ROCKY MOUNTAIN STYLE
Byline: Hassell Bradley Wright
DENVER — Who says Kiton, Luciano Barbera and Yohji Yamamoto can’t be sold under the same roof — in the Rocky Mountains? Certainly not Cathy Covell, co-owner of Lawrence Covell, an upscale clothier in Cherry Creek North.
With sales soaring almost 100 percent over last year, Lawrence Covell is luring customers into its lavish, redesigned store at 225 Steele Street and then selling them a broad spectrum of lines.
“It makes sense,” said Cathy Covell, who owns the business with her husband, Lawrence, “to sell quite different worlds of women’s fashion all at the same time+ if you can do it.” And apparently the owners understand how that’s done, in both women’s and men’s fashions. Today, 53 percent of space is devoted to women’s and 47 percent to men’s. When the Covells moved to Cherry Creek North in 1980, they occupied about 3,400 square feet. That space has now increased to 11,000 square feet, with 6,800 square feet of selling space, and all tolled, they’ve spent $2 million on the store and its renovation.
The broad, parqueted entrance hall — with French doors opening onto a stone courtyard where lily pads float in the fountain and soft jazz emanates from an overhead speaker — sends not only a message of style and quality but also one of comfort and welcome.
When the veteran retailers say they want their customers to feel at home, they mean it. Many Lawrence Covell customers had their own homes designed by the same award-winning architect, D.H. Ruggles, who redesigned the store. This drew some interest in the city last year, Cathy Covell recalled. Ruggles, who worked at Versailles and is familiar with European architecture, has received a first-place award for the Lawrence Covell commercial remodeling project from the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. The store was never closed for a day of business, and the year-long renovation was completed in September 1999.
“Some people think we’re a new business, because we take up so much space and because the building’s appearance has changed so dramatically,” Lawrence Covell said.
The redesigned store is the culmination of a dream shared by the Covells ever since they graduated as history majors from the University of Colorado in the Sixties and began making and selling fine leather sandals near the campus in Boulder. They made everything they sold, but gradually they started buying and selling items they couldn’t make: English wallets, Italian gloves, luggage and boots.
The Covells’ first foray into clothing was in men’s, with a purchase of fitted Italian shirts and French trousers — a far cry from what traditional men’s shops in Colorado sold in the Seventies. Soon they bought women’s clothing lines that had never been sold locally either. Born in Manhattan, Cathy Covell knew they had to go to New York. They began by buying smaller European lines.
“On our first European buying trip, we took the next step and bought important collections like Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Krizia. It was gutsy and risky, but we knew we were headed in the right direction. There was no single moment that we understood this. It was continuous.”
In 1980, they bought the property at 225 Steele Street, and gradually the market seemed to move in their direction. They remodeled a portion of the building and leased the balance. They acquired a gift-shop tenant in the purchase and, in 1985, remodeled another part of the building. They had to wait to do the final remodeling and expansion until the tenant’s lease expired.
The Covells said their choice of architect reflects their demand for quality in everything in their business: from the designer lines they carry, their own 10 to 12 annual trips to New York and the European buying trips every four months. Their frequent European trips have led to friendships with designers like Luciano Barbera. The designer has written a thick booklet on men’s fashion, which Lawrence Covell uses as an impressive giveaway in the men’s department.
“Frequent European buying trips are essential in order to stay on top of the market,” Cathy Covell said. “There is, for instance, no other place to buy Yohji Yamamoto. He sells only in Paris and only for five days, twice a year.
“We have succeeded in Denver against all odds — we’re talking about the city that hosts the National Western Stock Show, after all — to sell high-end fashion merchandise in a city that has never been considered one of the fashion capitals of the country. Furthermore, we started out with $800 in the Sixties as a leather shop, and now, 30 years later, we’re selling some of the most exclusive merchandise in the world.”
Convincing women in that area to try the high-end, forward fashions took some doing, she recalled.
“We have always followed our own taste,” she explained. “In the fashion business, inventory changes all the time. You find new things and try them, editing on a daily basis. The one constant has always been a real desire to handle only the highest-quality products the market will bear.
“You must persuade women to buy new lines. You explain what you love about a line and why you think it is interesting, special and beautiful. But you’re cautious. You increase your order as necessary. If something sells, and you continue to like it, then you write larger orders.”
Lawrence Covell added: “We’re utterly convinced of the wisdom of buying the best that one can afford, and we try to convince our clientele that we are correct. If you deal only with quality, you don’t have as many problems. And let’s face it; it’s a matter of pride. But we have to admit that it was a major challenge in the beginning to get people in Denver to at least consider our taste.”
Collections for women currently include Barbera, Kiton, Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten, Lainey, Malo, Cividini, Vestimenta and Piazzi Sempione. Helmut Lang will be added for spring. Jacket prices run from $3,500 for a Kiton down to $700 for a Vestimenta. Kiton pants are $700, and the price dips to $200 for Gunex. A Lainey sweater will cost about $2,000, but a Malo can be bought for about $250. In dresses, prices range from $2,500 for a Yohji to $500 for a Vestimenta.
The Covells declined to put a number on volume for the store, but industry sources estimate the annual take is about $5 million.
The two make sure they are the first to pick up new lines, then they drop them as they become too commercial.
“Maybe we’re a little too proud,” Cathy Covell said, “or maybe we’re not hard-nosed enough, but we prefer to do it this way. We work obsessively and are passionate about the store. We use as our models the best stores in the world. We want to be one of those.”
Like many specialty stores, a good part of the success can be attributed to the emphasis on service, the pair avers. Lawrence Covell’s women customers are professionals, socialites who travel, and many are entrepreneurs. Cathy Covell and three assistants will order lunch brought in or pour a glass of wine for a customer. In some fitting rooms, antique framed mirrors lean against the walls.
If a customer requests an appointment in her home, the store will honor that, although the Covells believe they can give better service on the premises. Cathy Covell says her employee training program is more or less by instinct — hers.
“I don’t have a formal training program, because it is almost impossible to lock yourself away with an employee,” she said. “Training has to be an ongoing process. My new employees are thrown into the environment to listen, to watch, to ask questions, to absorb it all. Every free minute, I talk to them until I lose my voice, and this goes on for months. As soon as we get back from a buying trip, I share all that. I’m always learning, but I’m always teaching, too.”
The Covells have had little time to deal with marketing and public relations. Only recently have they hired someone to help in this area. However, they still find a few moments to help in local charitable causes.
For instance, two years ago, Lawrence Covell was approached by the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which directs more than 840 member agencies that train volunteers to speak for abused, neglected or abandoned children in the court. New to Colorado, CASA asked the store to put on a men’s fashion show as a benefit. The Covells went a step further and offered to put on a women’s fashion show along with the men’s.
On Sept. 14 , the second Covell Couture for Colorado CASA was held at the Inverness Hotel and Golf Club here, raising about $200,000 and earning some local publicity while they were at it.
Lawrence Covell said they are still trying to work out things about how to promote the business. “It’s a fairly big process,” he said, “just running your own business.”
Now in their fifth decade as retailers, the high point of their career has recently occurred, said Cathy Covell. Last April, their son, Joe, joined them in the business as merchandiser and assistant men’s wear buyer.
Joe, who is 24, graduated from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in 1998 with a history major, and then he waited tables for a few months. His connection certainly helped in securing the job, but he has a fairly lengthy resume considering his age, according to his mother.
“We took him on his first buying trip to Europe when he was six,” she said, “and he’s gone with us almost every year since.”