Byline: Holly Haber

It was bound to happen. The infusion of wealthy high tech, film and music professionals that has made Austin a center for culture and business is now also turning it into a retail boom town.
While a dressed-down style still prevails, Austin has nonetheless grown increasingly hungry for fashionable clothing with an emphasis on fine, if comfortable, apparel.
“Austin’s retail scene is very hot,” noted Riley Silva, a partner in St. Thomas, a local specialty store. “All the new people moving in from California and other more forward cities or states understand fashion, and that’s what they’re after.”
The retail growth parallels the city’s broader expansion. Home to the state capitol and the enormous University of Texas, Austin is clearly on the upswing, with the population swelling to 633,000 last year from 466,000 in 1990. With a new Austin Museum of Art under construction and plans to double the size of the Children’s Hospital of Austin, there are numerous fund-raisers whose guests are shopping for dressy clothes.
Stores that have a history here are reporting that business is better than ever. Specialty stores have been infiltrating the market in a bid to cash in on the run.
“My business was amazing at all three stores last year — up 30 percent,” affirmed Katy Culmo, whose two women’s and one men’s shop are called By George. “There is definitely more money and less price resistance to young contemporary labels. People are buying shoes like crazy. It’s the economy — it’s absolutely booming again.”
Culmo will nearly double the size of one of her stores by moving in mid-April to a 4,300-square-foot space in a new downtown mixed-use development at 524 Lamar Street. Within a year, she expects to move the men’s wear into the second level of the new store, adding another 1,700 square feet.
“As Austin grows, downtown will become much more vibrant,” she predicted. “I think the new store will really boost business even more, because it will be in a highly trafficked pedestrian area.”
By George has carved its niche by carrying hip contemporary lines and negotiating exclusive distribution rights with vendors. Key labels are Rozae Nichols, Dosa, Theory, Lilith, Thalian, Jenne Maag, Trina Turk, Tibi Hyland and Daryl K, plus jewelry by Ten Thousand Things.
“We represent women’s contemporary pretty well,” Culmo noted. “I think it has a similar sensibility to Texas, and Austin is young — a very young town.”
Silva, who owns and operates St. Thomas with Tomas Esteves, reported that business rose 35 percent last year largely due to the addition of a designer bridal salon featuring Vera Wang, Givenchy and Badgley Mischka. Located in The Arboretum shopping center of specialty boutiques, St. Thomas spans 8,000 square feet.
St. Thomas excels with sexy, young, fitted separates by such labels as Moschino Couture, Moschino Cheap & Chic, D&G Jeans and D&G Collection, which is Dolce & Gabbana’s diffusion line.
“Even though Austin is so big, the majority of the population is very casual so the small, clique crowd that we have is a limited clientele with a big pocketbook,” Silva pointed out.
St. Thomas is unusual in that it has never allowed returns in all of its 13 years.
“It’s working. Returns could kill a small business. They strongly believe that whatever they’re buying, it’s because they love it, and not to see if they will fall in love with it,” Silva said.
Jul Kutsche caters to a young hip crowd in her 3 1/2-year-old store Therapy, in south Austin’s Travis Heights. Her business rose 40 percent last year and she’s angling for a 20 to 25 percent jump in 2000. The store is 1,800 square feet.
“Business is good overall,” noted Kutsche. “Our bestsellers are Earl jeans and our own line.”
Kutsche’s collection comprises beaded and embroidered silk shantung and cotton items, such as long, straight skirts. The store does well with body-conscious dressing and eclectic, ethnic looks.
“Austin used to not be into fashion, but now you can really sell that,” Kutsche noted. “It’s such a young city, so I have a young professional clientele. Austin has such a casual dress code that the things they wear to work they can wear to play.”
Jane Vanisko McCan opened Shiki boutique in October of 1998 and has exceeded her sales plan.
“I’ve always been into fashion, and I thought that Austin needed something different,” explained McCan, who formerly worked in advertising and marketing. “I carry quality contemporary lines, with items that retail for $100 and under for young career women.”
Bestsellers at Shiki have been Red Engine jeans, Josephine Loka, C.C. Outlaw, Astuce and Parallel.
Shiki, she noted, is Japanese for “four seasons.”
The store also does well with Chan Luu’s crystal and silk organza necklaces and Anthony Nak’s sterling and pearl styles.
“It helps that I’m near a hair salon and tanning salon,” McCan noted. “It’s all about pampering, and shopping for clothes fits right into that.”
Susan Dell, wife of billionaire computer magnate Michael Dell, joined the retail fray last November with a stylish boutique selling her own custom-made and ready-to-wear designs.
Business has been strong: Dell sold eight couture gowns averaging $7,500 to $15,000 for a recent Art Ball benefiting the Austin Museum of Art.
“Austin has changed over the past couple of years because there’s been a large influx of people who have moved here in the high tech, film and music industries,” said a company spokeswoman based in the store. “They have all brought people from the East and West Coasts to Austin. These people are savvy about fashion and are into fashion, so they’ve moved here and are depending on Austin to have the quality of shopping they are used to. At Susan Dell, we have definitely catered to this niche; and since our opening in November, they’ve been knocking our doors down.”

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