SAN FRANCISCO’S BACKSTREETS
BOUTIQUES ARE FLOURISHING OFF THE BEATEN PATH, AS LONG AS THEY’VE GOT ONE-OF-A-KIND APPEAL.
Byline: Diane Dorrans Saeks
SAN FRANCISCO — Some boutique operators in this town are learning that you don’t need to wedge into the crowded retail bloc around Union Square to be fashionable, or successful.
Indeed, San Francisco is a profitable and lively town today for small, singular boutiques, thanks to the explosive, tech-driven local economy and a healthy portion of savvy female consumers who are glad to avoid the hordes in more touristy areas.
Creative boutique owners are looking for small, affordable spaces that are not overshadowed by the likes of Neiman Marcus and Macy’s, or powerhouses like Gucci and Hermes. Quirky settings are often the key.
What’s more, highly educated women aged 25 to 45 make up one of the biggest wedges of the city’s demographic pie.
Three new San Francisco boutiques — Metier, Six Brady and Utopia Planitia — have all been successful in attracting loyal clients who spend an average of $800 or more per visit.
Women appreciate the very personal, attentive service available at such venues, say the store owners. And these customers are looking for designer sportswear collections that are a little edgier than the labels on the racks of larger specialty stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue — and that is why a well-calibrated merchandise mix is essential to making the formula work.
The right location and designer names are important, surely, but today it’s most often the combination of an obscure setting, offerings such as one-of-a-kind vintage jewelry, and quirky private-label collections that are drawing motivated-to-buy customers. Here is how three boutique operators are doing it.
“I deliberately chose a very out-of-the-way location to attract the more devoted boutique shopper rather than passers-by,” explained John Michaud, owner of Six Brady, a year-old, 550-square-foot sportswear boutique.
“We’re in a very obscure setting on the periphery of downtown, and it has paid off. There is no walk-in traffic, so our customers come with their friends and almost always find something they like. The average sale is around $850.”
Michaud, who stocks Katayone Adeli, Catherine Melandrino, The Wrights, William B., Urchin and Autumn Cashmere, said his boutique does in the region of $1,000 per square foot per month. Price points range from $100 for Katayone Adeli pants, to $600 for leather pants by The Wrights.
With its Morocco-meets-Malibu interior, Six Brady stands almost alone on a quiet one-way street near the popular Zuni Cafe. On one side is Louis, a trendy hairdressing salon, and on the other is a chic gift shop, Bell’Occhio.
“I have made it by word of mouth alone,” said Michaud, who said he set no budget for advertising and sends mailers to clients only infrequently. The store also does strong business with Betsey Barron jewelry and necklaces by Melissa Manning and is in the process of finding new resources for handbags, scarves and jewelry.
Popular for spring are Michael Stars stretch tops, sweaters by Autumn Cashmere and denim pants by The Wrights, Michaud said.
Metier owner Sheri Evans also knows firsthand of the effects of an obscure setting. Her store now has established a bold presence on well-trafficked Sutter Street; but she had originally opened Metier nine years ago, on the then-gritty northern block of Maiden Lane, a block and a half from Chanel and Union Square.
Like Metier today, her original store specialized in designer sportswear, dresses, career basics and an unusual selection of estate jewelry.
“Customers in the early days loved the fact that we were a “find,” and we quickly attracted creative types like writers, party planners and graphic designers,” said Evans.
After losing that first space to a large new Rockport store two years ago, Evans opened an all-new Metier on high-visibility Sutter Street, midway between Wilkes Bashford and the Banana Republic flagship store.
“Our original customers all came with us, and we have developed more from passersby, and by advertising in local magazines,” she said. The customer base ranges from from 28 to 60 years old, and Metier can dress them for all their year-round needs. “Metier’s clientele today tends to work in professions where individuality and self-expression are encouraged, and business and socializing are highly connected.”
The clean-lined 1,200-square- foot interior, designed by architect Tim Perks, makes a handsome setting for eclectic and colorful collections by Anna Molinari, Peter Cohen, Chaiken, Katayone Adeli, Rebecca Taylor, Rozae Nichols, Souchi, Paul and Joe, and Meghan Park.
Hot-sellers this Spring at Metier are leather pants and skirts in all colors; anything denim; pretty, embellished dresses for day and evening; and a variety of knits, including bright cashmeres, handloomed mocknecks, and starkly twinsets.
Evans also has a lively following for her in-depth accessories collections, including diamond-and-platinum jewelry by Cathy Waterman, estate jewelry, and leather goods by Il Bisonte.
“I’m in the process of building a Web site, more for information purposes than for e-commerce,” added Evans. “The experience of seeing and touching clothes, and especially accessories, is important and fun, and I can’t see that changing.”
Utopia Planitia opted for a quiet block up the hill from Union Square. near Nob Hill. The boutique, opened last year by partners Minnie Yeh, a fashion designer, and Charles Burrows, the company’s creative director, has a following of women from the Financial District and Silicon Valley. The offbeat location works well for them, Yeh said.
The look for spring at Utopia Planitia is preppy “Conduit Street,” with a splash of traditional Burberry-style tailoring and sporty motocross influences, said Yeh. Highlights of the spring-summer collection include boot-cut pants with a built-in kilt, a motocross-style twill zippered jacket, a twill trench coat with a padded rifle patch on the shoulder and cotton twill tops with detachable sleeves.
“We don’t want to be too trendy, but somewhere between Banana Republic and Bebe,” Yeh said. “I’ve always done an understated, casual look, but often with an unexpected detail, like an asymmetrical collar or neckline, or trim of embroidery, faux fur, or beading.”
Utopia Planitia collections also feature silk jersey and natural fiber fabrics.
The retro-modern store, named for a Mars crater and the fictional “Star Trek” space station, sells the complete Utopia Planitia collection, along with an eclectic assortment of sportswear by Tran, vacuum-packed T-shirts by London-based Antoni & Allison, and the collection of Rubin Chapelle. Charles Eames-style Fifties steel and plywood shelving and fixtures give the 550-square-foot-store a hip, inviting vibe.
“We originally started Utopia Planitia as a wholesale collection of moderate sportswear,” recalled Yeh, who is originally from Taiwan. “Charles and I found that there were surprisingly few appropriate retail venues, and that really cool boutiques were few and far between.”
They now are focusing on opening more Utopia Planitia boutiques around California. “This first location is a rather quiet block, so we advertise in local magazines like MODA and Surface, and produce colorful seasonal catalogs, which we mail out to our customers,” said Yeh.
Utopia Planitia is also setting up its own Web site.