Ann Arbor's (Re)Emerging Fashion District

State and Liberty Streets - a fashion garden abloom with new stores? For years, the blocks surrounding Nickels Arcade have represented a social borderland between downtown urbanity and traditional campus town capitulation. For every Bivouac, Van Boven, and Borders there was Moe's, M Den, and Jimmy Johns.

Recently, however, a fashion-related identity has re-emerged. The streets may lack the elegance of former occupants - department stores and fashion-forward shops, often family-owned. However, there are currently 16 like-minded stores, including Douglas J, according to Tom Heywood, executive director of the State Street Area Association.

"If you look at the historical trend, State Street is just experiencing another bloom in the flowers of fashion," he says.

In the '60s and '70s, retail there had a strong fashion flavor, anchored by Jacobson's department store. Even before that, Goodyear's and French's department stores sold great fashions and Bob Marshall's Book Store was a pioneer retailer.

Newcomers to the corridor are strengthening an already vibrant boutique scene, and helping to define the neighborhood's business identity. Wendy's, in the Nickels Arcade, opened last spring. The Pink Pump, near the Michigan Theater, has been open a little longer.

They join Poshh, Allure, Renaissance, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Van Boven, Bivouac, several vintage stores, SEE Optical, Pitaya and more.

"Ann Arbor's a lot more successful than people give it credit sometimes. The great thing about our young people - they're at the high economic end for their particular age group. Our student family wealth is some of the highest in the world," Heywood observes.

"If you're going to invest more than $200,000 in your education, you'll have the resources to do other things, as well, where you live, shop, play and study."

State Street has made a mistake in not staking a claim to being a shopping center for fashion, he adds.

Heywood points out a possibility for more retail growth at the former College Shoe Repair on William Street, which is for sale. Other potential changes: Stucchi's lease is up, so relocation is possible. The Zaragon apartment building, under construction on the corner of Thompson and William, will also have retail space for lease - the lofty asking price: $42 a square foot.

This growing retail mix on State and Liberty is exciting to real estate consultant Bill Milliken, principal of Milliken Realty Co. "I love it any time retail can prevail over food. The food business has much bigger margins than retail does, so when they go head-to-head, food often prevails," he says.

It's also heartening when brick-and-mortar prevails over the web. "We're competing with the Internet, which is open 24/7. The big advantage brick-and-mortar stores have over the Internet is that product in hand is worth more," Roger Pothus says.

Pothus has been on the retail scene since the 60s, first with Paraphernalia, a fashion boutique on State, then Renaissance, now celebrating its 40th year.

Pothus founded Renaissance in the Maynard House, next door to another pioneering boutique, Plaster of Paris. Plaster of Paris offered not only fashion clothing but also espresso, elegant pastries and light lunches, predating the coffee shop explosion by decades. Although the clothing at Plaster of Paris was new, it had a vintage feel - anticipating another trend in the area: vintage stores.

Lelia Raley has moved her vintage store, Wigshop, to eBay for reasons both economic and familial. For many years, however, she operated an interesting and well-stocked vintage store under several names including Chez Rebop.

"Thinking back to 1985, when I opened my shop on State Street, Jacobson's was still the neighborhood anchor on Liberty, Marti Walker (now Sava's) was long established on State St. Classy retail abounded," she recalls in an email.

"Vintage shops diversify and enrich the overall selection available to the stylish consumer, adding a gallery aspect to retail."

Online selling is almost irresistible, she adds. "Despite the loss of the visual and tactile pleasure and social interaction of a 'real' store, (selling online) grants limitless access to international customers, who are vastly more appreciative of the wealth of American goods that are so readily taken for granted here," she says.

Roger Pothus points out that the State Street fashion district has something that malls envy: authenticity. "All the new malls are Disney World replicas of downtowns. You walk around outside. Now they're even going to add parking places in the 'streets' so you can park in front," he says.

"The Arcade is a great, great place. The State Street area has always been a fashion destination. In the fall, there's going to be State Street Fashion Week (in mid-October) with an October 18 fashion show at the Michigan Theater, and possibly a roving fashion show."

Wendy's is a solid hit despite opening in a recession, says founder Wendy Chapman. A retail start-up is no walk in the park. With lease rates topping $40 a square foot, the investment is substantial even before renovations, staffing and inventory.

"I really, really believe that - even in lean times  - women would rather pay a little more for a quality piece that will last several years rather than a cheap piece that'll end up looking its age within a year," she says in an email interview. "This isn't to say that we're only carrying stratospheric pieces... just that we can't compete with the bargain retailers on price unless we're willing to sacrifice quality, and we aren't."

Chapman's partner, Johnny Vaughn, says, "We want to appeal to women 25 to 65 - and to be a bridge between Main Street, Liberty Street and State Street."

"Right now, there are no other stores reaching both professionals - doctors, lawyers, women with a career going on - and girls just getting out of college."

Vaughn says he and Chapman really wanted their store to be a mini-department store. To that end, they'll be adding shoes, make-up, outerwear and more accessories starting in the fall. They picked the Arcade not only for its historic and beautiful ambiance but because of the other fashion stores nearby.

"Main Street is really geared towards restaurants and night life. It has Ayla and other stores, but we wanted a lot more energy. State Street/Liberty Street has the University and downtown," Vaughn says.

There may be more Wendy's stores in the future - maybe even another Ann Arbor location, he says. "Ann Arbor has always been one of the better places in Michigan to do business because it's always been steady. People stay and people here are wonderful," he says.

"When we talk about opening other stores, we ask ourselves, 'Where can we go that will be like Ann Arbor?' We won't be doing that for a year or two. We've played around with idea of pop-up stores in resort areas. We want to get this store 100 percent right, figure out our systems and staffing."

Several State Street corridor retailers are in the same long-running category as Renaissance. Bivouac is also 40 this year and Van Boven, the venerable Nickels Arcade menswear store, hits 90 years old. Orchid Lane is 25 years old, Heywood adds.

Although Pothus was publicly unhappy about his forced retreat from Main and William Streets after his downtown landlord raised the rent, he's digging the store's space on Division at Liberty.

"We were extremely fortunate - not due to skill," he says. "Our new location is much better for surviving tough times and we have parking. We traded walk-by traffic for drive-by traffic - we have one-fifth the walk-by and five times the drive-by."

In deference to the new economic reality, Pothus has dropped some of the ultra-luxurious, ultra-pricey goods he once carried, and added more moderately-priced clothing. He's hoping that someday the $4,000 cashmere blankets will return.

Two blocks away on Liberty, Poshh is 10 years old and re-flourishing, says owner Wendy Baptiste-Johnson. "We've seen a decline in the past two years, but I listened to my customers and made our inventory what they wanted. I'm proud of our large range of clients."

Customers are a mix of students and townspeople, especially young working people, she says. That mix was unexpected, she remembers, and triggered a name change from the original name, Twiggy.

She and her husband, a U-M alum, were long attracted to Ann Arbor. "We noticed an absence of boutique fashion," she says. "The location and I found each other. It was available when I needed it to be available and it was a wonderful decision, as it turned out."

"Ann Arbor has really evolved. There's been a lot of growth in retail. It's nice to see more retail presence on the street. We used to be alone. There needs to be more to draw people downtown. A lot of the draw now is food," the Poshh owner says.

Many State Street area retailers provide a refreshing antidote to the criminal indifference of mall stores. Others have embraced the mall ethos.

"It's weird. Now, people are used to standing in line to give up their money at big box stores. Expectations have changed," Pothus notes.

An informal mystery-shopper survey confirms the contrasts in service styles. Some staff people in the area are so poorly trained, they don't even greet customers who enter when the store's deserted.

Many other stores rival the best specialty stores with attentive personalized service. They know the inventory and proudly point out highlights, such as jewelry created by local artists at Poshh.

With the Borders liquidation now official, there's another opportunity for fashion retail in the bookseller's former space, probably with offices above.

Scenesters who long for an adult watering hole on the second floor with views of Liberty and State Streets are probably out of luck, says commercial broker Bill Milliken.

"The only way a second-floor bar could work is if it had roof-top dining and an outdoor terrace," Milliken says.

"It will be interesting to see how that space is marketed - the Borders retail space is so cobbled up. The executive office space has been vacant for 5-6 years. It's not going to be a bookstore. We know that."

Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Where The Bison Roam.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Roger Pothus at Renaissance

Lelia Raley of Wigshop with some of her vintage fashions

Johnny Vaughn at Wendy's
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