What They Bought
Nina Garduno of Free City

To a certain kind of customer, it makes sense to drop half a grand on a Proenza Schouler necklace made from climbing rope or a hundred bucks on a T-shirt by Comme des Garçons: You’re paying for the craftsmanship of a couture brand and you’re buying the cachet of a label that normally retails for several times those amounts. But what of a sweatshirt — created by someone with no design training, no seasonal runway presentation, and no global retail empire — that sells for $198? That’s the conundrum that faced former Ron Herman buyer Nina Garduno when she started Free City more than a decade ago. By this point, of course, the brand has achieved cult status in Los Angeles, fueled by years of tabloid photographs showing celebrities in Free City sweatpants filling up at the pump, but price remains a sticking point even as Garduno has traded her store in a Malibu strip mall for a 3,000-square-foot Hollywood emporium she calls the Supershop Supermät. “A lot of people complain,” she says. “And yeah, it’s expensive. It costs a lot and takes a lot longer to make things the way we do, with 20 artists in our workshop and everything made here. People say they don’t want to buy things in China, and yet they love the China prices. For me, it’s worth going the distance and trying to make things that are more meaningful.”

At the Supermät, that includes the brand’s signature line of screen-printed sweatpants, t-shirts, and other apparel, but it could also describe the brands Garduno has chosen to ally herself with. The shop’s inventory is filled out with bikes by Mission Bicycle of San Francisco, almond milk by Hollywood-based small-batch brand LifeFood Organic, fragrances by L.A.’s L’Oeil du Vert, and collaborations with American heritage brands like Quoddy. But as much as she’d like to stress that things made with care aren’t cheap, Garduno also possesses an open, anti-elitist spirit that fuels her need to make the shop accessible to all. She says she finds nothing sadder than someone who walks in, turns over a price tag, and walks away feeling defeated, and to that end, she’s sprinkled the interior with $1 buttons, $2 postcards, $12 posters, and the occasional American Apparel sweatjacket printed with Free City’s signature symbols and sayings. “I really wanted there to be a sense of fun and exploration in the shop,” she says. “Don’t buy anything! Or come and buy a loaf of bread or a button for $1 and rather leave with this feeling.”

If it all sounds very New Age, that’s okay: Garduno openly admits that the inspiration for Free City came from a visit to the Danish commune Christiania, and it’s clear that behind the mystical phrases that emblazon her wares — Sending Light, Life Nature Love — is woman with an incredibly shrewd business sense. When Cathy Horyn from The New York Times visited Garduno’s Malibu shop years ago, she was moved to say this: “If fashion executives were to look beyond the granola rhetoric of Laurel Canyon circa 1975 … they may be forced to admit that Ms. Garduno is in fact very instinctual, that her ideas are prescient. They may even have to ask why the fashion industry has not been able to create a new shopping experience equal in its fun and sense of surprise to that of Whole Foods or Apple, but which is available in 800 square feet in a strip mall in Malibu.”

Garduno honed her retail chops over nearly three decades at Ron Herman’s Fred Segal stores. When she officially left four years ago to give her attention over entirely to Free City, she was the brand’s men’s buyer and vice president, but when she started, she was a 17-year-old salesgirl making $4 an hour. “One day in 1981, almost everyone got fired. I saw my manager, who was 24 at the time, working really hard, and I just thought I wanted to help her. I had stamps all over my arm, I was going out every night, but I started to care. ‘Just make it different’ became a mantra.” To find out how she’s applied that mantra to her new shop, keep reading the slideshow at right.

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The Supermät, which opened last fall on Hollywood’s Highland Avenue, is a riff on the idea of a Laundromat, “which is a shared space in a neighborhood,” Garduno says. “I was in Malibu for five years, but it didn’t feel like a neighborhood. Besides, people in Malibu see a lot of great things. People in Hollywood may not.” The supergraphic of an open hand, which along with a Twitter-like bird has become a symbol of the brand, “is an evolution of a hand that we created that at one time was similar to a ‘power to the people’ fist,” says Garduno. “It has now opened with the opening of the Supershop Supermät, with love.”

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Inside, the shop is decorated with found objects from around L.A., pieces of stone and crystal that Garduno brought back from her travels, DIY knit projects, old album art, bikes, posters, and more. “The most amazing thing about building a store is that when it’s done, you realize it’s an extension of yourself. As narcissistic as that is, it’s the truth. You’re drawing from your own life,” says Garduno.

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The food section of the shop sells Kind Kreme non-dairy ice cream, almond milk, juices, and these artisanal bread loaves from the Bread Bar bakery in Los Angeles. “Everything in here is small batches of things,” says Garduno. “The bread takes two days to make; it rises twice, and they don’t use machines. It really is an honor to highlight these things. It’s not preaching vegan or non-dairy or vegetarian, it’s just really well-made, beautiful, pure products.”

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One of the brand’s signature sweatshirts. “It’s hard. It’s not like I’m making a cashmere sport coat lined in alpaca and hand-embroidered by a lady in Sicily,” Garduno admits. “It’s a sweatshirt, and it’s $198. But we designed it, all of the labels are hand-sewn, every color is made from pigment that’s mixed by an actual person rather than purchased, and this shirt is printed by hand with nine different screens.”

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Garduno designs all of the prints, but she says that the rest of the shop is a totally collaborative experience. “There’s someone in our workshop who makes the furniture, but there’s also a person who paints it, or who hand-screens a tarp, or creates a thread installation. There are a lot of hands in everything we do.”

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The Camper Bike that sits in the rear of the store, for example, has a trailer filled with decoupage doodles culled from artists who work at the Free City workshop a block away. “It reflects the history of all past things that we’ve created,” says Garduno.

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Garduno has begun collaborating with other brands but will only do so if the result still feels like a Free City product. These special-edition shoes made from army tent material were done in collaboration with Vans, and a small collection of puffy vests and jackets, snowboard pants and sweatshirts is in the works for November with the snowboard brand Burton.

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Hand-sewn shoes made in collaboration with the Maine-based boot brand Quoddy.

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A Free City fragrance is also in the works, and when I visited the shop in January, these sample scents from the Los Angeles brand L’Oeil du Vert were on display for research purposes. Customers were asked to place a penny in the jar that matched the fragrance they preferred; the resulting notes will be mixed in a secret formula set to debut in October.

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A record player DIY’ed by a workshop member who also set his knitting needles to work on the cash-desk computer, a scanner, and other still functional items throughout the store.

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The rest of the shop is filled with objects that serve as a point of inspiration for Garduno and her team. This owl was a gift from Seilin & Co., a like-minded clothing manufacturer in Japan that Garduno considers a mentor.

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On a trip to Brazil before the shop opened, Garduno picked up pieces of pyrite both large and small that are now for sale in the shop. “I don’t make anything this great,” Garduno marvels. “This came from the planet. It’s flipping magical.”

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Of this crystal, also from a quarry in Brazil, Garduno says: “I have objects like this because I’m amazed by them. Anything we’re manifesting doesn’t hold a candle to Mother Nature. Mother Nature is our teacher, that’s why they call it mother. To remember that this didn’t come from man is important.”

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A display of hand-crafted Indian adornments collected by photographer, filmmaker, and Los Angeles denizen Lisa Eisner.

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A massive cart in the middle of the store serves as a sort of metaphor for Free City’s unlikely success. “The idea behind this is impossible commitment,” says Garduno. “Someone in Taiwan only has this and if a guy says, ‘Hey, can you move my stuff?,’ he’s like, ‘Ok, I’ll do it,’ and finds a way against all odds. I think I can relate.”

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Free City is located at 1139 N Highland Ave, Hollywood, California.