When Hillary France, the founder of the emerging brand trade show Brand Assembly, moved upstate from New York City to the artistic riverside community of Hudson, she fell in love with the area's small-town feel and sense of community.
"I'd say it's more grounded in hobbies and crafts as opposed to jobs and who you know," she tells me. France dreamt of taking over an old 1950s garage that at the time housed a local bar and turning it into some sort of co-working space. The dream came true: At the end of 2019, the lease became available and she started negotiations. Then, Covid hit — but instead of trying to get out of the project, she decided to go full steam ahead. "Obviously, trade shows were taking a little bit of a hiatus," she says.
France's concept became Wylde, which offers a combination of membership and public access and has a café, space for meetings and a curated retail space featuring indie designers like Rachel Comey, Dôen and Lykke Wulf. And while the Hudson Valley was already home to a lively creative community, the pandemic ignited something of a migration up the river from NYC, bringing even more spending power to the area — and more fashion entrepreneurs.
In recent memory, we've seen Nikki Chasin, Intentionally Blank and Mara Hoffman all open up shop in Hudson. For Hoffman, opening a multi-month pop-up — her namesake brand's first-ever brick-and-mortar — was a plan B after the pandemic derailed her plans to open a permanent shop in the city, but upstate was always in her purview. "We can't ignore the audience we have in this part of New York, especially with so many more people visiting the area," she tells me over email.
This isn't only happening in Hudson, though: The pandemic saw city dwellers with the means to do so escaping to places like the Hamptons, Aspen, CO or Montecito, CA. The ability to work remotely made the open space and cheaper housing of these getaway towns — which, of course, have always had local communities of their own — more alluring. And even if claims that big cities like San Francisco and NYC are "dying" are grossly exaggerated, it's become increasingly clear that this wasn't a momentary trend.
Studies show that most employees want to continue to have the freedom to choose where they do their work, and that most urban centers have seen more people moving (permanently) out than in, while most suburban counties are seeing the reverse. Experts say this is another cultural shift that was likely to occur anyway; the pandemic just accelerated things significantly.
It also appears, unsurprisingly, that this outward migration from places like NYC and San Francisco is being lead by the wealthy. And as we know, where wealth goes, fashion retail follows.
“This is potentially one of the most significant dispersions of income, wealth and economic opportunity and economic activity in modern history. I really can't emphasize it enough," says "retail prophet" Doug Stephens, comparing the current moment to the suburban migration of the 1950s. "Potentially some of the highest paid people in the employment market are now being unleashed and being given the opportunity to go and live in places like Provo, Utah or Aspen or Miami. It's up to a lot of people now where they go and where they work from, so retail is following the herd, as it always does."
This overlaps with another retail trend that the pandemic kindled: Because travel restrictions tampered with tourism and working from home kept consumers in their own neighborhoods, smaller, community-focused local shops were able to thrive. In its joint The State of Fashion 2021 report, McKinsey and Business of Fashion predicted that we would see "increasing numbers of small stores, enhanced with hand-picked inventories, and neighborhood stores designed to forge local connections."
Stephens points out that all of this is going to change how retailers and brands, big and small, strategize their brick-and-mortar footprints: "Up until now, if you had a new concept in the U.S. market, where did you launch it? It was always San Francisco or New York or one of the major centers, so even things like that have to be rethought. Maybe you do make your splash in Aspen or Nantucket or some of the places that might have been considered to be a vacation spots up until now. It will be a big rethink on store distribution, on marketing effort and ultimately around what you consider even to be a market."
We're already seeing those strategies change. Upcycled denim purveyor Redone, for instance, is currently in brick-and-mortar expansion mode and looking at the Hamptons, Aspen and Greenwich, CT for future locations. "I like these [areas] that are like where people move to, and a lot of people say the same thing, so we're looking at those kinds of locations," co-founder Sean Barron says.
SoCal lifestyle brand Brixton is at a similar stage in its growth and leaning on smaller format stores in beach communities like Encinitas and Long Beach, where it believes its current and future core customers spend time and are underserved.
"We want to put our brand as close to where we believe our core consumer audience is, what they're consuming, where they're shopping, where they're moving," explains CEO Raphael Peck. He also feels that, coming out of the pandemic, consumers wouldn't be eager to get in a car and drive to a mall to do their shopping: "We thought small, local, 'going on an adventure' was going to become increasingly important to the North American fabric of retail." While locals are the brand's chief focus, Peck also sees California tourism growth creating additional opportunity in the coming years.
A luxury fashion retailer that is also taking both tourism and local communities into consideration as it expands its store fleet is The Webster. Its latest location — a permanent boutique at the beautiful, Caruso-owned Rosewood Miramar Beach Hotel (which you've probably seen on Instagram if you follow any wealthy Angelenos, for whom it's a popular destination for weddings and weekend getaways) — opened in June 2020 in Montecito, CA, a picturesque suburb that's home to stars like Oprah and the Mountbatten-Windsors. Founder Laure Heriard Dubreuil sees it as a complement to its LA location, which opened in February last year.
"It acts as an outpost for Angelenos. We look at our Miramar store as a precious gem," she writes me over email. "While we still believe in major cities' concept, we will focus on complementing them with destination getaway spots to be available wherever they go."
For Neighborhood Goods — the innovative marketplace that bills it self as "a new type of department store" — big cities have always been less of a priority when it came to opening new locations.
"The first location we launched is a suburban market; we went there because there was a huge amount of people pouring into that market and they're underserved in terms of these experiences, so that's always been our thinking," co-founder and CEO Matt Alexander says. "I do think there's going to be a lot of opportunity in more of these residential areas, and we certainly see that, where you can tap more into a neighborhood but still be in proximity to a major city. That's always been the thesis."
Of course, none of this necessarily means that there aren't still opportunities in big city centers, but it could mean that the retail landscape in those places is going to change significantly. And it could become a little, well, less cool.
Stephens points out that, while there will certainly continue to be enough economic activity in big cities to support retail, small-to-medium-size retailers were the hardest hit by the pandemic, and it's those smaller businesses that he says "give a city its character." You could start to see more of those kinds of businesses eschewing big cities for smaller communities with cheaper (at least for the time being) rent.
"When you start seeing the disappearance of so many of those small, interesting, unique businesses, it changes the character of the city," he says. "That in turn will have an impact on the population of those cities, the wealthy consumers that choose to live there and ultimately that will send retail chasing after those customers again."
"I don't buy in an any of these narratives about X,Y,X city being done, it's gonna change so quickly, and so we're not shy about going to major metropolitan areas," says Alexander. "We just see a little more opportunity elsewhere."