stores that survive

photos by Deidre Schoo for the New York Times

photos by Deidre Schoo for the New York Times

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Cathy Horyn wrore a story called “Yes, We’re Open” about five new fashion retailers that are swimming upstream against the recession. It’s an appropriate topic after Black Friday in the U.S. and the newly-minted Cyber Monday, which offers online retailers the chance to cash in on the holiday binge.

It seems the bruised North American economy has created a predictable pattern where stores close or lay off workers and strip down their inventories. “But nothing quite conveys the confusion and sense of retail sclerosis as the high-end ladies boutique, lights on and empty, its owner selling the same six fabulous designers as everyone else, the same droopy China-made knit that shouldn’t cost $600 but somehow does, and not a chance, barely a glimmer of hope, that enough customers will care to buy something,” writes Horyn.

At the same time, lower rents and longer leases can also help newcomers to open the doors and turn their visions into reality. In New York and its burroughs, stores like Against Nature, JF & Son, Metal and Thread, Self Edge and Victor Osborne are attracting loyal new customers — often with a carefully curated mix of handcrafted, bespoke, vintage and forward-thinking items. It’s small-scale shopping without escalators or loyalty cards.

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Certainly that’s nothing new, and the shift toward actually meeting the man or woman who stitches up your skirt has been gaining momentum for at least half a decade. But it’s still encouraging to read these retail profiles. According to Horyn, “beyond favorable rents, beyond an interest in traditional things, the new stores say a lot about the fashion world. That there is a disconnect between the customer and the people making clothes. That men have replaced women as informed, upward-moving shoppers. That designers will have to take control of how their clothes are produced.”

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Here in Vancouver, those words also ring true. Every day, I walk past a pair of gorgeous-but-empty boutiques that opened in the last calendar year. I’m waiting to see which one shuts down first — even though they’re a beautiful addition to the neighborhood. At the same time, some retailers struggle with crowd control on a busy Saturday afternoon. Stores like Gravity Pope and Plenty come to mind. They can’t keep people out if they try. So what’s the difference? In my opinion, the survivors have these attributes on their side:

scale — small is beautiful. We’re sick of big box, big budgets and overblown, anonymous corporate retailers. Stores like H&M and Topshop are still getting a pass on this rule, but even they’re capitalizing on collaborations with designers such as Sonia Rykiel, Comme des Garçons, Matthew Williamson and Viktor & Rolf.

relative value — buyers will shell out more cash for the cashmere scarf if it’s a lovingly hand-knit, one-of-a-kind piece of fashionable art. Then the extra cost makes sense.

service — the owner who remembers your size and calls when something perfect arrives? That’s always been good business, but somehow it feels more meaningful today. Connections matter. Supporting small business is a social and political statement.

craftsmanship — who isn’t sick of hems that wait for the most inconvenient possible moment to unravel? Well-made products make sense. We’re seeing a long-overdue return to repairing things that were made right in the first place, and spending money on something that won’t be tossed in a month.

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posted 30 Nov 09 in: business, fashion, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

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