As you've surely noticed if you've read any story about retail anywhere in the past year, traditional American brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling, if not outright dying. People just aren't going into stores like J.Crew, Gap and Macy's, or malls in general, the way they used to. But they are shopping — and not only online. They just need to be enticed to do so in the right environment. Now, one company that's been successfully creating those environments for the past 10 years is coming out of the shadows.
Santa Monica-based Maris Collective has strategically kept a low profile until now, largely because it didn't want someone to copy its business model. The group partners with luxury hotels and resorts all over the world to build out and curate design-led fashion and lifestyle boutiques within them. It handles all design, operations, buying, staffing, promotion and events. And these aren't your typical lobby gift shops: Each one features a uniquely curated mix of product by designers like Chloe, Emilo Pucci, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rosetta Getty, Prabal Gurung and Cushnie et Ochs, as well as the sort of Instagram-worthy interiors that will make you rethink your whole home aesthetic.
LeeAnn Sauter, a retail veteran with experience at Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Guess, came up with the idea for the company while on vacation at the Four Seasons Hualalai. "Somebody said to me, 'This place is perfect,' and I thought to myself... no, it's actually not perfect," she explains. Sauter noticed that the resort was full of chic, savvy (and likely wealthy) women, but had very little that they'd actually want to buy. "The buyers that are at resort retail... I actually figured out they went to these weird shows — gift shows — not even real markets and I was like, holy hell, what is happening here? You have the best clients in the world with all the time to shop." That day, she mapped it all out and in 2008 opened her first store at that very Four Seasons; the hotel group is now one of her biggest partners.
Despite the fact that it opened during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — and that the hotel happened to be under construction and at only 30 percent occupancy — the store hit the exact sales numbers she projected. Clearly, she was on to something. "There's only 4,000 luxury resorts around the world, so we figured it was a big enough opportunity," she jokes. Ten years later, there are more than 25 Maris Collective stores in hotels in vacation destinations around the world, with many more set to open in the near future. Its first two stores in California, one in Santa Barbara and one in Napa Valley, will open this summer.
One element that sets Maris Collective apart, and makes it a bit of a logistical conundrum, is that no two stores are exactly alike. Each one has a different name, and product is curated based on its location, with new items rotated in regularly. Sauter's mission, as she puts it, is figuring out how to "scale bespoke," creating an infrastructure that would make it easy to add on new stores over time and make Maris Collective an attractive retail partner. "It wasn't about opening up stores for us; it was really about operational efficiencies and innovation in retail, which is really important to me because 15 years ago, I kind of predicted this was going to happen," she says, referring to the current disaster that is American retail.
There are a number of reasons why people want to shop while they travel. In addition to simply having the time to do so, there's an experiential element to it, and it gives the items they purchase a story; it's a way to remember the trip. The company also doesn't mark products up the way hotels tend to do. Sauter says most stores have about a 50/50 mix of "useful" products, like swimsuits and resortwear, that vacationers can wear while on vacation, and traditional ready-to-wear and accessories to take home. The company works to highlight emerging brands for guests to discover, and also brings out designers to host intimate trunk shows — a fun experience for guests. Only benefitting the hotel model is the fact that, in the "retailpocalypse," consumers are traveling more than ever. Also beneficial: The fact that resort, as a fashion delivery season, has become a much bigger focus for designers in recent years. "I feel like we had a little bit to do with that," Sauter says. "It's year-round the most important season in every way."
Maris Collective — which is privately owned and profitable — employs about 160 people, including a robust team of buyers that scouts the world for unique items by designers both established and unknown, informed by data culled from each hotel about its guests and their preferences. That's another point of differentiation: Where most retailers are focused on presenting their own points of view and getting customers to buy into it, Maris Collective is customer-led and focused on stocking what customers want, where they want it. Sauter, herself, even works on the sales floor eight weeks a year in order to interact with customers. (And, given those sales floors are in some of the best vacation destinations in the world, that's not a bad gig.)
Right now, the company depends largely on its partnerships with prominent hotel groups for growth. Typically, it will start with one boutique in one hotel, then add on more domestic locations, then international locations. The company is growing this way; Sauter says she makes job offers every week and gets more incoming requests than the company can handle. The company is also dipping its toes into hotel merch that feels on brand. "No more rhinestones," she jokes. "We're saving the world from a rhinestone hat that says Ritz-Carlton."
Meanwhile, other retailers and designers seem to be catching onto the opportunity within hotels: Opening Ceremony's location at The Ace Hotel, Maison Kitsuné's at the Nomad, this Form Vintage pop-up at the Wythe, a Rails pop-up at Surf Lodge in Montauk and R09M, a new curated boutique located inside a room at another Montauk hotel, are just a few examples. But Sauter isn't worried about the competition. "I have such great friendships and partnerships with these vendors, so we kind of own that space. If someone approaches them, they come to us," she says. "We feel like we really have the best hotels in the world."
But, for the future, Sauter is thinking more broadly than just hotels. "I'm focused on the innovation of retail in general," she says, explaining that her "longterm vision" has always been to be "the infrastructure behind other things." The company is planning to launch e-commerce soon, and in the fall it will open one of its most high-profile stores yet: The company is handling the women's portion of the highly anticipated new Fred Segal flagship on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. (The LA retail institution was acquired in 2012 and got a new CEO in 2014.) Sauter points out that Maris Collective's experience in highlighting new brands and negotiating exclusives made it a good fit, and says she wants to "take it back" to what Fred Segal was in its heyday: a place for "innovation and finding newness."
"It's still their lens, but it's our urban interpretation of what we do at these other places," she says. "We have the ability to give it our point of view if we wanted to but normally that's not our take on our destinations." She notes that the company is already in talks to embark on similar non-hotel projects.
Ultimately, Sauter says, she hopes Maris Collective plays a significant role in the current shift that's happening in retail, and to be able to "look back and say, 'We had a lot to do with that.'"