Upfront: The Allure of Fashion

Bringing high style to the mile high city. Not so long ago, there was a tacit understanding among Denver’s chic set that the only way to remain in step with the fashion mavens of Fifth Avenue or Beverly Hills was to travel to their turf. There was a well-defined sector of Denver women who understood that no destination was too far, no body of water too wide, when it came to rising to the challenge of looking like they’d stepped from the pages of Vogue or W. To some, this represented retail therapy at its best, although it’s safe to say that looking like a million dollars cost nearly that much. Denver women breathed a sigh of relief when a handful of nicer stores opened for business. While names such as Neusteters, Montaldos and Joseph Magnin are now a distant memory, they paved the way for a new breed of retailer, one that no longer served the masses with the same clothing showcased the same way. Slowly, new stores opened to serve a unique type of client, one who sought to look a little different from her acquaintances, and who liked to add a bit of flair, drama and sophistication to her wardrobe. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Denver, once regarded as a mecca for Levis and flannel shirts, has blossomed and thrived, with an array of high-end department stores that offer something for everyone.

Supplementing these national chain stores are boutiques, where shoppers can pick up original, show-stopping clothing and accessories designed to be the envy of even the most sophisticated New York shopper. Clearly, it’s these smaller boutiques that provide Denver women with their unique style and flair. We spoke with women from four specialty stores to learn more about how women here are dressing, to find out what’s hot … and what’s not.

Probably the best-known store catering to customers with a taste for beautiful designer clothing is Andrisen Morton Women’s in Cherry Creek North. Buyers Stefanie Bebesi and Kyle Wollock discussed the Andrisen Morton customer and what separates her from other shoppers. Andrisen Morton Women’s opened its doors four years ago, following the acquisition of Auer’s, an upscale women’s clothing store in the same location. Auer’s, which had been in business since 1980, had a well-entrenched following of customers who appreciated that store’s beautiful selection of designer sportswear and evening clothes. The store had long catered to women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, many of whom regarded Auer’s as their first stop when looking for a specific item for a special occasion. The challenge for Bebesi and Wollock was to overcome this perception of exclusivity, and to make the store more appealing to younger women who had the means to dress well.

“One of our strongest assets is that our salespeople can develop a personal and knowledgeable relationship with our customers. This is different from a mall store, where you would not see that same level of relationship and service,” Bebesi says. So who shops at Andrisen Morton Women’s, a store that is undeniably pricier and a notch above most of its brethren in terms of high-end designer fashion? First and foremost, according to Bebesi, Andrisen Morton customers are both working and nonworking women who plain and simply love fashion. These women typically wear sportswear for day (Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors or Loro Piana) and designer evening wear for dressier occasions. This is a group of women who know what they like and who are not willing to settle for second-best.

Bebesi focuses her efforts on sportswear and contemporary clothing; Wollock, on couture, evening, outerwear and handbags. The two attend shows in New York, Milan and other stops in between, where they handselect merchandise that will appeal to their customers and keep them coming back for more.

“It’s getting harder to keep up with clothing trends and still be able to sell them in a way our customer will understand and appreciate,” says Wollock. “We try to focus the core of our buying on what our customer wants and what she will buy. Then we sprinkle in the trends and the fashion as the icing on the cake.” Clearly, satisfying the Andrisen Morton customer is more difficult than it looks. “Our customers typically go to New York once or twice a year. They know the new designers, and they know fashion. We try to cultivate vendors who are exclusive in Denver, to give our customers something new. Every season, there’s that one hot new designer, and we’ll try to get them first, assuming it’s going to work for our customer. If they’re too advanced, our customer is not going to buy, so there’s a fine line we have to walk,” Bebesi says. “We realize our primary customer base will probably always be the 40-to- 50-year-old customer, but we’re trying to develop aspiring customers who at some point will be able to afford higher- end clothing. Just one year ago, you would never see a 20-something in here shopping unless she was with her mother. That’s changing, and we’re working hard to overcome that perception by carrying new designers with broad appeal,” Bebesi explains.

Evelyn Knuckles of Evelyn K
When you first step into EveyK, a small clothing boutique in Cherry Creek, you are simply astounded by the fun and flirty selection of clothing that beckons you to take a closer look. Owner Evelyn Knuckles’ love of fashion is obvious, and her unparalleled flair for design makes shopping here a truly memorable and entertaining experience. Indeed, it’s a far cry from big box stores such as Saks, Nordstrom’s or Macy’s, because from the moment you walk through the door, you realize this is no ordinary shopping outing. Looking for jeans? Knuckles has scoured the map to find jeans that are not only at the height of fashion, but that actually fit women in the right places and don’t require a pencil-thin model to pull off the look. Maybe you need that great, stand-apart-from-thecrowd top? Again, Knuckles has tapped into a well of up-and-coming designers who are creating unique looks at more affordable prices.

EveyK, which opened last October, grew from extremely modest beginnings in Knuckles’ home. “I began doing home-based trunk shows for one year, mostly as a way to see if there was a need for this type of clothing and to determine whether people were interested in something a little different, and a bit more fashion-forward,” Knuckles explains. Combining her love of fashion, strong people skills and behind-thescenes design experience, Knuckles quickly realized the potential to make her home experiment take wing and soar. Much of her savvy derives from her life in Los Angeles, where she worked for the National Football League doing public relations and choreography. This exposure to the entertainment side of a fast-paced, fashion-forward industry honed her own love and understanding of fashion. “I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something with fashion. I couldn’t find a lot of fun fashion in Denver, and I was always on the lookout for new designers and new looks, which was a carry-over from my LA days. I decided to do a trunk show with some of these newer looks to see how women here would react. The reaction was incredible. They loved the fact that they could be unique, sexy and pretty just from putting on something a little different,” she says.

The biggest challenge, in Knuckles’ view, is that Los Angeles is always going to be a bit more fashion-oriented than Denver, which is typically slower to catch on to new trends and styles. “It’s a push to get women to try on new styles, but typically once they do, they’re hooked,” she says. Still, Knuckles understands Denver women prefer a more earthy and casual look compared with the glitz and glam seen on the coasts. “They’re looking for unique and fun pieces of clothing, punctuated by great accessories that can add some flair to the outfit,” she says. The biggest change, Knuckles believes, is that women in their 30s and 40s are learning to wear clothes that suit their figures, rather than looking for a specific label. They tend to look for clothes that are more flattering, trendier and more imaginative and that will add something to their existing wardrobes. Interestingly, older women, too, are exploring new ways to add a touch of flair and fun to their ensembles. “I have customers in their late 50s who are gravitating toward more fitted pieces, such as jeans and flowy pieces on top. But it’s the way they individualize it and wear it that makes it beautiful and entirely ageappropriate on them,” Knuckles says.

Even working women can reap the benefit of fun and fashion. “Add a ruffled blouse or one with more detailing on the buttons and some fabulous earrings or a great belt, and you can dramatically enhance a basic conservative business suit. You can even go a bit more risqué on the bottom and still be appropriate in the corporate setting. So you’ll feel like you’re in New York, and you’ll have fun putting together an outfit that is uniquely you,” she explains. A huge array of accessories, from purses to jewelry to belts, is on prominent display. Many of these pieces are from New York and LA and are the creations of up-and-coming designers who cannot be found anywhere else in Denver. This summer, Knuckles plans to add some pieces from New York designer Nanette Lepore to her clothing repertoire, which will add a higher-end line of feminine jackets to the mix. “I’m always trying to introduce unique, funkier pieces to my more basic pieces,” she says. “I worried that women here would not like the styles, but I’ve tested the waters and found there is a real need for this concept. I continually change my lines, and I’m always bringing back the latest styles from New York and LA before they’ve caught on here. I don’t want my customers to feel they need to go out of town to shop. They should be able to walk out of here and know they’re as fashion-forward as anyone, anywhere.”

GayleLarranceGayle Larrance of Eccentricity
When Eccentricity opened its doors 20 years ago on the western side of Cherry Creek North, women wandered into the store in search of a fun gift, or perhaps a belt or watch. Word-of-mouth was a powerful tool, and the news soon spread that the store’s owner, Gayle Larrance, was carrying specialty items that were fun, affordable and definitely not run-of-the-mill. The store today is a far cry from its original concept, and its walls and racks are filled with items meticulously selected to serve a woman’s head-totoe needs, from undergarments, shoes and casual wear, to accessories and handbags. Several years ago, Larrance relocated her shop to a new location right in the heart of Cherry Creek North, a move that brought in new customers and took the store to a new level. “I love this neighborhood, and I love the fact that my store has big windows that look outside. It gives the store a warm and friendly ambience and welcomes neighbors to stop in and have a look,” she says.

For her part, Larrance has doggedly served an incredibly loyal group of customers, many of whom have shopped with her since her store first opened. “I try to cater to the woman who wants to be individual, who wants that extra bit of attention and guidance, but who also knows her own mind. She likes to be comfortable in her clothing, and, most importantly, she wants to look like who she is, with no pretenses,” she says. Larrance believes women in Denver have a definite sense of style, which encompasses a more casual look. “We cater to that style, but this is attire that can easily work in a business setting without having to don a traditional suit,” she says. Customers also appreciate her selection of clothing that is great for travel, which, she explains, can go anywhere and look great in any setting. Two of her more popular lines, Blanque and Babette, specialize in just that style of clothing. To provide her customers with the best selection of practical yet stylish clothing, Larrance attends at least six shows a year. She’s careful not to overload on a particular item because, as she says, “customers don’t want to see themselves coming and going.” She places a strong emphasis on customer service and often finds herself filling special orders for her clients. She says, “My staff and I have developed relationships with our customers, and we know their likes and dislikes. Many of our customers are longtime friends, which makes it all the more special here.”

Larrance has worked hard to establish the store as a venue equally suited to working women and women looking for a more casual wardrobe. “You can walk in here and find a great outfit to wear to dinner or something that would look great on an attorney going to court. But it’s all about stepping outside the box and being willing to put a great pair of trousers with a beautiful cashmere sweater set or pretty blouse. We’re also starting to carry classic suits that have a more edgy appearance in terms of fabric and detail. So it’s not your basic conservative suit, and it has a bit more flair,” she explains. For her part, Larrance believes there’s a place for ultra-hip clothing, but she doesn’t believe it’s necessarily the look her customers are seeking: “We like to give our customers a chance to have the trendy clothes, but we try to stay away from things they just aren’t going to wear three months down the road. For instance, when low-rise pants became hot, we carried a low-rise style that was not really lowrise at all, and which our customers could actually wear without feeling self-conscious or ridiculous.”

The bottom line for her long-standing success, Larrance believes, is that she is not afraid to change and evolve. “I think I’ve grown up, and my staff has grown alongside me,” she says. “This has resulted in a loyal and strong clientele, and I’m always willing to go that extra mile for them, whether it’s helping buy gifts for a significant other, special-ordering higher-end jewelry or finding a great piece that will go with something already in their wardrobe. We have great longstanding relationships with our vendors, but we’re always looking for new lines that will bring a degree of change and newness each season.”

Kathy King of Barbara and Company
It’s been more than eight years since Kathy King took the helm of Barbara & Company, but to listen to her speak, it’s as fresh as if it were yesterday. Long a staple in Tamarac Square in southeast Denver, the 25-year-old store was founded by Barbara Mahar and later sold to King upon Mahar’s retirement. For her part, King brought a wealth of experience to the business, having worked as a buyer for a number of department stores and smaller boutiques both in Denver and nationwide. Following a 14-year stint away from Denver, King and her husband returned to the mile-high city and she went to work with Mahar. When Mahar offered her the business, a deal was quickly inked, and 30 days later, she was the proud owner of the much-celebrated store. “When I first bought the store, I strived to keep it very much the same as it had always been. Then, as fashion began to evolve, it became a good time to evolve alongside it. A year-and-a-half later, there was a huge explosion of color, so I changed all the rooms, putting a color story in each room in the store. This was very well received, and now, with the shift back to neutrals, we’ve done the same,” King says.

One of King’s greatest challenges is keeping pace with the store’s large interior space: “It’s a big store, and we offer a huge variety of vendors. Our customers range from the 30s on up, and we serve many affluent women. We have a huge top business, and we carry a great variety of basic, well-fitting pants. Then we put a lot of frosting all over the place to make it fun and exciting.” This frosting is in the form of eye-catching jewelry, belts and handbags that put the finishing touches on a customer’s outfit. King is careful to avoid ultra-trendy clothing that too often ends up on the sale rack at the end of the day. She explains, “I look for clothing that is trendy in the sense that it can still be worn longer than the throwaway pieces that are added to a wardrobe and never worn. Clothing should fill a purpose in a wardrobe and should be age appropriate.”

As part of her buying practice, King travels to Europe to find more interesting pieces that will bring a unique look to the store. “We don’t make a huge commitment to any one line, because we don’t want our customers to feel like they look like everyone else,” she says. “We have a saying that the best collection is yours, meaning that this is not our collection, it’s for our customer, and it should flatter our customer.” One way in which King has successfully separated herself from her competitors is by making a commitment to dress each customer as an individual and to provide that customer with a style that is uniquely hers. “We take a pair of greatfitting pants and pair it with a pretty jacket or cardigan that will work well in a variety of settings. We work with our customers to put things together in a little different way, so they’ll never look like the person next to them,” she says. This philosophy even extends to smaller items such as belts. “We’ll change the buckle, beading or straps on a belt to give it a slightly different appearance, so it’s never going to be the same on any two people,” she explains.

King is excited to note a shift in Colorado toward a dressier look: “We’ll never get completely away from jeans, but we’re seeing a lot more cute skirts and capris paired with great tops. Fashion is definitely evolving, and customers in Denver are not so different from anywhere else. We’re not that far behind the fashion spectrum.” To keep up with the huge changes in fashion, King’s staff attends biannual meetings where they can get “up close and personal” with the clothes. They learn the colors, the vendors, the fabrics and the silhouettes in a very hands-on style. By the time they’re done, they’re excited to call customers to tell them about specific pieces that are perfect for their taste and lifestyle, King says.

For her next act, King is looking forward to growing her handbag collection, which, she explains, is available in a wonderful variety of styles and prices. She recently added a few new vendors not being carried anywhere in Denver and is excited to note an increasing number of customers who are shopping the store in specific search of the perfect accessory.

Photography STEVE GROER

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