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.