Menswear designer John Varvatos, a native Detroiter whose love of rock and roll inspires his fashions, debuted a boutique store on downtown Woodward Avenue Thursday. It is a snazzy step forward in the long-deferred goal of bringing back retail to downtown's signature corridor.
The John Varvatos store is 4,600-square-feet of uber-chic. The walls and ceiling are black and so are many of the clothes, such as the $98 Detroit Rock City Kiss T-shirt or the $1,298 pair of distressed boots or the $1,898 leather jacket.
The venue has a small stage with a black stack of Marshall amplifiers where live rock acts will perform free.
The store is a "very emotional thing" for Varvatos, who grew up in Allen Park, and whose 20 other shops are in the usual shopping hotspots — New York, Los Angeles, Miami. This is his first store in the Midwest and it is located in a historic brownstone at Woodward and John R.
Menswear designer Varvatos brings rock and roll chic to downtown retail. Elizabeth Conley
"It is an unbelievably exciting day to walk up to a store on Woodward Avenue and see my name on it," Varvatos, 60, said. "I remember going to Hudson's, Hughes & Hatcher and the music stores. I'm so honored to be part of Detroit at this time."
On hand at Thursday's opening was Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans Inc. and Rock Ventures. The Varvatos store is located in one of the 70 properties owned by Gilbert's real estate affiliate. Almost all of them are downtown and many are located on Woodward.
The Varvatos shop is the "first destination store" to return to Woodward but it will be far from the last, Gilbert said. Gilbert dodged a question about reports that a Restoration Hardware outlet store is coming soon. "I really wish I could talk about that, but I'm not supposed to," he said.
The John Varvatos store takes up the ground floor at 1500 Woodward. The six-story building opened in 1891, which was the mark of the "first retail explosion" on the eight blocks of Woodward between Jefferson and Grand Circus Park, said Rebecca Binno Savage, a historical preservationist. She wrote the language in the legislation that makes part of the strip an official historic district called Lower Woodward Avenue.
Lower Woodward's peak years were 1915 through 1955, said Binno Savage, who works at Detroit's Kraemer Design Group. In 1925, city officials reported that 1.2 million people crossed the corner of State and Woodward in an 18-hour period, making it the busiest corner in the nation.
Many once-prominent Detroit retailers first set up shop or had a major presence on lower Woodward, including Vernors, the soft drink maker, Sanders Confectionery and Hughes & Hatcher men's clothing store. At one point, the block-long J.L. Hudson's department store that debuted in 1946 was the second-largest department store in the world behind Macy's in New York City.
Hudson's closed the downtown flagship store in 1983. The building was demolished in 1998.
"I would really say the construction of Northland mall is the beginning of the decline," said Binno Savage, referring to the Southfield mall that opened nearly 60 years ago with another Hudson's store. "The growth of the automobile, the rise of suburbia, the streetcar (on Woodward) goes away — that's primarily what happened to Woodward."
The Northland Center mall is closing. And the return of lower Woodward as a retail hub may just be beginning.