GARDEN OF RETAIL DELIGHTS
A CLOSE-KNIT GROUP OF STORES SERVES SAVANNAH’S LADYLIKE, COLORFUL CLIENTELE.
Byline: Georgia Lee
“We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon, they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta, they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah, the first question is, ‘What would you like to drink?”‘
— John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”
SAVANNAH, Ga. — As beautiful now as when it inspired Gen. Sherman to spare his torch, this “hostess city of the South” regularly makes top 10 lists of places to visit.
Savannah treasures the past. With 21 city squares, massive churches, homes and cemeteries, it combines history with a natural setting of magnolias and moss-draped live oaks. It evokes the “Old South” much more than, say, Atlanta and revels in the kind of traditional Southern charm that is sweetened further still by eccentricity.
Savannah’s attractions were brought to the worldwide stage by the hugely popular book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” by John Berendt, and subsequent movie. So was its quirkiness, personified by a cast of characters, all of them real, that have helped foster the perception of Savannah as a town where “everyone is drunk and heavily armed.”
Since the publication of “Midnight” in 1994, Savannah has drawn unprecedented attention. However, this town still nourishes an insular quality and that extends to its fashion retailing, characterized by a level of coziness and courtesy that would seem out of place in other competitive markets.
Indeed, the specialty retailers are surprisingly few. With only two major malls in the area, the only big-store competitors are Dillard’s, Belk’s and Rich’s. The independents, from downtown to the suburbs, all know each other and share the same upscale customer base. They can be fiercely protective of each other, refusing to step on one another’s lines and often sending customers to neighboring stores.
“There’s a limited group of customers who can afford to pay bridge price points,” said Ross Arnsdorff, owner of Gaucho. “They may buy a pant from me, then go to Carol’s for a sweater,” he said. Typical of this retail club, Arnsdorff and Jackie Toporek, owner of Jezebel, exercise together every morning.
Cultivating local patronage, which includes residents of surrounding coastal islands, these retailers focus on lifestyle dressing and special occasion for Savannah’s many balls and society events. Ladies still lunch here, and bridge parties are still big. In fact, parties of any kind are big here, say retailers.
But while they pay homage to the Old South’s cult of civility, Savannah’s retailers are not stuck in the past.
To appeal more to tourists, downtown retailers are adding more luxury and impulse items, for example. The locals have always favored traditional, classic dressing, and tradition dies hard; however, the dress code is becoming less rigid, and retailers are helping.
“There used to be a lot of print dresses, white gloves, straw hats — and no white after Labor Day,” said Rosemary Danielle, author of “Fatal Flowers,” a book about growing up as a Southern female. A 25-year Savannah resident, Danielle said gentrification and other forces, such as downtown’s Savannah College of Art and Design, are bringing about change. “There’s more of an edge in styling now, but beauty is still worshiped, and Southern women love to look pretty.”
Here, WWD looks at how specialty stores help keep their customers pretty in Savannah’s special way, while keeping pace with the changing nature of business.
Every Southern town has one — the really nice specialty store where the owner, a genteel Southern lady, treats customers like royalty and family at the same time.
Carol’s, owned by Carol Deason, is that store. Located on the backstreets of Savannah’s Southside, the freestanding, 3,500-square-foot store is clearly a destination rather than a walk-in. Inside, Carol’s evokes a fine salon, with marble fixtures, oil paintings, recessed ceilings, crown moldings and chandeliers.
In addition to a large selling space for sportswear and a separate eveningwear salon, Carol’s has a 12 x 12 foot library. With two wingback chairs, a book and magazine collection and a table strewn with dominos, cards and other games, the room is designed to entertain gentlemen accompanying their wives. A bar in the main room serves coffee, tea and wine; and a marble bathroom, the “guest room,” features ironed linen towels. Large dressing rooms feature oversized mirrors with cozy stuffed chairs and three-way mirrors.
Not surprisingly, Carol’s draws an upscale, sophisticated clientele from Savannah and nearby islands and resorts. Regular clients often make appointments, and are pampered with undivided attention for hours.
“I buy for a well-traveled woman who lunches, plays bridge, and dresses for dinner at the club” said Deason, a former school teacher and buyer for Marshall Field, who opened Carol’s 10 years ago. “She loves traditional, stylish, classics.” Bestselling day-to-dinner lines include Bicci, Teri Jon, Renfrew and Atlanta-based Ann May, which specializes in silks.
For parties, cotillions and debutant balls, Deason carries special occasion dressing from Illana Wolfe, Kay Unger and Victoria Royal. In addition to ballgowns and short cocktail dresses, evening separates, beaded sweaters, seude, fur and leather fabrics have become more important in the past two years.
Bridge sportswear is lightweight, easy, casual and more fitted than past seasons. Resources are often exclusive, including Irene Allison, Elliot Lauren, Belford, Barry Bricken, Canvas Back and Painted Pony. Deason is also growing contemporary sportswear to attract a younger customer, with lines such as Laundry, Jon, MCNY and Cambio jeans. Velveen knits, once a key category, is down recently, in need of more updated styling, said Deason.
Accessories represent 35 percent of total sales, with a wide variety of jewelry from $45 to $300, and bags that go up to $500. Shoes, a hot category now, complete outfits.
Deason is a natural at special events. Carol’s hosts a charity holiday brunch for 200 customers and their guests each year, along with a fashion show benefit for the Savannah Symphony Orchestra, for 600. Customers model the 100 pieces for the shows, which are held at private clubs.
While classic clothing is the staple for Carol’s, the store does nod to current trends. Savannah, with its langorous lifestyle, is more similar to Charleston and less trendy than Atlanta, said Deason. Capri pants, for example, just became accepted last year and the Pashmina shawl rage was late getting here.
With more than $1 million in annual sales, this was her best year, said Deason. “Clothes were boring, now they’re glamorous again,” she said. “People have money to spend and a reason to buy.”
Ross Arnsdorffff is a big believer in downtown retail; suburbs depress him. But with two stores in the historic district, he realizes the area has yet to reach its full potential.
After opening a Bull Street store in 1989, Arnsdorfff bought a building on Braughton Street two years ago. Braughton was once similar to Charleston’s King Street, a booming hub of stores, before flight to the malls in the Eighties. Now seeing Braughton Street as on the verge of a renaissance, Arnsdorfff opened the second 2,700-square-foot Gaucho unit there in 1998.
His stores, both in old historic buildings, are white with wooden fixtures. On Braughton, a circular lace curtain near the dressing rooms surround a raised platform to “make customers feel like Cinderella when they model for husbands and boyfriends,” said Arnsdorff. Sales at the new Braughton store are up 15 percent this year, while at the original Bull Street store sales are flat.
Starting in leather goods, (hence the name Gaucho), the stores are now among the city’s most updated fashion sources. In the new one, eveningwear, cocktail dressing and suitings are 50 percent of sales, with the other half in casual sportswear and accessories at better-to-bridge prices, starting at $70 and up to $1,000 for a special piece. The original store carries many of the same lines, minus eveningwear.
Thirty-something Arnsdorff considers himself one of the more daring, progressive buyers in town.
“I have to push customers who have great figures and can wear anything,” he said. “Sometimes they want to dress conservatively and cover-up.” Known for body-concious clothing, Gaucho carries ABS, Kathlin Argiro and Isabel Ardee, and View, which Arnsdorfff calls “an up-and-coming” line.
For younger customers, he stocks up on short cocktail dresses, an easy quick sell, as well as evening separates and long dresses by Tahari, ABS and Maria Pinta. For luncheon dressing, Gaucho offers soft suitings and separates from Yansi Fugel and Olsen Collections.
For the trendier set, Gaucho carries Roaze Nichol, a line with unusual fabric combinations, stitching and embellishment. Color is always key, even in accessories, evidenced by pink cowhide or ostrich handbags by Michele Vaughn, colorful asymetrical saddle bags by Johnny Farah and acrylic wrap shawls by Descours.
Gaucho also appeals to tourists and locals with a private-label linen line. One jumper style, labeled the “Savannah Innkeeper’s Dress,” has become a bestseller and is worn by several actual local innkeepers, presumably with suitable irony. Linen is an important fabric in both the private label line and resources such as the Italian line, 120% Lino. Arnsdorff won’t carry Flax, however, to avoid competing with his friends at Jezebel. Arnsdorff, with a business degree and experience with JC Penney’s management training program, also has worked in catalogs. This spring, he will launch an e-commerce operation. Starting with a few key items, such as folding reading glasses and the Innkeeper’s Dress, he will expand inventory with items that lend themselves to instrant delivery and quick reorders.
One of the early specialty players on the scene, 21-year-old Jezebel started downtown, went suburban during the heyday of the malls, and now has the best of both worlds, with a downtown location and a hot strip center store.
The two owners, Arlene Ratner and Jackie Toporek, are bridge and tennis partners who decided to go into business together. They have a soft spot for their first location, an 1,800-square-foot, former 19th century cotton warehouse on historic River Street.
“We originally did everything, from swimwear to evening gowns,” said Ratner. “Early on, we had several ‘ladies of the evening’ as customers, and Lady Chablis (the drag queen featured in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) shopped here.”
While the newer suburban store cultivates a local clientele with more casual sportswear and extra service features, the downtown store caters to mostly tourists.
“River Street is a different world, full of people from all over the world, in a happy, vacation mindset,” said Ratner. “The two stores have separate customers.” That store, with wooden walls and antique features, has the perfect ambience for artsy, one-of-a-kind pieces and higher-priced boutique lines. Oriental-inspired silk print dresses by Harari, at $350, are bestsellers, along with impulse items — beaded scarves, hats and tiny evening bags — that entice out-of-towners looking to treat themselves.
After a five-year stint in Oglethorpe Mall in the Eighties, Jezebel opened a 1,400-square-foot store in Twelve Oaks, a 10-year-old strip center. While the malls offered “great exposure,” rents, restrictions and rules were too confining, said Ratner.
The suburban store carries more casual lines, the fruit of long-standing partnerships with vendors such as Flax and Russ Berens; both lines have two fall and two spring trunk shows. Novelty pieces sell well, such as Michael Simon sweaters, C’est Duo’s crinkled T-shirts, Maurene Keene’s embellished tops and silk kimonos by Breeze. Accessories for both stores are art-inspired, such as hammered gold jewelry by Marjorie Baer and vintage-inspired bags by Moulin Rouge. Shoes and slippers, by Arteffects have been hot items recently.
Local perfumer Marie Booker creates a “Savannah” perfume, (sweet) and an “Atlanta” perfume, (spicy), sold in both stores.
Jezebel’s owners said their customers appreciate service they don’t find in malls. “Every night, one of us makes a delivery, or takes something to be altered,” said Toporek. “We joke about ‘drive-through’ business, because we’re always running out to someone’s car who’s maybe in a swimsuit or just in a big hurry. They usual call ahead on a cell phone to warn us, then they just drive by and toot the horn.”
Like many retailers, the owners say their biggest challenge is finding and keeping good sales people. All seven employees work part time and all are women over 40.
“Only women on hormones can apply,” joked Toporek, who adds that older women relate well to their customer base, which can be mothers and daughters and grandmothers.
Another challenge is convincing locals that they don’t need to go beyond their backyard for the latest trends.
“People have always gone outside Savannah to shop, because they don’t think they’ll find it here,” said Ratner. “We have to convince them that it is here.” Ratner added that, while Savannah used to be about two years behind in trends, it is catching up. “Savannah is growing, and people are exposed to more,” she said. “Still, we have to push them beyond their comfort zone to get them to try new things.”
Fine’s has been the women’s store downtown since 1903. It is still the only designer boutique in Savannah, and the only store with European designer collections. In 1988, the Silver Fox Group, a Naples, Fla.-based eight-store specialty chain, bought the store, moved the location but kept the name.
In the enviable position of being of the mall but not in it, Fine’s is now adjacent to the Oglethorpe Mall in an 8,000-square-foot space that once held a movie theater. The sloping floor was levelled, while the former projector room was used originally as a bridal salon. With no mall access, the free-standing location benefits from spillover mall traffic without inheriting the headaches.
The parent Silver Fox Group also owns six bridge/designer stores under the name Coplon’s in Virginia and the Carolinas; and two stores called Johnston of Florida in Florida.
Although dresses and sportswear were originally equal parts, sportswear is now 80 percent of inventory and growing. Fine’s look is modern, updated, with a “twinge of trend,” said Hank Greenberg, vice president, Silver Fox Group.
“We pop fun pieces with high-quality basics,” said Greenberg. For example, a leather stenciled skirt by Vakko is paired with a cashmere cap sleeve polo by John Patrick or a three-quarter sleeve tafetta shirt by Clara Cottman. European lines make up around 30 percent of total, and Greenberg works with designers for looks exclusive to Fine’s.
In addition to best-selling bridge lines such as Trina Turk, Three Dots, Jenne Maag and Garfield & Marks, Fine’s carries designers including Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, St John and Cheap and Chic by Moschino.
“Savannah, with its warm climate and outdoor lifestyle, is more casual than other Silver Fox stores,” said Greenberg. “Urban, designer suitings are not as necessary here.”
What is important to the Savannah customer is to have the only piece of a kind in the city. Ninety percent of Fine’s lines are exclusive to the store, and pieces are limited to a few per style.
“We have customers who would rather shop here than Neiman’s or Saks in Atlanta. They like our editing, and we often buy with specific people in mind,” said Greenberg. Customers also appreciate services such as free closet organization and home deliveries.
Its customers are always open to new color and new shape, as long as it isn’t too bare. Fabric, however, has to be year-round. While heavy wools are a no-no, tropical-weight wool is a bestseller in Savannah’s humid climate.
Savannah’s reputation for charming, eccentric characters is borne out by Fine’s employees.
“They’re liable to do anything, like impromptu magarita parties in the store. Our store manager is a real southern lady, but hip and completely unpredictable,” said Greenberg.
With a single Victoria’s Secret location as her only competition, Jackie Sigoloff opened a lingerie store in March to bring in upscale lingerie not available anywhere else in the area.
The 1,000-square-foot store, in a renovated 19th-century house downtown, is quaint and cozy, with brick walls and a fireplace. With her goal being to offer luxury lingerie for all body types, Sigoloff stocks bra cup sizes A to G and extra small to 4X large bodysuits, panties, hosiery and sleepwear. Selections in the 20 lines include everything from easy basics and exercise wear from Elita to ornate lace sets from Chantal and Fantasie of England, priced from $55 to $75. Other lines include Cosabella, Parisa, Ariane and Flora Nikrooz. Sleepwear, sachets, shawls, purses and gifts round out the mix.
Lines such as Rigby & Peller, a London-based company worn by the royal family, have cachet and emphasize correct fit. “Special-size customers are so grateful to finally have a bra that fits,” Sigoloff noted.
Still, it is a challenge to educate customers who may be willing to spend money for a nice outfit, but balk at a $70 bra, said Sigoloff. Projecting first-year sales of $120,000, Sigoloff has invested heavily on advertising in all the local publications and hotel guides, to get the word out.