Saturday, November 5, 2011

Boutiques then and now: an interview with Madeleine Gallay

The amazing thing about the world wide web is that there's always some or other discovery waiting around the corner. For instance, I coincidentally bumped into the blog of the fabulous Madeleine Gallay the other day. Her intelligence and eye for beauty immediately struck me. Madeleine, it turned out, had worked in some of the most fashion forward stores in L.A. in the eighties, together with her husband. After their divorce, she opened her own store on Sunset Plaza. From what I gathered, it must have been quite something. I was intrigued, so I sent over a bunch of questions - and philantropic as I am, I will share the answers with you. The interview is quite lenghty, but worth the read, I assure you.

Madeleine, I’d love to hear more about your shop. What was your vision for it? Which designers did you carry? How did you proceed to choose them?

When I opened my Sunset Plaza shop, most boutiques were incredibly elegant, very expensive gallery-like spaces, heavily influenced by a Japanese aesthetic of minimal beauty. Christian LaCroix was splashing runways with happy clothes, poufs in pink and mint green, sumptuous and luxurious and all his. I never carried his clothes but my reaction to his mood translated into a shop with hand-washed pink walls, a rose garden, sofas piled with antique textiles and pillows, white wine and water and coffee. I thought that by having beautiful dresses I could sell beautiful dresses without intimidating customers, by finding designers that took my breath away that could be in any price range with the qualifier of having deep intrinsic value. My shop was next door to LeDome, a very hot Hollywood lunch restaurant for agent-client meetings and my pretty customers sometimes dashed in just to freshen their makeup or have a (not-quite-as-evil-then-as-now) cigarette or just relax before the next big thing.

Christian Lacroix in the eighties - picture courtesy of InStyle

I opened the shop in '88 and stocked at various times John Galliano, Rifat Ozbek, Dolce & Gabbana, Chantal Thomass, Erickson Beamon, Ghost, Todd Oldham, Kenzo, Helen Storey, Callaghan designed by Romeo Gigli, Martine Sitbon, Eric Javits hats. Mary McDonald (Million Dollar Decorators) made custom fantasy hats with miles of tulle and flowers, amazingly beautiful. These were indie collections, which is what boutiques can do well, and probably the only thing that could let them survive, whatever price range they're in. A skirt is just a skirt is just a skirt is so not true. Designers, if they are truly creators, have a signature as well as consistent quality. It's not a shopping list of buy so many white shirts or black skirts, although that would be a fabulous beginning. It's about showroom hunting. Never mind the fashion show which fritters away time and consists more often of deceptive, theater playing games than of a presentation of clothes we would wear. A buyer has to react to each piece on a hanger, just as a retail shopper would. Some things are perfect. A boutique has the possibility, with great discipline and hard edits, to only present the perfect pieces. Every designer has pieces you simply hope disappear and that means nothing. John Galliano made the most seductive bias cut pieces, frail and fey, but had a penchant for awkward silver metallic space-age pieces. Ignored, of course. Some is pure business as in "no, you cannot sell my ex-husband across the street, are you nuts????" Under no circumstances should a shop carry the same overexposed things as a dozen other shops -then you become a grocery store.

What did you like most about running your own shop? What were the downsides?

I loved the buying and playing with clothes to see the possibilities, piece by piece. Every morning, my staff and I would take turns making five or so outfits and modeling them so we could have different moods. I loved my customers and many became friends. Many could pop by the house to borrow an evening bag or a silk flower - the perks of being special customers. The downside of being a small boutique is that in the development of raw talent, they cannot be held back and will become major houses. The decision to stay with a house you have a relationship with but who has added four stores is rocky. It won't work. So it ends up becoming a lab of sorts. Shopped by department store buyers and manufacturers, who seldom hid what they were doing and with an introduction it was one thing, sneaking notes drove me mad. The business of paying for a huge inventory and hoping it sells in orderly fashion is hard. An order is a promise and a buyer must be very responsible. However, a designer who delivers poor clothes should get them right back. That only happened to me once with Isaac Mizrahi shortly before Chanel dumped him: a connection?

Christy Turlington and a Vogue cover in Isaac Mizrahi early nineties.

Do you feel the fashion industry has changed a lot over the years? Do you think shops are run differently and customers shop in a different way?

The industry is now quite organized and democratic, the doors thrown open to people who actually have nothing to do with the business of fashion. Students used to beg for last minute seats in Paris and Milan; now catwalks are streamed to your iPhone, sometimes in 3D as Burberry did. Designer websites are up with photos and videos almost as soon as the show is over with all the world's Vogues offering to send you the photos or videos. It's a little disenchanting that there's no wonder left. There really was a time when designers wouldn't allow a buyer to take working photos and made them promise not to let anyone photograph the clothes in shop. Also, the reporters covered the shows with descriptive and comparative language, instead of personal opinion which in some cases has downgraded to a simple "I hate it" or "Bananas I die." That makes me cringe. Is it so hard to understand the spirit and mood, the colors and fabrics, the details, skirt lengths, ... ?

So many shops have closed. The world is both buying luxury faster and harder than ever before and yet evading shops. Last summer's IFT Luxury Conference in Beverly Hills revealed that a whole generation, maybe more, of shoppers hate the experience of being in a store. It's not fun; the stock is what you see whereas you can probably Google search and find the exact size and color of anything you want; it takes up too much time. Whoa. That is bad news. Shops better evaluate as soon as possible and figure out how to make shopping more fun. Cookies and good chocolates would win my respect (hell's bells, mine too, ed.), as well as a decadent amount of accessories to linger over. Since the designers are dreadfully over-exposed, there better be some reason to motivate me, or any shopper.

A dreadful thing has happened in that a company offers to pre-sell designer collections for a week or two. Why not the retailers? Step up, buyers! You should get very angry about this. I loathe the flash sale sites that have degraded a nice dress or whatever to price and available at 9am, I hope they go away. I hate the fashion magazine collaborations to sell clothes; how is that ethical? I love shop owners and they certainly have to be spunky. It's not easy hours and the savagery of retailers doing poorly is a constant looming threat of greater and earlier markdowns. Shop owners would be better off visiting South Moulton Street. Mrs. Burstein (Joan Burstein is the founder of Browns, located at South Moulton St., ed.) has managed to be at the beginning of careers and continue with many and her shops are never tired. Retailing has to be so energized and experimental and, again, fun.

Browns - courtesy of

What would your ideal shop look like nowadays? What brands/designers would you feature? Where would you want to be located? Which audience would you like to speak to?

I sometimes dream about a shop and oh I would love one (with a financial backer, I am so bad at the business side). There are so many great indie collections that need to be sold in a boutique. Hogan McLaughlin (and his art), Trashy Couture, Azzedine Alaia (my former husband and I did have the Alaia Chez Gallay boutique on Rodeo, which he won during our divorce, alas), Chantal Thomass lingerie, always Erickson Beamon jewels, a selection from Rare Vintage which is so beautifully curated that Carine Roitfeld shops there, Rick Owens (oops, my ex-husband did have a Rick Owens boutique on Sunset Plaza, closed when Rick left for Paris). I think I'd like to be here in Venice Beach because it's both edgy and non-Rodeo Drive non-Rue St Honore, and you already know what you will find there. Here it's downtown edge by the beach.

Design by Hogan McLaughlin, gathered from a post on him by Madeleine herself.

I think the clothes in a shop yell out for their customers. I've always accidentally or not sold to pretty women. Maybe because my shop was on Sunset Plaza where everyone is pretty. Whether someone is actually "pretty" or not is not the point; it's a feeling of being pretty that matters.

Do you have any stores you have fond memories of, apart from your own?

I loved running into Joan Weinstein, the owner of Ultimo, on buying trips. She also tried everything on and her more minimal aesthetic of Jil Sander (yes there really was a Jil Sander) was so richly done. I love Maxfield for harvesting raw talent, stocking really the finest of everything in a designer world from Rick Owens to Loree Rodkin: his manager Janet is probably the most magical person ever in any shop. Linda Dresner's now closed Madison Avenue shop was beyond words, elegant and filled with things – it is essential to have lots of things to keep you from running out in fear of a salesgirl, I think.

What do you look for in quality clothing? How do you judge whether a piece of garment is worth its price?

Fine clothes matter and some designers, no names, cheat; their clothes are 30% overpriced. It begins with the fabric, the construction, the details, buttons. Chanel bought an Haute Couture button house because they are so essential. It all matters, along with the ability to deliver as promised. Late is not good.

What are some of your favorite brands, shops and designers nowadays?

I love Mona Moore for shoes here in Venice Beach and on the web, Maxfield of course. I love Barney's parking lot, which is silly since the store disappoints me; a lot of clothes that are not cared for in shop. I did remove an Azzedine knit dress, 3700.00, from a hanger and display it on a table. I would have fired a few people, but of course I can't.

Rick Owens, Fiorentini&Baker boots, Gary Graham dresses ... more interested in pieces (still, I guess) than collections. I wear or yearn for the pieces, never the collection.

I think there's few things in this article I can't wholeheartedly agree with. If you, like me, can't get enough of Madeleine, you can pay a visit to her blog In New York Paris Tomorrow. Thanks a lot, Madeleine!