Local Heroes

A growing rank of visionary shop owners is bringing high design to some unlikely places. William Middleton reports on fashion's changing landscape.

Eighteen years ago, Jeffrey Kalinsky was a 25-year-old shoe buyer at Barneys New York with a fair amount of fashion experience and a big dream. He had grown up in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father owned Bob Ellis, by any account one of the most elegant shoe stores in the country. When Kalinsky decided to open a shop of his own, he went searching for a location somewhere on the East Coast—New York, his instincts told him, was not in the running. Remembering all the residents of Atlanta who regularly drove the five hours to his father's shop and noticing that department stores had not made Georgia's capital a priority, Kalinsky decided to open a branch of the family business there in 1990. Five years later he added seven lines of women's designer clothing in an adjacent boutique he named Jeffrey. Then in 1999 he returned to New York, pumped Jeffrey up to Manhattan-size proportions with more designers and several menswear labels, and set up shop on a down-and-dirty stretch of 14th Street in the Meatpacking District.

The New York store helped turn the neighborhood into a shopping destination and Jeffrey became a retail phenomenon. This summer department-store giant Nordstrom bought a controlling interest in Kalinsky's company at an estimated cost of $40 million to $50 million (Kalinsky will continue to operate his stores while also overseeing designer clothing for Nordstrom). Though it took big-city exposure to turn Jeffrey into a large-scale success, Kalinsky never forgot his roots. "Opening first in Atlanta was the greatest thing I ever did," he says. "It gave me a much more balanced perspective. There's an amazing group of women there who shop the whole world—a lot of my muses are women I met in Atlanta. New Yorkers tend to forget that there are chic women everywhere in the United States."

Kalinsky is only the most visible member of a group of tastemakers whose shops are flourishing in less fashion-centric cities, from Cincinnati to Seattle. They understand what the late Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel and a similar pioneer in her day, called dog-whistle fashion. She believed in design that was at such a high pitch it could be heard by very few. But those who got it really got it. That level of style, once limited to Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive, is now making its way to the heart of the country. Independent specialty stores are redrawing America's fashion map.

Major cities have always held an interest in high fashion. In Chicago, for example, the Gold Coast boutique Ikram brings Narciso Rodriguez and Yohji Yamamoto to the Midwest. Mameg, a jewel of a shop in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, showcases such avant-garde designers as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Hussein Chalayan—names you'd be hard-pressed to find in Beverly Hills. In Dallas, gowns by Azzedine Alaïa and the experimental Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf turn up at Forty Five Ten, a sparkling 9,000-square-foot store built around a central courtyard. However, as the widespread craving for luxury goods has intensified in recent years, so the cutting edge of design has extended to the suburbs and smaller towns (in this case, a rising tide lifts all boats). Susan Foslien opened her shop, Susan, in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame 22 years ago with just $800; it has since blossomed into a mini empire of four stores carrying 120 designers and doing a multimillion-dollar business. Charlotte, North Carolina's Capitol—founded by Laura Vinroot Poole and her husband, Perry Poole, who designed the sleek modern space—stocks a sharply edited selection of pieces by the likes of Chloé and Balenciaga.

What the owners of these shops share, besides exquisite taste, is an unwavering point of view. "Having your own vision is vital," says Linda Dresner, whose namesake boutiques, in Birmingham, Michigan, and on New York's Park Avenue, are considered two of the best in the country. "You have to know who you're speaking to—you have to know your audience—and you can't try to speak to too many. It's focus and passion that make a store great." Over in Port Washington, New York, Janet Brown shares the same philosophy. Her store offers everything from stylishly tailored jackets by Jil Sander to the latest hot-ticket dress by Lanvin. "I buy for three hundred fifty of the most privileged women in the world," she says. "They depend on me to be absolutely on the fashion pulse."

Keeping up with the torrid pace of fashion, however, runs both ways these days. The American consumer is increasingly sophisticated about how she shops, and fashion information, once carefully protected and doled out by a handful of designers and editors, is now available to everyone—instantly. Internet sites such as Style.com" class="external">www..com post images of entire collections in real time, including close-ups of details and accessories. "Before, you would return from Paris and the clients would ask, 'What are we going to see?' " says Susan Stone, owner of the Santa Monica shop Savannah. "Now I come back from Paris and my client says, 'I saw that Lanvin show online—are you getting that red coat?' So you can imagine the challenge: It's like they're right there in the front row. Woe to you if you didn't get something."

Brian Bolke, co-owner of Forty Five Ten (Shelly Musselman is his partner), has the same sense of being kept on his toes. "Our clients don't just stumble in here and buy a thousand-dollar top. They've done their research," he says. "They're almost as educated as we are." Almost. What sets these independent shops apart from, say, a department store is that customers have such immediate access to the front lines of fashion—there is virtually no remove between shopper, salesperson, buyer, and owner. People like Bolke and Ikram Goldman, who owns Ikram in Chicago, are plugged in at every level: They attend the runway shows in Europe and New York, pore over the collections back at the showrooms, and consult with their clients in the dressing room. "You have to go out there and find the new shoe line or designer who's off the beaten path and then bring them back to your customers," Goldman says. According to Bolke, it's sort of a double life—one that can be unsettling, if only because traveling cuts into the time he spends with his clientele. "The worst thing about being in New York or Paris for the next season is that we're at the height of the current season," he says. "It's painful because you really want to be back in the store, watching the clothes come out of the box, seeing them as they're sold. That's what makes it so personal."

Forging relationships beyond the one between customer and cash register is what seems to drive so many small retailers. For one thing, a close connection to shoppers allows owners to take regular barometric readings of their desires—and to take risks with new ideas they think might work. (Ikram, for instance, sold Alexander McQueen before anyone had even heard of him. "Just because a collection is not in the magazines doesn't mean it's not important," Goldman says.) In addition, developing these close bonds takes the level of service to a higher plane.

Janet Brown keeps files on each customer so she can recall at a moment's glance precisely what he or she has bought since the shop opened in 1983 (the same year every one of her current sales associates and seamstresses started). Her employees take the time to wrap every purchase perfectly in tissue paper; Brown will even whip up lunch for regular shoppers right in the store. She also believes true service can mean telling someone what not to buy. "Clients are touched," she says, "when they put on an ensemble and I walk over and say, 'It's not right—let's keep looking.' "

The extra mile apparently stretches all the way into shoppers' closets. The sales associates at Savannah, among other shops, make house calls to help people organize their wardrobe. "We'll suggest that certain things are no longer useful," explains owner Susan Stone, adding that her team will take clothing that may have remained unworn for a few seasons and try to coordinate it with another item for a fresh look. "That's done several times a year."

Mr. Ooley's, which caters to the stylish men and women of Oklahoma City, maintains a detailed record of everyone who regularly buys there, filtering through their closets and looking for ways to update as well. Those searching for a gift for a Mr. Ooley's client can see the swatch of his most recent hand-tailored suit by Oxxford Clothes and find a new shirt and tie in the perfect shades. "We're very, very in touch with our customers," David Ooley says. "When we go to buy for the store we keep individual customers in mind, whether we're looking at a specific jacket or a specific stripe."

It may be no coincidence that Ooley, like so many small-store owners with a consistent vision, has a long history in fashion. His shop, which he runs with his sister, Sara, was established by their father in 1964. Debora Greenberg, of Louis Boston, is also heir to the family business; she is the fourth generation to run the store, which occupies a resplendent one-acre spot on Berkeley Street (her great-grandfather, Louis Pearlstein, began with a pawnshop in the early 20th century). And at Mitchells in Westport, Connecticut, three generations of family members—including six grandsons of the original founders—have overseen the store. Linda Dresner began her career as a model, while Janet Brown started at 16 as a salesperson for legendary Philadelphia fashion maven Nan Duskin.

This sense of history—or at least a remembrance of the more gracious days of shopkeeping—is also part of what motivates the new generation to take a more personalized approach. Capitol's Laura Vinroot Poole named her shop after a small-town North Carolina department store from the fifties. "The service was really just incredible there," she remembers. "Everything was wrapped up and delivered to your home—it was very old school." Jeffrey Kalinsky, even while his business has boomed, always tries to stay grounded in the past: "My stores are meant to feel like a small, old-fashioned department store from the South, where everyone is friendly and says hello. Those are the principles I learned growing up."

Smart shoppers no doubt appreciate the attention. Cindy Rachofsky, a long-time patron of Forty Five Ten in Dallas, certainly does. "Brian [Bolke] will see things that just scream my name," she says. "He'll have Carrie, one of his associates, bring them to my house. And because he's the ultimate salesman, he'll send other items he knows I can't live without." Rachofsky also relies on Bolke and Musselman to streamline the shopping process for her. "I'm short on time and they're respectful of that," Rachofsky says. "There are very few stores that will just drop things off and say, 'Here, take a couple of days.' That just doesn't happen anymore." For Patti Crews, another Forty Five Ten devotee, the relationship goes even deeper. "I don't always want my Dallas look when I am in Washington, New York, or Nantucket," she explains. This summer, when Crews traveled around Europe to celebrate her 50th birthday, she wore clothes from Forty Five Ten exclusively. "I felt perfectly at ease. What Brian and Shelly offer is the opportunity to look good anywhere I go. I don't have a stamp on my head that says DALLAS, TEXAS."

The significant role that individual style plays in how America shops is among the most critical reasons so many small stores have thrived. It used to be that "if someone got a BMW, everyone wanted a BMW," says Debora Greenberg of Louis Boston. "If one woman had a Prada bag, everyone wanted a Prada bag." Nowadays it's the opposite—people choose clothes that reflect their personality, not just the size of their pocketbook. "When spending that kind of money people want an item to be special," Greenberg says, noting that this sort of exclusivity is a new factor in her business. "Otherwise, they might as well stick with the Gap." Today many of the designers Louis Boston represents distribute their collections to stores on a very limited basis "so that clients don't see themselves coming and going," Greenberg says. Likewise, Vinroot Poole acquires very few of the same item to avoid duplication. "We don't want women to show up in the same thing at the same event," she explains. "Often, if someone buys a really important piece, we sell the other one out of town."

A shop owner who 20 years ago would have focused the inventory on designer clothing may now feel compelled to expand its reach to artisans working outside the mainstream and sometimes to the realm of vintage fashion. Janet Brown regularly adds pieces such as modernist jewelry in silver, gold, and ebony by Taher Chemirik, along with vivid silk and cashmere shawls by Dianora Salviati ("They're the best in the world," she insists). Brown also commissions cashmere weavers from Italy and Scotland to produce private-label sweaters. At Ikram, Goldman sets off a few of the newest names in fashion with some of the great designers from the past, such as Halston and Chanel. For her part, Mameg's Sonia Eram has introduced handcrafted jewelry and accessories from Peru, Argentina, and Kurdistan. "We try to mix the old and the modern in a way that shows they speak the same language," she says. "It's exciting for people to see that good design doesn't have any boundaries." To Eram, the people who can appreciate her principles are the same ones who also tend to shy away from the notion of the handbag of the season. "A backlash started four or five years ago," she observes. "People are tired of the same old things."

High style, it appears, has made its way into even the smallest towns in America. But what's next? Could dog-whistle fashion actually play in Peoria? One of Goldman's customers, a doctor, makes regular trips to Chicago from Indiana. "She just bought two pieces by Jun Takahashi of Undercover, one of the wildest new Japanese designers, who creates surreal things like skirts with teeth hanging along the edge," Goldman says. "She's wearing them in Indiana. It's outstanding—we're not just talking about city folk."


21 LITTLE SHOPS AROUND THE CORNER

Blake Minimalist shop in a former post office carrying women's clothing by Dries Van Noten, Balenciaga, Hussein Chalayan, Rick Owens, and Viktor & Rolf. At 212 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago; 312-202-0047.

Capitol Sparkling modernist space with designs by Valentino, Chloé, Alessandro Dell'Acqua, Lanvin, and Narciso Rodriguez. At 6815 Phillips Place Ct., Charlotte, NC; 704-552-8987.

Cuffs A 19th-century building housing custom-tailored Brioni clothing and the first privately owned Hermès boutique in America. At 18 E. Orange St., Chagrin Falls, OH; 440-247-2828.

Distractions An insider's favorite for such haute names as Lanvin, Rochas, Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, Tory by TRB, and Project Alabama. At 465 E. Hopkins Ave., Aspen; 970-544-9946.

Forty Five Ten A destination store selling women's fashion from Azzedine Alaïa, Alexander McQueen, and Martin Margiela; men's clothes by Moschino and D Squared. Also has Diptyque candles and fragrances from Comme des Garçons. At 4510 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-559-4510; www.fortyfiveten.com.

Ikram Impressive Gold Coast boutique for Viktor & Rolf, Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Narciso Rodriguez, and vintage Halston and Chanel. At 873 N. Rush St., Chicago; 312-587-1000; www.ikramonline.com.

Janet Brown Established North Shore boutique selling Jil Sander, Lanvin, Marni, Missoni, Bottega Veneta bags, cashmere sweaters by Cruciani, and shoes by Prada and Christian Louboutin. At 4 Carlton Ave., Port Washington, NY; 516-883-2670.

Jeffrey World-class collection of men's and women's fashion from the likes of Balenciaga, Rochas, Marni, Christian Dior, and Marc Jacobs; shoes by Gucci and Manolo Blahnik. At 3500 Peachtree Rd. Northeast, Atlanta, 404-237-9000, and 449 W. 14 St., New York, 212-206-1272.

Kirna Zabête At this fashion editors' favorite: clothing and footwear from Chloé, Balenciaga, Rick Owens, and Lanvin. At 96 Greene St., New York; 212-941-9656.

Linda Dresner The doyenne of small retailers, selling John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, Jil Sander, Narciso Rodriguez, and Tuleh. At 299 W. Maple Rd., Birmingham, MI, 248-642-4999, and 484 Park Ave., New York, 212-308-3177; www.lindadresner.com.

Louis Boston Monumental 19th-century building offering women's designs by Dries Van Noten, Roland Mouret, and Zac Posen; menswear by Brioni and Neil Barrett; Morgenthal Frederic's eyeglasses; and exotic finds such as a 1963 vintage red Vespa. At 234 Berkeley St., Boston; 800-225-5135; www.louisboston.com.

Mameg Intellectual fashion by avant-garde clothiers, among them Martin Margiela, Junya Watanabe, Hussein Chalayan, and Comme des Garçons, along with handcrafted pieces from Peru, Argentina, and Kurdistan. At 11925 Montana Ave., Brentwood, CA; 310-826-4142.

Mario's A Pacific Northwest institution carrying women's clothing from Prada, Pucci, Etro, Lanvin, and Oscar de la Renta; menswear by Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, and Tod's. At 833 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR: women's, 503-241-8111, and men's, 503-227-3477; 1513 Sixth Ave., Seattle: women's, 206-622-6161, and men's, 206-223-1461; www.marios.com.

Marissa Collections A hundred designers in 10,000 square feet, including Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, John Galliano, Emanuel Ungaro, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, and Vera Wang. At 1167 Third St. South, Naples, FL; 239-263-4333.

Max An ever-expanding Colorodan empire (opening next in Vail) with designs by Chloé, Jean Paul Gaultier, Miu Miu, Diane von Furstenberg, and Jimmy Choo. At 3039 E. Third Ave., Denver, 303-321-4949, and 609 E. Cooper Ave., Aspen, 970-544-3445; www.maxfashion.com.

Mitchells, Richards, and Marshs Family-owned shops carrying Armani Black Label, Akris, Escada, Michael Kors, and Ralph Lauren for women; menswear from Armani Collezioni, Brioni, and Gieves & Hawkes. Mitchells, 670 Post Rd. East, Westport, CT, 203-227-5165, and Richards, 359 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich, CT, 203-622-0551; www.mitchellsonline.com. Marshs, 270 Main St., Huntington Village, NY; 631-423-1660; www.marshs.com.

Mr. Ooley's Masculine, comfortable space with Armani, Brioni, and Oxxford Clothes for men; Badgley Mischka, Strenesse, and Zanella for women. At 1901 N.W. Expy., Oklahoma City; 405-879-0888.

Savannah Soaring space with Lanvin, Viktor & Rolf, Valentino, Jil Sander, Marni, and Manolo Blahnik. At 706 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, CA; 310-458-2095.

Susan Susan Foslien's West Coast outposts for Junya Watanabe, Jil Sander, Marni, Rick Owens, Balenciaga, Revillon Furs, and Alexander McQueen. At 1403 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame, CA, 650-347-0452, and 3685 Sacramento St., San Francisco, 415-922-3685.

Tender Opened by two of Linda Dresner's acolytes, carrying Valentino, Lanvin, Giambattista Valli, Paul Smith, Zac Posen, Derek Lam, Peter Som, and Jimmy Choo. At 271 W. Maple Rd., Birmingham, MI; 248-258-0212.

Wilkes Bashford Much-loved emporium offering women's lines by Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta, and Anouska Hempel; men's by Loro Piana, Zegna, Issey Miyake, and Luciano Barbera. At 375 Sutter St., San Francisco; 415-986-4380; www.wilkesbashford.com.