SANTA MONICA, Calif. — One could call Southern California retail guru Ron Robinson a late bloomer of sorts.
This story first appeared in the November 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After a combined 59 years operating stores at Fred Segal Melrose and Fred Segal Santa Monica, Robinson is opening his first solo freestanding store, at 1327 5th Street here, one-and-a-half blocks north of his recently shuttered emporium at the 500 Broadway Fred Segal Santa Monica building, his home for 20 years.
Robinson, who recently expanded his footprint at Fred Segal Melrose — where he has had a space for 39 years — didn’t leave his loyal Westside customers hanging for long, many of whom were disappointed he closed shop last summer. (The building had been sold to DK Broadway LLC in May, and tenants’ leases were not renewed).
“We had developed a deep and strong clientele, and after we moved out and kept hearing from customers, I said, ‘If we find the right thing, then we are going to do it again.’ ” Robinson found a historic building that had once been a furniture store, an art gallery and, in the Twenties, an Air Force recruiting station. The 5,500-square-foot space has an additional 800-square-foot outdoor courtyard.
“It’s the only retail store on this block, there is parking everywhere, and the crosswalk goes right into our window. Since I’ve been here at 7 a.m. for the last 90 days, I finally started talking to the people coming to work at 8 or 9 in the morning and asked, ‘Where do you work?’ because they were dressed right and they were the right age. The next two to three doors are creative offices, some of them Internet-based, some of them graphic arts and advertising. That’s our customer.”
Indeed, Santa Monica, the urban beach locale known for its iconic pier and oceanfront retail and real estate, is experiencing a renaissance with “Silicon Beach” hatching there and in neighboring Venice Beach to the south.
On Robinson’s northern corner, the old Santa Monica post office was recently purchased by Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s son, who plans to turn it into a production office. In the old Google building around the corner (the Internet giant moved to Venice Beach last year), new creative tenants have moved in, and BeachMint and The Lucky Group are three blocks away. On the retail front, Third Street Promenade, anchored by Macerich Co.’s Santa Monica Place mall, is two blocks away.
“What I thought was going to be difficult — because it’s all on its own — is going to be fantastic because we’re a destination,” said Robinson. “And at 2 o’clock, all the women with their strollers walk by, which is my customer, too. And there must be a hot yoga teacher down the street, because I watch all these cool guys and girls walk by with their mats all day.
“It just keeps juicing me, making me feel like new ideas are coming forward.”
Inside, the white-on-white floors, walls and shelves serve as a backdrop for an open-concept space with defined areas for floral art, tabletop, books, jewelry, women’s and men’s apparel and beauty.
“Our Melrose store has lot of cubbyholes because that’s how it developed. Here we kept the integrity of the open space. We had to edit quite a bit because we don’t have all those wall spaces to put product on. I think we have about 20 percent less volume of product in the same square footage, and we did it quite inventively.”
For instance, the tabletop section, which sits in front of one of the three large, square picture windows facing the street, has tables and chairs laden with Egizia glasses, Missoni throws and Stelton knives, plus laser-cut, hand-painted silver cowhide rugs from Turkey. Square glass cubes set against a counter hold jewelry by Lulu Frost and Kristen Dorsey. Low-slung, open white shelves display bags by Elizabeth Weinstock.
“The idea is, you come in and find things you haven’t seen anywhere, and it’s appealing to the eye. It’s difficult for me to find things educated customers haven’t already come across, because the world has become so small and so quick with the Web. Now, as soon as you come home from Europe or Asia with your finds, someone is already distributing it,” he said.
Still, Robinson has managed to stay ahead of the curve with high-end English activewear brand Lucas Hugh (there is only one other point of sale in the U.S.) and jewelry by Brooklyn-based CFDA award winners K/Ller and Swarovski Atelier.
“I would say 60 to 70 percent of our soft goods are from L.A., and if they’re not made here, they are designed here or the fabric comes from here,” said Karen Meena, vice president of buying and merchandising.
“The connection of what we do in retail doesn’t stop with a nice sweater or pair of pants. That’s what it used to be, but today it’s that vase or frame or book that’s equal in fashion to my customer. Even the Internet of things,” said Robinson, picking up a “smart basketball” set along a wall of electronics like a social media camera by Beemo that syncs to an iPhone.
Midway through the store, there’s a bright white wooden deck and concrete floor patio set with black Sunbrella-upholstered modular seating against a wall of bougainvillea. Just inside, there’s a custom Carrara-marble counter with a built-in coffee machine for which a shopper can customize their beverage on an iPad — down to the coffee strength and foam level. There’s also the requisite range of cold-pressed juice by Juice Served Here.
In the back, which represents 40 percent of the retail space (60 percent is up front with home goods, books, women’s and men’s apparel, beauty accessories and jewelry), there is children’s wear.
Of his experiential retail concept, Robinson said, “If you came with your girlfriend and found jewelry and workout pants, and you are in a good space listening to good music and come out here and drink a custom coffee and enjoy the Southern California weather, then you’re having a good time. We treat you like the queen except for what we know about the products that we brought here. That’s our service in curating these things together. That is all part of the environment we are creating for our customer. We take them on a journey, we cross some boundaries and we make some mistakes from time to time, but we are human beings. If we don’t give it that trial or shoot at crossing a boundary or going as far up to the edge as we can, we’re not going to be fashionable people.”
It’s a good time for retail, according to Robinson. “I talk to others — like my friend Eddie Slatkin, who owns Shutters and Casa de Mar hotels — and they are experiencing the same resurgence and energy. I feel very confident about our economy, and I know the product we are delivering is on target. But I’m a realist. Everything is a massage. We watch it daily.”
He’s confident about sales. “We may start out somewhere in the $900-plus-per-square-foot, per-month range. I’d give ourselves a 12- to 18-month reestablishment period, then we are going to well exceed that. I always like to shoot low and come home high.”