The ink was barely dry on the lease before local fashion blogs were abuzz with news of Elie Tahari’s first store in the Washington area. Within weeks of the February opening at Tysons Galleria, three of the Israeli designer’s popular sheath dresses were sold out.
No worries. The $368 frocks were back on the rack in a matter of days.
Avid shoppers could always head a few doors down to Neiman Marcus or Saks, which have carried a selection of Tahari apparel and accessories for years. But to Amanda Linton, who has a closet full of Tahari suits in her Woodbridge home, it’s not the same. The 33-year-old government contractor used to buy staple pieces in the department stores and thumb through the designer’s catalogues for signature items.
“There are just some things they seem to only have here. I mean look at this coat, the detailing, the cut, the style,” she said, modeling the $548 gold trench she bought a week ago, while ogling a $900 satchel bag.
Linton is exactly the kind of customer Elie Tahari knew he’d find in the Washington area: one with discerning tastes, definite style and disposable income.
“Washington is a very affluent market and the women are dressing more sexy and glamorous,” said Tahari at recent fundraiser for cultural arts nonprofit THEARC, held at his McLean store. “It’s important for us to show our collection in its full complexity.”
Tahari is not alone in recognizing the growing sophistication and panache of local luxury consumers. Another upscale designer, Anne Fontaine, launched her first store in the area last year, while Tory Burch, Rag & Bone and AllSaints are scheduled to open by fall.
The entrance of these contemporary, high-end boutiques — the kind you expect to find on a corner in SoHo — signals the next stage of the local luxury market, long rooted in traditional outposts like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Neiman Marcus.
The region’s resilient and diverse economy has attracted a stream of young professionals with edgier tastes in fashion, restaurants and entertainment. Not all of these folks are game to drop $200 on a button-down shirt, but enough are to make this area fertile ground for a new class of luxury retailer.
“People here have generally become more sophisticated shoppers,” said District broker John Asadoorian of Asadoorian Retail Solutions. “There’s more depth to this market and retailers are taking notice.”
What better time to take notice than as luxury sales nationally are on an upswing, led by strong performances in markets such as Washington and New York. Same-store sales, a key retail indicator, at luxury chain stores have grown an average of 8.6 percent a month this year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Saks rang up an 11.1 percent jump in March sales from a year ago, while Neiman closed out registers with an 8.8 percent increase. What’s more, revenue at the fashion unit of LVMH, owner of such prestigious brands as Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs, rose 17 percent in the first quarter.
“We’ll probably surpass the peak levels we had in the luxury industry back in 2007 very soon, if we haven’t already in many categories,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a market research firm. “Luxury always outperforms in growth, leading the economy out of the recession.”
Economists say the appetite for $300 jeans and $1,000 purses is fueling a recovery in consumer spending, an economic driver that has posted 2 percent to 4 percent quarterly gains in the past year. That’s a far cry from the steady declines at the height of the downturn, when consumers kept a tight grip on their wallets.
Well, not all consumers. Giorgio Askew of the District maintained his $500 a month shopping habit, indulging in designs by Dsquared and Tom Ford.
“Tailored suits are a must,” said Askew, a 25-year-old fashion stylist. “And in my line of work you have to dress the part.”
When he’s not buying online, Askew usually heads to Bloomingdale’s or Saks in Chevy Chase. The tony neighborhood, straddling the D.C.-Montgomery County border, has a concentration of high-end merchants along Wisconsin Avenue.
After Saks opened its Chevy Chase store in 1964, other upscale retailers, such as Neiman Marcus and Cartier, gradually filled in along the avenue. The selections reached new heights with the 2006 launch of the Collection at Chevy Chase, introducing Dior and Jimmy Choo to the market.
The addition of the development helped set a new standard for luxury in the region. Wealthy shoppers could now pick up a Bulgari pendant at the Collection, head to Tysons Galleria for a Versace dress or stop in at Fairfax Square for an Hermes scarf.
The financial collapse on Wall Street took the air out of the local luxury market for a time. But the downturn may have helped hasten a shake-up in retail.
“Shopping patterns have changed,” Asadoorian said. “Consumers are looking for unique brands, style and experience. Their tastes are more discerning.”
Hip to this trend, Tysons Galleria has shaken up its selection with the addition of Elie Tahari and French shirt designer Anne Fontaine. Across the way from Tahari’s store, floor-to-ceiling posters herald the May opening of Tory Burch, a women’s apparel line.
“For the working girl, you can’t beat a simple Tory Burch flat,” opined Whitney Kuhn, 25, who handles public relations for a consulting firm. The Glover Park resident can be found at the Galleria cruising her most cherished store: Chanel. About a month ago, she snagged a gold-trim vintage Chanel bag for $6,000, after saving for several months.
“When I see those ‘C’s interlock, they’re like stars in my eyes,” she said. Kuhn, like many aspirational shoppers, is still cost conscious. Her dress from Theory is often paired with a J. Crew cardigan, and ensemble that retails for less than $300.
The symbiotic relationship between inexpensive and upscale stores offers a compelling argument for places like Georgetown, where H&M sits next door to BCBG Max Azria. It’s still the regional Mecca for fashion, despite its relative inaccessibility compared to the big suburban shopping centers. That image is what drew New York-based clothier Rag & Bone.
“Given the climate of the past 12 months, retailers have felt a little more comfortable sticking to an area with proven density like Georgetown,” said Philippe Lanier, a principal at EastBanc, which is leasing space to the Rag & Bone and AllSaints. “There is a real consumer shift across all retail as it relates to the competition between online retail and on-street retail. Those retailers that are creating an experience for their clients are doing better.”
Kelly Muccio, owner of menswear outpost Lost Boys in Georgetown, has garnered attention for the experience she creates for affluent clientele. For $250 an hour, customers can relax in a plush leather recliner, watch a little James Bond, while Muccio and her team pull together an entire wardrobe. This “style bar,” as she calls it, has become so popular that Muccio is expanding her ground-floor space upstairs for a style studio upstairs in early June.
The success of Lost Boys is indicative of the evolution of local shoppers. Clients range from White House Cabinet members to recent grads, hailing from all corners of the region, and they fork over an average $3,000 to $5,000 at an appointment.
“D.C. is undergoing a renaissance with food, with architecture, with style, and that means our client is really varied and so evolved,” Muccio said.