As the titans of LA retail begin to crumble under economic stress—Presse and Tracey Ross folded in December alone—you’d think one would be crazy to attempt a new venture. But even though the city’s trickle of new boutiques has slowed to a half-hearted drip, there have been two notable arrivals in recent months: Echo Park’s Mohawk General Store, and The Reformation, located just south of Beverly and La Brea. Instead of boldface labels, high gloss interiors and paparazzi-friendly clientele, these newcomers are hoping homegrown products, local shoppers and an ethos of affordabile exclusivity will power them through the downturn.
While the retail climate did weigh heavily on both sets of entrepreneurs’ minds, each concluded that their vision outweighed the risks. “For me it was kind of a ‘do or die’ situation—regardless of the economy. I wasn’t about to sit at home and worry,” says Yael Aflalo, the brains behind labels YaYa Aflalo and Love YaYa, who conceived of The Reformation with fellow designer Chi Bui. “This was an idea I had been working on before the recession and I’ll continue to work on after its over.”
Mohawk General Store co-owners Kevin and Bo Carney were a bit more cautious in their approach. “We signed our lease in August and didn’t start construction for another month. So, when the crash happened in September, we started going back and forth about whether we should go through with it,” said Kevin, co-designer of footwear collection the Generic Man. “It was hard to follow through and believe in ourselves, but we realized we just needed to be smart about what we put into the store.”
This approach extended to both the shop’s design elements—self-built fixtures made from reclaimed materials, flea market finds and industrial shelving—and its wares. To supplement the shop’s core shoe selection,—including the Generic Man, Kristen Lee, Jeffrey Campbell, Rachel Comey and Slow and Steady Wins the Race—the couple tapped their friends and the local design community for a small offering of clothing, art and accessories. Not only are these unique pieces such as fringe necklaces from Mary Myers and super-soft leather clutches by Vivier, but each pair of Generic Man shoes is exclusive to the store. Certain styles are even made in limited, numbered editions from unorthodox materials, such as vintage raincoats and army jackets.
Aflalo and Bui have adopted a similar blend of the exclusive and the home-made for The Reformation, creating one-of-a-kind women’s pieces in the back room of their boutique—a move that keeps prices startlingly low. “We were starting to feel a little burned out on the wholesale design monster of constant deadlines, four-month turnaround times and high minimums. We wanted to get back to the basics: making great pieces that we could wear the very next day,” says Aflalo.
Each piece in the store is made from vintage fabrics in a variety of simple silhouettes: loose, languid racerback tanks in vibrant silks; clean-lined wool, tweed and leather miniskirts that fit high on the hips; effortless dresses and jumpsuits with details such as plunging backs, cutouts and impeccable draping. The LA response has been so positive that the duo plan to open an outpost on New York’s Ludlow Street.
Paradoxically, both Aflalo and Carney credit the crunch with fostering a ‘treasure hunt’ mentality that’s working to the advantage of boutiques such as their own. “There has definitely been a shift in the way people are shopping due, in my opinion, to the economic situation and a new era of intelligent consumers. We now have unlimited shopping resources, from H&M to online sample sales to small vintage stores and flea markets,” says Aflalo. “I see so much mixing of high and low, which I think is great because it creates a demand for all kinds of boutiques and gives us all room to flourish.”
“The times aren’t fantastic, but people are becoming more into local, independent retailers,” agrees Carney. “And hopefully, that will work in our favor.”
Mohawk General Store: 1102 Mohawk Street, Los Angeles, CA
The Reformation: 142 N. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA