RICHMOND: THE OLD SOUTH UPDATED
RICHMOND — While many cities — Atlanta comes to mind — may pave over the past, Richmond celebrates its rich, turbulent history. A hitching post, a wrought-iron porch and a ton of historical monuments are perfectly preserved, among a cosmopolitan area of big buildings, neon-lit entertainment and a growing transient population.
Rather than setting trends, Richmond, a grande dame of the Old South, has always preferred to embrace classic, traditional dressing. But today, the town’s retailers — even those old-school institutions — are changing with the times by updating old formulas for today’s woman.
For a metropolitan area with population of close to a million, Richmond has relatively few department store chains — no Federated Stores, no Nordstrom, no Saks, no Neiman Marcus. The lack of big-gun competition nourishes specialty store businesses, which thrive in charming enclaves such as Carytown.
Below, WWD profiles four of Richmond’s finest.
This striking destination, in a renovated church, encourages specialty store shoppers to linger over lunch, pamper themselves at the hairdresser or indulge in interior design.
Annette Olsen, owner, Annette Dean, bought the church in Richmond’s Carytown area eight years ago, with two partners — interior designer Martin Rubenstein and hairdresser Karina Simon, who also own shops in the church. The three lease space to Acacia, an award-winning restaurant on the first floor of the church.
The four businesses compliment each other, generating crossover traffic and destination shoppers, said Olsen. Rubenstein designed her 3,200-square-foot, two-level store, which has an airy, open ambience.
Olsen, a 30-year retail veteran, owned a men’s and women’s store with her ex-husband, Alexander Dean, before branching out on her own with all women’s wear. Before coming to Richmond in 1976, Olsen, a native of the Netherlands, worked with designers and fashion houses in Europe.
While the store has evolved over the past two decades — from Ralph Lauren blazers and slacks for traditional Richmond women to a more contemporary approach — quality is still the the common thread for any customer.
” ‘Old-Richmond-money’ ” customers don’t want anything flashy, but they do want quality,” said Olsen. While splashy designer lines “wouldn’t work here,” Olsen said better-to-bridge sportswear resources, such as Barry Bricken and Garfield & Marks, are bestsellers. Sweaters are also big, from Belford, and White & Warren, for a younger customer, along with T-shirts from Three Dot. Recently, a total of 48 T-shirts in four colors sold over a three-week period.
Olsen mixes separates from a variety of resources for wardrobing possibilities. Repeat customers often come in for advice on how to update a black suit, or any other staple.
The store is merchandised in vignette displays that pull together an entire look around a color or a certain mood.
“The biggest compliment we get is when a customer says they’ve worn something they bought here for 10 years or more,” said Olsen. Rather than the latest trends, Olsen stays with her own vision. She passed on pashmina shawls for fall and embellished pants and bright prints that were so prevalent this spring. She rarely lets a sales rep’s “bestseller” pitch influence her buying. Rather, she buys novelty pieces, mostly based on instinct, such as a Carol Cohen rubberized raincoat in bright colors that sold 70 units this spring.
“Timing is important,” she said. “There was so much color in the market last year, before customers were ready for it. Now they’re ready, but there’s not as much out there.”
Olsen once owned four stores, but has consolidated to one location, which sells more than a $1 million a year, and has made a profit each year. Her philosophy includes developing strong relationships with manufacturers and establishing good credit. Operations such as cleaning and bookeeping are streamlined, although she doesn’t skimp on design and visual assistants.
She attributes her sense of style to her European roots, and her business sense to her Dutch upbringing. She prides herself on cultivating customers with highly personalized service.
On a day in late February, Olsen, an avid horsewoman who lives in a renovated plantation, talked horses with customer Lee Kilduff before getting to the business of clothes. After selecting a new sweater to go with a pair of Barry Bricken pants, Kilduff went behind the counter to browse through the accessories case unassisted.
“This silver jewelry needs polishing,” she joked to one of the salespeople, whom she clearly knew well.
“I shop here for simple reasons,” said Kilduff. “They know me and what I like, and they make me look good.”
While NYFO has seen many incarnations, it has always been the place for the fashion-forward, rather than the traditional.
“We’re in a traditional area of the country, but I’ve always noticed it’s the exciting contemporary things that sell, rather than basics,” said Susan Isenberg, who owns the 1,500-square-foot Richmond NYFO, and three other Virginia locations. “We have classic clothing, but we can’t sell plaid, pique, seersucker, the things people consider most traditional.”
Constant change and adaptation have been the hallmarks of NYFO. The initials — for New York Fashion Organization — originally stood for New York Factory Outlet, a discount operation that opened in Richmond in 1978. Isenberg then bought brands, such as Jones New York and Harve Bernard, directly from the manufacturer, discounting them 20 percent.
In the Eighties, NYFO evolved into a full-price contemporary fashion store so respected in the industry that it won the DIVA award, given by AmericasMart, for best multidoor better women’s store in 1997. Industry sources estimate annual sales of around $2 million.
Today Isenberg carries over 100 lines, up from 30. She concentrates on fast turns, rather than depth, and buys smaller boutique lines rather than large collections. Her customers, often repeat clients, want constant newness and appreciate education on trends.
Isenberg now buys closer to season, to have more buy-now, wear-now looks. She stays away from cutting-edge trends, such as low-rise embellished pants and bandeau tops, but focuses on classics with a twist. Her primary target is a baby boomer who wants style, in fitted (rather than tight or oversized) silhouettes.
Each store has a similar formula, but distinctive personalities, said Isenberg. When choosing locations, Isenberg looks for charm – — in areas that exude a cozy, neighborhood feeling. The Richmond store, run by daughter Jennifer Clements, is located in a plantation-style center, with exteriors all in white wood.
Rather than dresses or social occasion, NYFO zeroes in on sportswear. Career business has gone from suitings to separates and layering pieces that may include sweaters or jackets.
Recently casual sportswear has been the fastest-growing category.
“Customers justify a purchase by saying, ‘At least I can wear it to Ukrops (the local upscale grocery chain)’, if they can’t think of anywhere else to wear it,” said Clements. Best-selling casual separates include Jenny Maag and & Trousers for bottoms, mixed with tanks, T-shirts or sweaters by Finity, 525, Urchin or Trina Turk. Sweaters have always sold well, particularly novelty knits and silhouettes, such as a sleeveless shaker sweater or fanny wrap by 525.
Suit lines, such as Simon Chang or Emil Rutenberg, are updated, with a sportswear, rather than collection, feeling.
Isenberg shops every Atlanta market for “finds,” such as Rayeure, a blouse line from Paris that had 18 percent sell-throughs this spring. She also picked up Burns, a new line by Karen Harmon, formerly a partner with Dana Buchman. She said customers have responded well to the more feminine direction in the market recently.
Her most successful promotions are “Spring and Fall Flings,” held in March and September. The all-day events are invitations for customers to check out what’s new, with food, wine, music and give-aways and special discounts.
The store often delivers clothes or lets customers take them home on approval.
“Our philosophy has always been whatever the customer wants,” said Isenberg. “It’s all about relationships, both in buying and selling.”
Franco’s may be an old-time Richmond institution, but don’t confuse it with an “old-ladies’ store,” said owner Franco Ambrogi.
“We’re changing with the times,” said Ambrogi, an Italian immigrant trained as a tailor, who opened a custom men’s suit store in 1976. Adding women’s apparel in 1980, the operation now includes three large Richmond stores, totaling 35,0000 square feet of women’s and men’s product.
“Women’s business has changed dramatically, and it’s been an unusual ride,” said Ambrogi, who added that men’s had outpaced women’s sales recently. “Today, you have to be willing to change, or be out of business.”
The women’s side, now 35 percent of total sales, has always required more tweaking than the more predictable men’s business. Categories have shifted or disappeared. Fur, which once sold $1.5 million and ultrasuede, which brought in $1.2 million annually, are practically non-existent today. Topcoats, which once regularly sold 700 units each August, are but a small percentage of sales.
Dresses, which formerly sold around 4,000 units a year, now sell around 1,200 units. Suits have seen a similar fate, replaced by sportswear and separates. With around 70 women’s lines, tried-and-true resources such as Pendleton, David Brooks and Robert Scott are augmented with new lines, such as Poems, Scully and Tomatsu, for quicker turns.
Social-occasion is as important as ever, at 10 percent of sales and growing. Richmond’s full social calendar and a return to glamour have brought about better sell-throughs and fewer markdowns than ever.
Ambrogi said his sales reflect bigger social forces such as casualization, and the diminishing importance of big design houses for everyday customers.
“Everything is either splashy, expensive occasion, or casual cheap,” said Ambrogi. “What happened to the middle — women who wanted good-looking suits and dresses, or a good blouse?”
With a women’s clientele from “16 to 116,” said Ambrogi, the store has to update without alienating existing customers. A few companies, such as Pendleton and Blyle, are staple bestsellers for older customers.
“There is still that Southern lady that wants to know why she can’t find more good church dresses,” said Ruth Ambrogi, Franco’s wife, who has managed the women’s business since its inception. “But the days of Richmond being five years behind on trends are over.”
In 1998, Arlen Plotkin joined Franco’s as a women’s buyer to help update the department. She regularly shops Atlanta and New York for new lines, testing several each season. Bestsellers include Ann May, Josesph Ribkoff and Belford sweaters. Social-occasion targets a wide range of ages and body types, with lines such as Jovanni, DaRue and Rimini.
“I go with her on buying trips to learn,” said Franco.
Two things about Franco’s haven’t changed — and won’t anytime soon. Services, such as free alterations, customer files and attentive help are standard at Franco’s.
With five full-time women’s sales associates in the flagship Richmond store, finding and keeping good employees is one of the biggest challenges today.
“Retail isn’t as glamorous and attractive as it used to be,” said Franco Ambrogi. To combat the problem, Ambrogi, a board member of Richmond Retail Merchants Association, is helping establish a local school for retail to attract people to the field. Franco’s is a true family affair, but not just a mom-and-pop store. It includes grandfathers and grandchildren and in-laws. In addition to Ruth Ambrogi, Mark Ambrogi, the couple’s son, manages the newest West End store, along with his wife, who sells men’ s wear. Daughter Maria Richardson handles all advertising in-house. Anthony Ambrogi, the youngest son, has developed Franco’s e-commerce site, a two-year-old venture which currently accounts for 15 to 20 percent of total sales.
Five grandchildren, ranging from one to eight years old, spend a great deal of time in a built-in playroom, next to Ruth’s office. And the hardest worker of all, Ruth’s 81-year-old father, works in the accounting department.
Although he wouldn’t release figures, Ambrogi’s stores are a multi-million-dollar business.
Like many other Richmond specialty stores, Freda keeps a highly diverse clientele — hip young career women, soccer moms, mothers of the bride and women who want a good “CCC” dress (church, cocktail and cemetery).
Dianne Lapkin, with partner and brother Steve Lapkin, are trying to please the changing face of Richmond.
The two siblings grew up in retail, working with their mother, Freda Lapkin, who owned a store in nearby Hopewell, Va. called Harold’s, for 50 years. In 1993, they adopted their mother’s name — and her concept of personalized retailing — to a new store in Richmond.
“It’s small-town retailing in a larger setting,” said Dianne. “We know our customers, and are involved in the events of their lives, from weddings to funerals. And we try to stay personal, honest and true.”
With lots of window space filled with antique fixtures, the store is located on the corner of a strip center on a busy street. Neutral-colored walls are bordered with Greek classic scenes, but the atmosphere is informal. Max, Dianne’s tiny white dog, is also a permanent fixture.
With a huge amount of stock, Lapkin covers every category — from beach coverups and bags to $2,.000 evening gowns. Although prices vary, most are in the better-to-bridge range.
Even career areas have subsets. The younger, single working woman wants trendier clothes that change from season to season, while young working mothers want investment dressing, such as Geiger of Austria, or upscale knits from Antonella Preve, Tula, JSS or Ann Peterson. Companion pieces update non-traditional suitings from Albert Nipon or Banu.
Casual clothes range from super-relaxed cottons from Richard & Co. or stretch jeans from Cambio to more put-together looks from Desentino.
Updated contemporary sportswear includes silk spandex tops with keyhole cutouts by Wayne Rogers, zebra-striped jackets and miniskirts by Forwear over a Flora Nikrooz lace camisole or embellished denim jackets by Lorizoni.
Social-occasion has been such as successful area that a recent expansion of the 3,800-square-foot store included a 1,200-square-foot room for after-five. The category is now 40 percent of total sales.
With more than 60 lines, Lapkin claims to have “more social-occasion dresses than any retailer in Virginia.” Here again, the category addresses a wide range of customers. Chris Kole, which starts at $1,000 retail, and Carmen Marc Valvo’s beaded gowns are aimed at designer and bridge customers. Jovanni, Daymor and Cattiva are good mother-of-the-bride resources, while Nanette Lapore works for younger customers.
Lapkin buys the minimum allowed for any style, usually only one per color, and keeps track of where each dress will be worn to avoid duplication.
Salespeople work on straight salary. Rather than commission, Lapkin rewards employees with personal extras.
“Next week, we’re taking one 85-year-old employee to a male strip club, but she doesn’t know it yet,” said Lapkin.