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.
Inside Kristin Dickson’s store Iko Iko in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, there are polka dot shirts and wooden knitting needles, zig-zag coathooks and Mexican moccasins, ceramic urns and jars of jam. There are selections from Dickson’s crystal and vintage-book collections — the latter with titles like “On Weaving” or “On Fiberworks” — plus pieces from her boyfriend Shin Okuda’s furniture line Waka Waka. And as of this month, these items were joined by a haul of objects from a three-week trip the couple took to Okuda’s native Japan, where the fare spanned vintage textiles to traditional trivets to novelties like toothpaste and black Q-tips. It’s a credit to the pair’s curating talents that the shop nevertheless feels like the product of a coherent vision. “I focus on work that balances high design with craft and traditional processes,” says Dickson. “I want it to be a fun exploration of textures, cultural artifacts, utilitarian objects, and beautiful curiosities.”
One recent March morning, I found myself in the Mexican town of Ojinaga sipping micheladas with Michelle Teague, owner of Marfa’s effortlessly cool ranchwear and housewares shop JM Dry Goods, and her business partner, glass- and soap-maker Ginger Griffice. Every six weeks or so, Teague and Griffice travel to OJ on buying trips. Teague scouts the small array of stores, filled with both the everyday and the bizarre, for items to boost JM Dry Goods’s border-town flavor. Griffice buys empty bottles of Topo Chico, a popular Mexican sparkling mineral water, at OJ’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, and they become the bases for the drinking glasses she sells at the store. By now, their trips follow an established pattern. Morning micheladas are an important part of the ritual.
I’d known about the Los Angeles design shop Specific Merchandise for nearly a year before I figured out that its name was a play on the idea of the general store. “I wanted to have a huge range of things, but when I started thinking about it, I liked the idea of flipping that and being specific rather than general,” says Brooks Hudson Thomas, the former Blackman Cruz manager who set out his own shingle at the beginning of last year on a stretch of Beverly Boulevard that includes Lawson-Fenning, L.A. Eyeworks, and the former digs of TenOverSix. “One model I had in mind was a museum shop, but sort of trying to kick its ass. The other was stores like Moss, Matter, and The Future Perfect, which also have that blurry store/gallery vibe.” It’s a shop model that’s only recently begun to take hold in Los Angeles with stores like TenOverSix and Iko Iko, and Thomas isn’t totally sure if people are catching on. “I think the context I show things in can be confusing to people,” he says. “I change over the stock a lot, and it goes from being quilts to chairs to paintings. A lot of times people will say, ‘Hey, what happened to that little shop?’”