How Brick & Mortar Stores Are Finding A New Identity

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
TenOverSix, Los Angeles.
On vacation last spring, I took a stroll through Seattle’s Capitol Hill — a neighborhood that I knew during my high school years as a place to find the independent movie theater screening Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I happened upon Totokaelo, a boutique so relaxing in its design and execution, you might find yourself trying on every black dress for an hour, admiring a selection of shoes, from Dries van Noten to Robert Clergerie, that feel like perfection built for use.

Totokaleo, which recently opened a multi-floor outpost in Manhattan, is one of several new or growing boutiques nationwide geared toward the Rachel Comey-inspired shopper of today. Often limitless in intended reach (20s-to-infinity age; children’s wear; formal or loose-linen casual; gendered or androgynous), but limited in size, these stores hold a specific advantage: They cater to the preferences of many shoppers, for whom a first-class experience is partially defined by the feeling of finding what they want within a specialized scope. Simultaneously, their presence has expanded to fill the gap between e-commerce’s overwhelming accessibility and the limitations of traditional brick-and-mortar shops.

As old-guard department stores continue to fight against decline, frantically busy retailers like Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo provide basics and sharp styles to great success. Similarly, all manner of smaller, mom-and-pop type shops now face an identity crisis of sorts as they combat e-commerce — with the competitive pricing on sites like Bonobos and Gilt — and the wide selection offered by larger mega-boutiques. Even major corporations like J.Crew suffer in the fickle market.

The combination of curation and a large selection of mega-boutiques, much like an indie bookstore, aims to provide what’s needed in one luxurious stop. These stores have become the retail destinations for tourists or cross-town consumers; they've also become neighborhood go-tos that require neither mall parking nor the kind of extensive web browsing and returns that threaten nationwide productivity on Thursday afternoons.

This new generation of stores includes the likes of Ali Golden, in Oakland and Los Angeles; TenOverSix, also in Los Angeles; ByGeorge in Austin; Frances May in Portland; Bird, and its multiple Brooklyn outposts; and Kith, with locations in downtown Manhattan and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Their interiors, vibes, and the lines they carry often echo the value our society now places on independent, local work, as well as sustainable, ethical production — or, at the very least, a diligently considered approach in an ever-competitive marketplace. They offer sartorial sophistication to suit a whole slew of definitions of "adulthood" — even if it’s a cotton Want Les Essentiels bag, a well-cut jean, or a pair of tennis shoes.

Ali Golden, named for the designer who opened her initial Oakland shop nearly five years ago (she now owns two), makes a home in Temescal Alley. Over coffee on a bright February day, she explains that her stores allow her to provide a specific experience for shoppers, and herself: “It’s a way that you can create your own destiny," she says. "I can control the story, and it’s really rewarding.” At her stores, she monitors the production chain — including the silk she gets from India, the Alpaca and pima cotton from Peru — and aims to feature designers with similar values. (Roughly 40% of her inventory comes from other designers, many of whom are friends, like the Canadian creators behind Eleven Thirty, who make an assortment of practical, structured bags.) She highlights that her shop is meant to offer a relaxed and “authentic” vibe for both tourists and visitors from Oakland, San Francisco, and elsewhere — with items like a half-moon-shaped, zipper-top bag that might fit a book and wallet for a couple hundred dollars.
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Bird, New York City.
Like Golden’s store, L.A.'s TenOverSix, offers careful curating, and is not unlike a condensed (and more affordable) Barneys. The shop, situated in the thick of Melrose’s designer corner, was opened in 2008 with the goal, co-owner and buyer Kristen Cole told us by phone, of offering Los Angeles something “fun, with a sense of discovery” amid its large fashion market by stocking around 70, often “under the radar,” designers.

When my sister, who admires Kim Kardashian’s new store the way I admire a long-sleeved wool Theory dress, and I visited, she found jewelry and a brass smartphone-sized purse that aligned with her tastes. One long-sleeved white silk shift dress from Awaveawake felt as delicious as melted butter on toast tastes; I could see it just as easily in a meeting, an art-book fair, or a super bowl party. We both admired a pebbled-leather black Kara zipper backpack that was well-priced and sturdy. Besides J.Crew, this might be the only store where we’ve both found things worth buying.

Cole now also works as the creative director for Austin's storied 37-year-old boutique ByGeorge, which, as she explains, provides a “department store” vibe to the Texas city's retail scene. With two separate shops (one geared toward a younger consumer with brands like Acne and A.P.C.; the other catering to a more traditional crowd with ready-to-wear from labels like Lanvin and Saint Laurent), it's seen nearly a half-century of success as part of the mega-boutique movement. The livelihood of other retail models ebbs and flows, but this is one example of the pared-back-inventory model winning big.

Bird’s Jen Mankins also got her start in a retail job at ByGeorge. Though she had always loved fashion, it wasn’t until that job that she saw, from the store’s then-owners, how “you could make a career out of fashion.” She moved to New York after landing a job as a buyer for Barneys, and later worked for Steven Alan. When she came across an ad in WWD in 2003 that Bird’s Park Slope shop was up for sale, she jumped at the opportunity. “They had built such a solid definition of a boutique business, [and] they had a great reputation in the community, as well as in the marketplace.” Though the style has changed, she says, Bird’s then-owners were known for “championing independent designers and local designers,” which she has upheld, “reveling,” as she said, in her role as a member of the community.
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Totokaelo, Seattle.
Since she came on board, the store has opened outposts in Cobble Hill, and an elegantly assembled Williamsburg location designed by Ole Sondresen. She’ll soon be opening in Los Angeles, too. By virtue of her New York location, Mankins says her stores “compete on the biggest stage” against other boutiques, as well as e-commerce nationally and internationally. She caters to New York’s creative class, and now also tourists and regulars who come in for everything from high-end jeans to formalwear.

“We can have very personal relationships with almost every single one of our customers — that goes a long way,” Mankins says, which is difficult if not impossible for larger department stores to achieve. “We know if they are married with children; we know what they do for a living. We’ve done the editorial work. It’s almost a niche service.” Bird, she explains, aims to provide “the best of the best” from a designer, and that often means functional pieces her customers can “live their life in.”

Like the easily lampooned (but altogether delicious) farm-to-table ideal, there is a specific pleasure in a shop where the selection is simple and on-point (and features those wear-anytime, wear-anywhere clothes), and the employees’ goal is to understand its customers' needs. The mega-boutique model forces a kind of intimacy that can be uncomfortable (the kind that comes with walking into a shop, being the only one there, and receiving one-on-one attention from a salesperson), but it also allows a methodical shopper to find exactly what they need, to not feel overwhelmed by options, and to enjoy the process of looking.

When a customer finally does spring for those Dries, those well-cut jeans, or those tennis shoes, the item's already a favorite — it's something beautiful and functional, and so is the store where it was found. The experience draws on a time when there was value in store loyalty — when a customer might've come to love the boutique that knew just what to carry, just as much as the items she took home.

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