The Best Shops in Dallas
They buy and buy big. And they never stopped. Nandita Khanna chronicles the tribal rites and consuming rituals of a rare and coveted breed.
“I’m in the business of selling jewelry. I don’t participate in the recession.” —Sue Gragg, private jeweler
In the Highland Park section of Dallas, on the second floor of a stucco building, through two sets of armed mahogany-and-steel doors, behind a gilded faux Louis XV desk, sits jeweler Sue Gragg. She wears black lacquered pavé-diamond bangles by the armful, with an oversized flower cocktail ring on one hand and a gargantuan solitaire on the other. For the last 31 years, Gragg has supplied the women of Dallas with five-carat, pear-shaped diamond necklaces, rose-cut sapphire earrings, and black diamond–and–platinum cocktail rings. Gragg is adamant on two points: 1. She has always had a passion for jewelry; 2. She doesn’t know what went on in the rest of the world, but her clients “never stopped shopping.”
Twice a year Gragg opens her sprawling home to host a jewelry shopping party. (She sends out 1,800 invitations.) The most recent was held last December, and as luck would have it, it poured all day. “Dallas women don’t like to get out in the rain,” Gragg notes. So just as any consummate party hostess might do, she arranged for a tent and valet parking. Sure enough, despite the less than favorable weather, they came in droves. “And my, did they buy,” she says. “Did they ever.”
An early-December visit to Neiman Marcus’s 102-year-old downtown Dallas flagship tells a similar tale, with its barren Chanel ready-to-wear section: Nearly every piece in its fall-winter collection was sold. “Not an uncommon occurrence,” says Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director. “Dallas women love their Chanel. It’s not a bad thing.” Then there was the November 16, 2009, Women’s Wear Daily report on the pandemonium at the opening of the city’s Louis Vuitton flagship, the largest of five locations in the Dallas area. The ladies in attendance couldn’t get enough; they bombarded the people behind the bag counters and the custom-monogram bar with requests to stock more for them to buy. “Dallas remains a resilient market,” Daniel Lalonde, president and CEO of Louis Vuitton North America, says. “It has accepted Vuitton very well.”
Dallas, anchored by the downtown arts district toward the south, and ritzy enclaves such as Victory Park and Highland Park in the north, has long been the holy grail for luxury retailers. When Stanley Marcus opened the downtown Neiman Marcus flagship, his mission was to make his hometown a shopping destination to rival Chicago and New York. From its earliest days, Neiman Marcus was intent on being the purveyor of luxury in the southwest, says Thomas E. Alexander in his latest book, Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince. “Neiman Marcus helped the nouveau riche confidently change their station in the world,” Alexander writes. “The new customers gave the store their everlasting loyalty and many of their dollars.” Little has changed since. Dallas shoppers buy, and they buy big.
So how is it that even in this economic downturn Dallas shoppers continue to spend as other parts of the country report plummeting sales? Did the Dallas bubble never burst? Shelly Musselman, co-owner of Forty Five Ten, a high-end clothing and home boutique in the chic Knox-Henderson neighborhood, explains it this way: “The recession didn’t hit Dallas until six to eight months after the rest of the country. Fortunately the oil money kept things afloat longer here. Now we’re back with a vengeance.” Forty Five Ten reported a 23 percent increase in sales this past December. Azzedine Alaïa sheaths ($2,715), Faliero Sarti cashmere ombre scarves ($560), and Kimberly McDonald geode-and-diamond cocktail rings ($5,665) were in particularly high demand. Gragg, whose business is primarily word-of-mouth, relies heavily on her loyal repeat customers, many of whom purchase several pieces during the course of a year (“Some,” she whispers, “every month”). But she doesn’t want to jinx it: “We’re very blessed here.”
As if on cue, she ushers in her pretty, dark-haired assistant, Nicole, and asks her to set aside three pieces of jewelry for a client. “Her husband is hosting a holiday party for his business clients,” Gragg explains, gesturing toward a pair of ruby-and-diamond hoop earrings, a pavé-diamond flower ring, and a set of diamond bangles (price tag: low six figures). “He told her she could select a piece for the party, but now she has selected three. I’m breaking the news that she’s gone a bit over his allowance.”
Just who are these legendary consumers? “The Dallas shopper is social. She’s involved in her community. She’s looking for the hard-to-find. And she loves color,” says Judith Collinson, executive vice president of womenswear at Barneys New York. “We aren’t Pam or Sue Ellen Ewing out here anymore,” adds Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, a lifestyle guru who’s a fixture on the Dallas charity circuit. Whitman travels constantly, follows fashion voraciously, and wears Lanvin. But it isn’t just the women. “The men spend as much as the ladies,” says Gragg. “They aren’t holding back. They’ll buy gifts for their wives, watches for themselves. Dallas men like luxury, too.” Keith Carlisle, the menswear buyer for Stanley Korshak, the independent luxury retailer whose top-selling brands include Brioni and Belvest and that carries one of the largest selections of Kiton in the country, agrees. “In the menswear department they’re still buying luxury,” he says. “If they’ve cut back, they still want the best. Sometimes that means Isaia instead of Kiton.”
“Hi, I’m Judy and Jane’s shoe girl.” —Stacy Shobe, shopgirl at Barneys New York
Judy Aldridge. Mother. Former fashion model and clothing designer. Loves scouring eBay for vintage designer accessories (a $20 Christopher Ross lion’s head belt is her favorite), scoring a sequined Alexander McQueen jacket from Neiman Marcus Last Call for $150, and leather leggings from The Row. Number of shoes: 200-plus.
Jane Aldridge. Daughter. Style blogger, shoe designer, Crillon Ball debutante. Loves her studded Prada Mohawk platform sandals from fall 2009 and her Maison Martin Margiela dégradé cowboy boots that “could make a cameo in a David Lynch movie. They spoke to me in a way no pair of shoes has before.” Number of shoes: 75-plus. Jane is 18.
Judy and Jane Aldridge are the new faces of Dallas shopping. Gone are the blonde bouffants; in is super straight hair. Instead of studded cowboy boots, they wear Proenza Schouler lace-up booties. Over lunch at NM Cafe at Dallas’s NorthPark Center, one gets the sense that Judy has spent the past 18 years teaching Jane everything she knows about fashion and vintage clothing. “My mother and I share a love of clothes and really appreciate designers like Pierre Hardy, Biba, and YSL,” says Jane, who wore Chanel haute couture for her Paris cotillion.
The duo is behind the blog SeaofShoes.com, for which Jane writes, photographs, and styles herself several times a week—often with Judy’s help—in a curious mix of her own clothing and shoes, and selections from her mother’s extensive vintage collection. The blog gets more than 75,000 hits daily, has some 14,000 followers on Twitter, and counts Kanye West as a fan, cementing the mother-daughter duo as true arbiters of Dallas style. Jane blogs about recent trips to their favorite local boutique, Archive; visits to the consignment store Again & Again; and the latest studded Givenchy ballet flats she bought at the Barneys in NorthPark Center.
For the Aldridges, shoe shopping is serious business. There’s only one woman in Dallas they trust to get them the shoes they want. Enter Stacy Shobe, a Barneys sales associate. “Stacy is so critical to us getting our shoes,” says Judy. “We’d die without her.” During fashion week, twice a year, the mother-daughter team scours runway shots from Style.com. They review a look book of all the shoes Barneys will carry that coming season, flag the ones they must have, and hand their requests over to Stacy, who frequently moves shoes from larger markets like Beverly Hills and New York City to ensure the girls get just what they’re after. Jane notes that the buys in Dallas tend to be more conservative, which means the jewel-encrusted Lucite Prada heels from spring 2010 that she loves most likely won’t show up on the shoe floor at the Dallas Barneys or anywhere else in town. But Judy is quick to offer a solution: “We’ll e-mail Prada and figure out how to get the runway version,” she says. “We have to have them.”
The Aldridges aren’t alone in their desire for round-the-clock shopper attention: It’s become standard practice throughout Dallas. Stanley Korshak’s Carlisle recalls a client who came to him in November 2008 wanting to completely overhaul his closet—a gratis service known as a “closet tour” in Korshak parlance—which, he says, isn’t an unusual request. Carlisle visited the client at home, sifted through all his clothing, had several discussions about what his day-to-day needs were, and over the course of the next two years built an entirely new $100,000 wardrobe, starting with two Kiton suits, two sports coats, fine-gauge knits from Kiton, a few Loro Piana sweaters, and Bontoni shoes. Last December the client found a gray lightweight cashmere Kiton suit under the Christmas tree: a gift from his wife, hand-selected by Carlisle.
“We were cleaning out Michelle’s closet and found a $30,000 watch hiding in a Manolo Blahnik shoe.” —Robin, friend of Michelle Nussbaumer’s
Every time Dallas interior designer Michelle Nussbaumer would return from a trip—Istanbul, India, Southeast Asia—her friends wanted to know only one thing: “ ‘Why didn’t you bring me back that necklace, too?’ ” says Nussbaumer, who has been described as the Kelly Wearstler of Texas and splits her time between Dallas, Switzerland, and Mexico. She also runs the 10,000-square-foot antiques emporium Ceylon et Cie. From there, Nussbaumer’s shopping parties were born. She started doing shopping parties in both her home and her store about eight years ago, and hosts the occasional book signing for friends such as the Tony Duquette collaborator and More Is More author Hutton Wilkinson. “I find so many things I can’t help but buy when I travel,” says Nussbaumer. “Plus, people love going to events and seeing new pieces they haven’t seen anywhere else.” Twice yearly, Nussbaumer brings in a Hong Kong–based jewelry designer and purveyor of South Sea pearls for a trunk show. He takes special orders, too.
At the city’s highly social shopping parties and trunk shows, women attend to sip Champagne and gossip as much as to buy. “I’m always getting invites to jewelry parties in people’s homes,” says Cindy Rachofsky, a Dallas philanthropist and contemporary art collector. According to her, Gragg holds “the wildest and most well attended,” but Neiman Marcus and smaller boutiques like Forty Five Ten also participate. In the past year, the Neiman Marcus flagship hosted more than 100 trunk shows alone. Cameron Silver, owner of the Los Angeles vintage emporium Decades, came to Dallas this past December to cohost a trunk show with Forty Five Ten. The difference between Dallas women and Los Angeles women, says Silver, is that “Dallas women are owners, not loaners.”
It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Nussbaumer has a few of her friends over to her Regency-style home in the high-end enclave of Old Preston Hollow for a jewelry and textile shopping party. Her bespectacled showroom manager, Paul, trails closely behind her as she decides where to set up the piles of 18th- and 19th-century Rajasthani cuffs ($475 each), rose-cut diamond bracelets ($7,500–$11,000 each), and strands of ruby beads ($7,500 each)—all of which Nussbaumer brought back from a recent trip to India. She works with a local jeweler to design some of the pieces herself, and buys other pieces at antiques markets and auctions.
The guest list: Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, who hosted the Louis Vuitton flagship opening party last November; Karla McKinley, a former model and co-founder of the Dallas-based charity Think Human First, which raises money to build schools in places like Kenya and India; Robin Wilkes, a Neiman Marcus sales associate who works on the couture floor; and Caroline Whitman, Kimberly’s mother-in-law and a client of Nussbaumer’s, in from Paris.
The chatter—Michelle: “The beads are eighteen-karat gold and Indian wax. Karla, you need those earrings.”
Kimberly: “What else should I try on? My husband already bought me a ring, so I have to pick out something different.”
Robin: “My favorite thing about shopping is that there’s always something to get excited about.”
Michelle: “Especially when it’s vintage. My closet looks like a forties movie star lives in there, with feathers, furs, and sequins. People say less is more, you know. But who would ever want less?”
“We don’t do sale.” —Rajan Patel, Grange Hall co-owner
Neiman Marcus—which put Dallas on the retail map a century ago—continues to dominate the shopping landscape. But it has since been joined by Brian Bolke and Musselman, of Forty Five Ten, who have blazed new trails, introducing Dallas women to the likes Rick Owens and Alexander McQueen when they opened in 2000. “Forty Five Ten is one of my favorite stores in the world,” says fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez. “Brian and Shelly are a brilliant team and have created a unique shopping environment.” Then came Grange Hall, a pint-sized home decor shop in Knox-Henderson. V.O.D., a trendy women’s clothing boutique in Victory Park, followed suit, crafting a distinctly younger, edgier aesthetic and drawing in a specific and devout kind of shopper.
Six-year-old Grange Hall is outfitted with curious finds like Nymphenburg porcelain-and-silver sconces ($11,000), Ted Muehling for Lobmeyr crystal (from $200), and Gabriella Kiss gold antler earrings with champagne diamonds ($6,800) that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris. “I’d like to think that we offer our customers a kind of understated luxury,” says Rajan Patel, who opened Grange Hall with Jeffrey Lee after both left their jobs as visual directors at Stanley Korshak. “We offer a place to shop that doesn’t scream money.” Perhaps it’s that very ethos that defines shopping in Dallas now. It’s not about purchasing the biggest-ticket items (though shoppers do) or having luxe items in bulk (though they will stock up if they love it). Rather, it’s about buying items they feel an emotional connection to, at stores they feel really cater to their shopping needs, from shopowners they trust as friends.
“Some of our biggest and best customers don’t even come into the store,” says Lee. “We’ll just ship things to their second and third homes in places like Colorado. They prefer to stay under the radar. They’ll shop exclusively with us.” At V.O.D., owners Jackie Bolin and Liz Thompson find that specialized service and the fact that one of them is always in the store is what gives them a competitive edge. “When we are buying for the store, be it Alexander Wang or Zero + Maria Cornejo, we’re thinking of specific clients and their lifestyle,” says Bolin. They will personally deliver that printed silk Isabel Marant dress to a customer for a party she’s hosting, or pack and ship a box of clothes to a big client with whom they correspond exclusively over e-mail. (“She’s never stepped foot in V.O.D.,” notes Thompson.) This is the advantage of being a highly customized store in a small city—and one of the main ways such shops are able to stay afloat, and even prosper, during a downturn.
Charity events rule the Dallas social calendar, and every woman buys several dresses for various events, from Dallas Performing Arts Center openings to the Two by Two for AIDS and Art benefit. (Bolke notes that women have been buying more versatile cocktail dresses instead of floor-length gowns in the past year.) “I travel all the time, and I could shop anywhere,” says Rachofsky, a Forty Five Ten devotee. “But I want to support the local community and its shop owners.”
Bolke relies on a close-knit relationship with his clients, and just such a level of personalization to keep his customers coming back. Each season he teaches how to incorporate, say, a deconstructed Yohji Yamamoto jacket into a wardrobe of Oscar de la Renta and Alberta Ferretti. “During the shows, as clothing is coming down the runway, I’m e-mailing pictures from my iPhone to my clients for specific events they have going on,” Bolke explains. Rachofsky recalls a black Moschino cocktail dress he sent her while she was on vacation in Napa. “I had previously told Brian, ‘No more cocktail dresses, and no more black,’ ” she says. “But the moment I saw it, I loved it. Brian is never wrong.”
Barneys New York 8687 North Central Expressway, Ste. 1224; 469-221-4700; barneys.com
Celyon et Cie $ 1319 Dragon St.; 214-742-7632; ceylonetcie.com
Forty Five Ten 4510 McKinney Ave.; 214-559-4510; fortyfiveten.com
Grange Hall 4445 Travis St., Ste. 101; 214-443-0600; urbanflowergrangehall.com
Neiman Marcus Flagship at 1618 Main St.; 214-741-6911; neimanmarcus.com
Stanley Korshak 500 Crescent Court, Ste. 100; 214-871-3600; stanleykorshak.com
Sue Gragg Precious Jewels 5500 Preston Rd., Ste. 205; 214-522-5266; suegraggpreciousjewels.com
V.O.D. 2418 Victory Park Ln.; 214-754-0644; vodboutique.com
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.