Retail Supernews

First Look: Zara Seattle

The biggest thing to happen in downtown Seattle retail in, oh, maybe 15 years?, happens today, on February 13 at 10a, when Zara opens for business at Westlake Center.

By Laura Cassidy Photography by Kirby Calvin February 13, 2014

First things first: What's the big goddamn deal?

If you're not someone who lives and breathes drop-crotch pants and digital prints, you are forgiven for not knowing that the Zara posts on this blog are as popular as the cronut ones on our colleagues' Nosh Pit feed.

When Shop Talk's Amanda Zurita broke the news about the Spain-based international chain a little over a year ago, we just about set new online traffic records. Since 2011 when began offering sales and delivery to the States, Seattle style seekers have logged on when they were hungry for an "It" item, and they've been waiting long and hard for their very own brick-and-mortar of the fever-pitch fast-fashion outlet.

The very definition of trend-riffing; the best racks in the men's casual offerings are a lot like Alexander Wang's most recent collections.

But why? And what's fast fashion anyway? (This is as good a time as any to ensure that we're all on the same page.) Simply put, it's a term for retailers who watch style on the coolest streets as well as at the big-name, industry-driving runway shows—like the ones wrapping up in New York right now—and then take the trends, and in some cases the individual dresses, skirts, and jackets themselves (more or less), straight into production.

You could say they're knocking-off the true artists, or you could say there's an art in being responsive; in reacting to the smartest colors, silhouettes, materials, and prints and having your runway-to-retail roll-out down to a science. You could maybe (maybe) even say there's an art in democratizing fashion for folks who can't and won't pay $498 for leather sweat pants.

Of all the big-box retailers in the style sector—think H&M, Forever 21—Zara does all of the above best. Topshop, which partnered with Nordstrom last year is a very close second.

At a media preview on Wednesday morning, February 12, Zara CCO Jesus Echevarria gave us a brief rundown of his company's modus operandi inside what is, at 8,200 square feet, one of the biggest in their fleet of 49 American shops.

A lot of what happens within the stores hinges on and mirrors the larger fast-fashion model; it's about being responsive. Echevarria described a world in which individual store managers file constant market reports: no one's touching the sheer-panel knits, the tall girls say the neoprene mini is too mini, they're asking for more handbags!

Zara is good at shoes. These open-toe metallic numbers are very good.

His statement was an attempt to say, "Seattle, this store will really be for and about you," but in a broader sense: some centralized brain ingests the requests, some centralized design brain draws them up and creates cut-and-sew marching orders, and two times per week, new merchandise is dropped at more than 1,800 Zara stores spread across all five continents.

Another key element: when a style sells through, it's through. Now, we're not talking about real exclusivity here, like with local small-batch designers or when, let's say, just three (a small, a medium, a large) of a certain Issey Miyake jacket land locally at Jack Straw and are virtually absent from the web. But it's an okay counter-balance when a fellow is trying on a Givenchy-esque baseball bomber and deciding whether he's worried about seeing everyone he knows in the same jacket for the next six months. (Because let's face it: that's the approximate shelf life.)

For more on Zara's extremely successful production and sales model, I refer you to this fairly recent Business Week report which names Amancio Ortega, the man who founded Zara and its parent company Inditex, as the third richest person on the face of the earth.

And in addition to all that manufacturing moxie and trend acumen, Zara's online imagery and digital vision has become so expertly executed that big and small brands and stores all over the planet are aping the styling, the mood, the models, and the production. There's an interesting bit of karma there if you care to see it. 

Yellow is a strong message. So are pleated skirts. And cropped tops.

So, what does all of this mean for Seattle's retail scene? Let's start by hearing from the experts: Zara's new neighbors.

"I think Zara does fast fashion better than most and I think it will be a terrific new face for Westlake," said Baby and Co.'s Jill Donnelly when I asked what she thought the new store would mean for downtown. And seriously. Nordstrom Rack and now this? Westlake is an actual place again. We bet the other tenants are psyched. "However," she continued, "I am not a fan of the fast-fashion trend that has dominated the retail scene of late, but we take the good with the bad."
From Butch Blum, CEO Kay Smith-Blum said, "Inditex is a multi-billion dollar corporation that manufactures globally with strong talent in both store design and fast fashion. My only caution is the quality and durability of these price points, and the conditions under which they might be produced in a variety of countries..." You get where she's going with that.

"Their overall branding strategy is very cutting-edge, very chic, which is appealing to even a mature market," lead marketing coordinator Kaylen Steele told me from her post at Mario's. "However, fast fashion is fast for a reason," she went on, detailing what she feels is a more nuanced service level and special shopping experience at stores where care and time is put into sourcing, origins, relationships with artisans and makers, and more. "There’s a need and desire for both of these models, though; in the age of mixing high and low fashion, they can complement each other and both will endure."

Totokaelo's Jill Wenger told me she didn't know much about Zara, that the opening was "off her radar."
If Wenger and the others aren't all that bothered, why am I so nervous?

The new Westlake Center spot has four departments: women, TRF (young, casual), men, and children.

In part because I care a lot about small makers and sellers, and I'm just a worrier in general. But I'm not the only one. A woman I met recently at a much, much smaller store opening on the Hill shared my concern when I greeted her at Zara's invite-only cocktail launch party on Wednesday evening. She didn't want to be named, but she's on the creative side of a local fashion brand and yeah, Zara is big and powerful and most consumers only have so much money to put into their closet each month.

Then again, Terri Morgan, who owns TCM Models and Talent was wonderfully carefree about it all. "Isn't this great?" she asked me as we stood near the jewel-festooned sweatshirts and cut-out faux-leather booties sandwiched between Zara's achingly cute kiddo section and the men's offerings on the second floor. "If they keep up the quality of fashion that's here tonight people won't feel like they need to leave and shop elsewhere and that's a good thing," she said. "Competition is good, and bringing people with money to spend into downtown is great. Seattle gets fashion. It's not being dumbed down for us anymore."

But that wasn't a universally held opinion either. A branding specialist who also didn't want to be named said to me, "I don't see it. The clothes don't seem that much better than what's at H&M—although maybe I'm just reacting to the scale and volume." There truly is so much stuff, and for some shoppers, that just doesn't engender real desire.

There's no question that the season's prevailing looks are all there: "statement" sweatshirts and necklaces, cropped silhouettes, slim-cut suiting, all-white everything, chunky knits, pleats, all-over prints, and on and on and on. But in a store this size the lowest-common-denominator mainstream pieces are certainly on offer also. Despite it's high-shine black vibe, the Westlake Zara isn't intimidatingly cool, and some (women especially) will feel like the edgiest stuff is still only available to them online—or when they happen to be in, like, Paris

With its graphic print, short bell-sleeve, and neoprene-like knit, this is the kind of thing that will pretty instantly say "I shopped the new Zara." Some consider that a status symbol, some shy away from it for the same reason.

How to make the most of this mega monolith? Savvy style minds actually go for the slightly more subtle selections—the white boxy leather-like top with a crinkly finish and exposed back zipper, the yellow jumper with the low-key architectural cut—instead of big-impact, big-push designs—that instantly ubiquitous looking print-blocked sheath, the endless mutli-zippered moto jacket iterations—and mix them with classics and really well-made stand-outs.

Gentlemen especially would do well to remember one rule: If you find yourself leaving the house in head-to-toe Zara (or any all-one-store or -brand look, really), immediately turn around and go back inside and change.

The kids' collections are unspeakably adorable and on-trend.

Back to that party, though; Duo PR Rep Kristen Hamilton, key on the Seattle team that led the local launch, says about 1,000 people were there, and in addition to a few dozen international Zara team members found hanging around sizing up the Seattle cliques, the company brought their A game. (Well, unless you hadn't managed to eat dinner, in which case they brought no game at all; I am not one to complain about appetizers but we all found humor in the microscopic passed-tray half-bites.)

Model, DJ, and darling Harley Viera Newton was on the decks; I interrupted her 90s hip-hop tracks to talk to her (had to!) and she told me she was in town between NYFW parties and something that sounded fabulous in Amsterdam. Similarly, Zara managed to get Brooklyn-based fashion photojournalist Shawn Brackbill out of fashion's backstage (where he documents for and others), to capture the celebratory scene.

And this was cool: Meagan Grandall, who plays in the local band Lemolo, did a live mini-set and Seattle shooter Carmen Daneshmandi was hired to create a video. (We hope to share it here someday soon, and Brackbill's photos as well.)

I thought briefly of February 2009 when Gucci opened near the Fairmont Olympic, but by now even we are used to that kind of big money/label drop. And really, that was a little like a tree falling in an empty, expensive, weirdly exclusive forest. Very few actual shoppers were there (or are there now, it often seems) to hear it.

I think you would have to go back to when Pacific Place or Westlake opened in order to make a comparison to what's happening this week in downtown Seattle, and still I don't think that would really do it. One person commented on an Instagram photo I posted that Zara's arrival (and the attendant hub-bub) is like the whole Super Bowl thing. And in a way it sort of is.

Entities (stores, sports teams) like this one—international, gleaming, authoritative, directional, giant, and seemingly indestructible—make Seattle feel like we're really winning. Like we're real. Everyone at the party on Wednesday night was in love with Seattle—everyone I talked to from the New York and Spain Zara offices was in love with Seattle and the truly who's who collection of fashion, design, and moving/shaking Seattleites was in love with Seattle. And we were all in love with shopping. And style. And the way clothes shape who we are for ourselves and inside our communities.

The good feelings will continue in the fashion community right through Valentine's Day weekend. There's a semi-private launch party at Love City Love for the latest Nordstrom pop-in, and a big invite-only to-do at Baby and Co. for the Parisian artist they brought in to elegantly grafitti-ize their windows. I made a joke the other day to counter that "fear of missing out" thing that can sometimes happen around this time of year in smaller cities like ours; it was something about "be your own fashion week." And here it is happening.

Most importantly however, an all-inclusive love affair will commence promptly at 10 when the shop opens up for business this morning. Unless—or maybe especially if—there's a line running out the door and snaking down the block, and a run on pleather moto jackets.


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