Product Matters

RVCA learns what Valentino knows: people will pay for quality

"I didn't realize Valentino madeclothes for men," the elderly woman in earth tones—plus something furry around her neck—was saying: always a worthwhile topic of discussion over Cosmos and glasses of white wine like the ones we drank at the recent official Valentino store opening at South Coast Plaza. Not so long ago, men were mere slaves to couture, kept alive only to buy it for their wives/girlfriends/mistresses. Why would men need a line of their own for that? And: "Would you really wear this?" the fragile, birdy lady wondered. "You might wear it in Miami," she mused, "but would you wear it here?"

It was a deep orange Valentino men's turtleneck, and her point was not altogether poorly taken; heavy turtlenecks are necessary here one week a year at best. And while it was Frank Sinatra's favorite color, orange is, for the rest of us regardless of income, an acquired taste. Her question went unanswered for more than an hour, until I left Valentino, where president Graziano de Boni held court among women in neon yellow and guys who resembled Henry or Bill Ford, for the opening of Metropark in the Irvine Spectrum. There, a DJ spun, and gray-pompadoured founder Orv Madden (ex-Hot Topic) moved among Ashlee Simpson/Ryan Cabrera knockoffs in a jacket his store sells—one with a three-digit price tag and the legend "Real Child of Hell" on the back. (It was once a song by X, I assured him.) With years between them, the two crowds had booze, credit cards and an indifference to price tags in common.

"Prices don't matter," RVCA vice president of sales Eric Thomas assured me at Metropark, clutching a brew. "Product matters." This was the end for anyone wishing for an inexpensive Christmas. Prices at Valentino, at Metropark, at the gas station are up, up, up—and prices never go down. (Except at the gas station, and then they go back up.) Particularly at Metropark, which is maybe what Express or the Limited (or is that Chess King or Judy's?) were once, with the decimal point now shifted one digit right. We were so much older then . . .

Now, Thomas was saying—as we stood in front of vast, semi-vacant canvases of vaguely lowbrow skate art that someone would be filling—kids not only had money to burn (their parents', or perhaps their own), but they'd also acquired a taste for pricey things like Japanese denim, hand-sanded hoodies and weathered car coats.

"It's not that the environment has changed," Thomas explained. "It's that the customer has changed." And who changed them? If you need someone to blame—if blame should be assigned for teaching fledglings to flex their buying power—you need look no farther than to the Valentino opening, same night, and . . . oh, blame the guy in the robin's-egg-blue mock turtleneck and darker blue suit who looked like Henry Ford. Everyone hates Henry Ford! The kids' taste for things previously unattainable—Affliction T-shirts, RVCA jeans—has to originate somewhere; in this case, it probably began with their parents' and grandparents' generations.

This explained what Thomas and RVCA's LA sales guy Jay Larson were doing at Metropark—in blue, embroidered oxford RVCA shirts that, sadly, were a near match. They were visiting the scene of the crime: helping to transition the brand, Thomas said, from an expensive action sports label to a relatively inexpensive high fashion label—albeit one with a foot still in either camp. And for those who can't, or couldn't, imagine RVCA, with its grounding in genuine boardsports art, moving away from the sporting life that is another of its underpinnings, well, Thomas had an explanation for that too.

"It was always founded on an art-apparel alliance," he said. "It just so happens that [founders] Pat [Tenore] and Conan [Hayes] grew up in the streets." The streets of Orange County, that is. RVCA began—and still exists—as a locally grounded action sports retailer that features graphic designs by once-unknown artists like Brandon Bird, Ed Templeton and wife Deanna, Neil Blender, and Mark Mothersbaugh. But the other half of an "art-apparel alliance" is, of course, apparel. It's sheer folly—nothing short of biblical—to expect even a well-intentioned company like RVCA to commission some of the best boardsports art around and then sit on it, keeping it out of the hands of expensive retailers like Metropark. Something about light, and hiding it under a bushel basket.

Fortunately, or not, given the price of a shirt these days, this is not RVCA's intent. If you have the coin, you can almost always find a piece of their clothing for sale somewhere: the danger of overexposure being the flip side of making one's wares available. And should you get too old—35, say—and commence to looking longingly toward that little hall in South Coast Plaza just outside the Nordstrom cosmetics counter where are Valentino, Mikimoto and their ilk, the guys at RVCA have your exit covered.

"We don't want our customers to say 'Oh, I'm 35, now I can't shop here,'" Thomas said. A varied price point, he said, can be an added inducement. "I wear $250 denim, and I wear a $20 T-shirt." A $20 T-shirt? Today, that's cheap.

 
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