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 below.
As design-store owner Dave Alhadeff sees it, there’s a distinction between the kinds of craftspeople he is and isn’t interested in: The latter make objects primarily to show off their manual skills, while the former are motivated by a larger concept, a wish to make tangible some abstract artistic meaning. Carving toothpicks into forest animals? Skills. Carving porcelain into vases so mind-bogglingly intricate they appear to be made by machine? Concept. A subtle difference, but one that helps it seem slightly less absurd to picture Alhadeff — who runs The Future Perfect, one of New York’s most well-respected purveyors of contemporary design — roaming the aisles of a Westchester craft fair, chatting up potters and glassblowers. Concept, he explains, is what builds a bridge between pure craft and design.
Certain areas in the Northeast are generally regarded as nirvana for antique collectors: Hudson, New York; Lambertville, New Jersey; Adamstown, Pennsylvania; Brimfield, Massachusetts. Red Hook, Brooklyn, isn't one of them. But that’s where 29-year-old Russell Whitmore decided to set up shop three years ago, on a corner just a few blocks from the East River wharfs. His much-loved store, Erie Basin, specializes in Victorian- and Georgian-era jewelry, furniture, and curiosities, with a dash of 20th century thrown in.
“I like selling clothes that make people hyperventilate,” says Sweetu Patel. “Furniture doesn’t do that.” Trained as a furniture designer himself, Patel was the original founder of the design brand Citizen Citizen, but after giving up that business and putting in five years on the sales floor of New York’s Cappellini showroom, he shifted gears to start the online men’s clothing shop C’H’C’M’ last year. As it happens, though, Patel’s purveyorship of classic heritage brands represents more of a return than a departure — back to the clothing he grew up around, back to his sartorial instincts, back to the business model Citizen Citizen was originally meant to follow. We’ve always been a fan of Patel’s work, so we asked him to tell us his story, then share the eight inspirations that have led him to where he is now.