Four new names to Newport hosted a swanky Grand Opening party on Friday night with more than 250 fashionable revelers sipping champagne and Grey Goose cocktails while ogling the dapper duds and big, bold bling. Thanks to Badgley Mischka, Boo Gemes, Lily Holt and sisters Kim and Linda Renk of Sequin, Bellevue was buzzing, and it was a fabulous scene that even 8 weeks ago, seemed hard to imagine.
Shops that had been a part of Newport’s retail landscape for decades, including Karen Vaughan (11 years), Carroll Michael & Co. (33 years) and Baccari’s Barber Shop (65 years), closed or relocated by the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, with owners citing both personal and financial reasons. While the commercial vacancies seemed to be a grim economic indicator, more than half a dozen new retailers have opened for business, invigorating Newport’s legendary shopping stretch.
“We thought it [Bellevue Avenue] was the only place that made sense,” says Mark Badgley, who opened Badgley Mischka with partner James Mischka last month. The shop, at the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Prospect Hill Street, is the internationally-acclaimed designer duo’s third retail location (their line is currently carried at upscale department stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue).
While filling these high profile vacancies has relieved landlords, occupancy length, for some of these retailers, may only be temporary. Lily Holt, Sequin, Boo Gemes and Badgley Mischka are, at least for now, “pop-up,” shops, stores that occupy a retail space only for a short amount of time. Pop-ups have become a global trend, and though commercial owners may prefer long term leases, the pop-up is a quick way for a brand to generate buzz and capitalize on a seasonal market, thereby making a positive economic impact by leasing a space that may otherwise have sat empty. The pop-up phenomenon emerged about six years ago and the idea quickly picked up steam, most especially during the recession which created vacant storefronts across the country. Major retailers including Gap, Target and Nike have used pop-ups to test new markets, introduce new lines and launch campaigns. “My business is very much a small specialty store business,” says clothing designer Boo Gemes, who shows collections around the country and has family in Newport County. “I do a lot of trunk shows and I have a following with a lot of people that summer in Newport.” Gemes says the pop-up concept is an effective way to capitalize on building her brand and reaching clients during the height of Newport’s busiest season. “Certainly for me, for all of us, a place like Newport is great because you have a higher-end client base.” Pointing out neighbor Badgley Mischka and across the street, Isoude, “I feel like we’re going to be a real complement to one another.”
Other retailers, including Twig, a branch of WAVE, at 146 Bellevue Avenue; Design Newport, an interior design and antique shop; and J. McLaughlin, purveyors of classic resort wear and accessories for women and men at 180 Bellevue Avenue, are long-term tenancies. “We’d been eyeing Newport for a number of years,” says Jay McLaughlin, co-founder of J. McLaughlin. Just shy of marking two months in business, McLaughlin says the company had long-hoped for a vacancy on Bellevue Avenue’s historic Casino Block, and had stayed in touch with brokers should a space become available. When one did, the company jumped on it right away. “The space felt right; an opportunity for an ideal location for us, and the parameters were exactly right,” says McLaughlin. The company’s architect, he says, noted that the condition of the space made it ideal to construct a look that well-represented the J. McLaughlin brand. McLaughlin says that for this 44th location, Bellevue was a natural fit, as the company caters to discriminating customers by building a long-term relationship with them. Conversely, he says, other areas of the city, including the wharves, are beautiful but more conducive to relying on foot-traffic business. Since opening, McLaughlin says the reaction from the community has been overwhelmingly supportive. “We have been consistently doing exceptional numbers, exceeding our initial expectations, so we have been very pleased to date,” he says. “We expect to keep this steady business into the fall and on through the winter. We can see, right now, that will be the case based on the response.”
Phyllis Satin, owner of Twig, has had multiple retail locations of her original shop, WAVE, across Newport until it closed last year. With their flagship store based in New Haven, Connecticut, Satin had almost thrown in the towel on a Newport location, but when Karen Vaughan closed, she saw an opportunity. “I always liked the Karen Vaughan space. I’ve always thought it had a certain charm,” she says. Since opening May 1, she says the store has seen more local clientele than in years past, and more of what she calls “serious shoppers,” due in part, she theorizes, to the new neighbors. “I’m happy about it because I think they’re going to spark interest in our area, which seems to have gotten a little forgotten in recent years,” she says. With the thriving retail area on Bellevue Avenue across from the Hotel Viking, the area just north of Memorial Boulevard where Twig is located, and the Casino Block, Satin thinks there’s an overall cohesive feel along Bellevue, and the opportunity to host events similar to Nantucket’s wildly popular Christmas Stroll. “It’s such an appealing neighborhood,” says Satin, who jokes she has coined the term “NoBe,” for North Bellevue, to describe the block her shop is on.
Steve Kirby of Kirby Commercial Real Estate, which had commercial listings in the area, says that while the retailers signed leases later than he expected, he did, in fact, anticipate the resurgence. “I think it’s just a matter of Bellevue being a quality space. A lot of these are new names to Newport, and I think a lot of people are seeing the value of Bellevue,” he says. Kirby is quick to point to the anticipated re-development of 106-112 William Street, which once housed Senor Frogg’s nightclub, as an optimistic sign that there’s a brighter future for the entire commercial stretch of Bellevue Avenue and surrounding areas to thrive.
Images in order: Top: starfish cuff by Sequin; Top Left; Samantha dress by Badgley Mischka; Right, multi-strand necklace by Sequin; Left, sandal by Lily Holt; Right, metallic tunic by Boo Gemes.
Portions of this article originally appeared in Newport This Week.