Forty Five Ten's womenswear department | Source: Courtesy
Forty Five Ten’s womenswear department | Source: Courtesy

MANHASSET, United States — Ask any Hamptons regular where they shop for fashion on “the Island” and it’s likely that Hirshleifers, which sells everything from Chanel to Off-White, will be their first answer. A decade ago, the 107-year-old specialty retailer, a little over an hour’s drive from New York City in good traffic, was better known for outfitting mothers of the bride. Now, followers of Saint Laurent and Sacai beat a path to its door.

When sisters and co-chief executives Shelley, Caryn and Lori Hirshleifer took over the family business in 2004, they knew that they had to up their designer quotient in order to appeal to the evolving tastes of local consumers. Five years ago, they developed a business plan that not only included expanding square footage and refreshing interiors, but set an intention to go “full-blown fashion,” says chief creative officer David Sills, husband of Lori Hirshleifer.

“We’re competing in a global arena now,” Sills says. “If you asked our client 10 years ago, or even seven years ago, where they shopped, they would tell you locally. Now when you ask them, they say they love the shoe salon at Selfridges in London, Dover Street Market in Tokyo, the Brunello Cucinelli shop in Rome. We don’t compete with a local fashion store.”

Hirshleifers’ forumla of peppering single-brand shop-in-shops — which are not operated as concessions, but on the traditional wholesale model — through a multi-brand environment has resonated with its clientele. Today, the store generates sales of more than $3,000 per square foot and has nearly doubled its revenue over the past five years, on track to reach $100 million per year by 2020. In the autumn, the store will open new shop-in-shops featuring Saint Laurent and Kith.

And yet, while Hirshleifers’ success is notable, it’s not singular. In what feels akin to the 25-year-high in vinyl record sales at a time when digital streaming dominates music, independent specialty stores — especially those in secondary and tertiary American cities — are thriving, becoming increasingly important partners to designers who feel squeezed by unfair terms and smaller payouts offered by the bigger players.

The Webster, which first opened in Miami in 2009, has since expanded to the city’s Bal Harbour shopping mall as well as Houston, Texas, and plans to open a 12,000 square-foot store in New York’s Soho neighbourhood later this year. Overall sales have doubled over the past three years and trebled in the past five years, according to founder and president Laure Hériard-Dubreuil, and are even up 12 percent year over year at the original Miami location, despite increased competition and a slowdown in traffic from South America.

Forty Five Ten, which first opened in Dallas in 2000, debuted a 37,000 square-foot flagship in the city’s downtown in November 2016, converting its original location into a home store. Since receiving an injection of capital from local billionaire developer Tim Headington in 2014, expansion has accelerated. The retailer has also opened TTH by Forty Five Ten in Dallas — a small-format store curated by fashion director and industry celebrity Taylor Tomasi Hill — as well as a location in Houston and most recently Napa Valley, California, close to Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant The French Laundry. Forty Five Ten co-founder and president Brian Bolke says that overall sales have trebled in the past three years and an average 40 percent of transactions each week are new customers.

Across the United States, specialty retailers are raising their profiles, from favourites like Capitol in Charlotte and Neapolitan in (Chicago suburb) Winnetka to upstarts including Hero Shop in San Francisco and Fivestory in New York. Assembled Brands, which owns e-commerce site The Line, has made an imprint with its concept store The Apartment by The Line, a collection of expertly curated retail shops: two permanent spaces in New York and Los Angeles, with temporary locations open intermittently in Amagansett and Chicago.

Ikram boutique | Source: Ikram.com

This is good news in what often feels like a permanently gloomy retail landscape. But it wasn’t always looking so good for the indies. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed, a spate of prominent specialty retailers across the US shuttered, including Detroit legend Linda Dresner’s New York outpost (2008), Los Angeles institution Tracey Ross (2009) and the revered Louis Boston (2015). At the time, many in the industry declared that e-commerce would finish off several more. But in a unique…