6,000 square feet and specialize in updated classics with a dose of colorful printed contemporary looks.
“Votre Nom is a big line for us,” Richards noted. “Everybody likes it because it’s year-round. We’re one of their top accounts in the U.S. We also do really well with stretch jeans, shorts and knit tops.”
Other key resources at Grove Hill are Renfrew, Erik Stewart, Womyn and Work Order, as well as casual styles by Signe, Como, Irka, Blue Dot, Equestrian and Mannequin.
While Grove Hill’s spring stock included lots of novelty printed looks like red floral jeans by Mesmerize, Richards was concerned that styling in general was skewing too young.
“I think we’re losing some business by having everything too fun,” she reflected. “People in their 50s come in all the time and say, ‘What do you have for me?”‘ Something that fits a ladies’ figure will be my focus at March market.”
Richards has no exact plan for 2001, but she expects to see a shakeout.
“I feel like there is so much retail and the customers go to either discounters or specialty stores,” she mused. “It looks like the mid-tier department stores will disappear.”
Harold’s, a specialty chain based in Norman, Okla., that emphasizes private label updated sportswear, is pleased with its business in this city.
“San Antonio is a wonderful market,” said Becky Casey, chief executive officer. “It is clearly one of our top-performing stores. We are not in an expansion mode, but once we are again, San Antonio would absolutely be an area we would look at.”
Casey pointed out that San Antonio’s Alamo Heights is an affluent neighborhood, with one of the state’s best school systems.
“It is a premier place to live,” she asserted. “The whole downtown area where the River Walk is is beautiful. San Antonio has really become a tourist town. There is so much going on there.”
Once dependent on four Air Force bases and one Army outpost for its livelihood, Bexar County now lists medical services and biomedical research as its biggest employer. The military and tourism are the secondary pillars of the economy, though Kelly Air Force Base is due to close next year.
Visitors are lured by the city’s two biggest events: the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, for two weeks in February, and Fiesta, a 10-day festival in late April that celebrates the defeat of Mexican general Santa Ana at San Jacinto, Tex., with parades, neighborhood fairs and the coronation of a king and queen. All five Air Force and Army bases also crown queens or princesses who ride in parades.
Of course, Fiesta proffers a great opportunity to sell the brightly colored dresses, sportswear and men’s Guabanero shirts that typically are worn during the festival. The rodeo naturally has a western style, and there are plenty of tourist shops throughout the city who vend those looks, as well as a purely Texas Shop at the Dillard’s in RiverCenter Mall, a tourist-oriented center neighboring Alamo Plaza downtown.
Sales are up at RiverCenter Mall, reaching $390 in sales per square foot last year over $382 in 1999, according to Jennifer Hale, marketing coordinator.
The city’s famed River Walk, lined with a multitude of restaurants and shops, is a year-round draw for tourists, as are the New Fiesta Texas and Sea World amusement parks and five historic Spanish missions, including the famed Alamo.
New residents are also flocking here in droves. The city’s large Hispanic community and heritage draws immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and veterans increasingly are coming back to retire here, Henneke noted.
“Every time there’s a hurricane in Florida or a fire or mudslide in California, we have a whole rash of people wanting to move here,” asserted Sharon Henneke, economic research assistant at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “We also have a lot of seniors moving here from Arizona because they can’t afford it out there. Our cost of living is the lowest of all top 25 cities in the U.S.”
A mature clientele is precisely the focus of Town & Country. Owner Louis Seeman caters to women over 50 with brightly colored styles — usually with sleeves — from such labels as Joseph Ribkoff, Jovani, Shomi, Ursula, Rimini, David Warren and even a few looks by Muse. He also stocks conservative tailored jackets, skirts and pants by Hawksley & Wright and Ingenuity.
“We fill a niche,” Seeman noted. “This store is for the person who doesn’t feel comfortable in a mall. We are very labor intensive; we are set up to pull things and show them the old-fashioned way.”
He also believes in a personal touch, answering the telephone himself and refusing to buy a computer or create a Web site. The little boutique is approaching $1 million in sales, with revenue moving ahead 5 percent in the quarter ended in January.