Is San Antonio Ready for High-End?

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There’s a fascinating episode of the podcast Radiolab that investigates the history and science of color. One segment of that show, “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?,” explores the research Lazarus Geiger, a German philologist who, building upon the work of William Gladstone, discovered that as languages mature, words for distinct colors emerge in the same order every time.

Studying the texts from many ancient cultures, Geiger found that after the words for black and white, the color terms emerge, practically without exception, in this order: first red, then yellow, green and finally blue.

Image from Adam Cole/WNYC.

I’ve wondered how Geiger’s discovery about linguistic evolution might have parallels in other areas. Children develop motor skills in similar sequences; many people experience distinct stages of grief in a common order. Might there be some kind of pattern that cities follow, too? Is there an order in which specific cultural components (art, food, fashion, philanthropy, etc.) of vibrant urban areas evolve?

For a local example, let’s talk food. Call me biased, but I think the culinary scene has become the primary object of our collective cultural obsession right now in San Antonio. We’ve got celebuchefs launching new ventures right and left from historic buildings, trucks and shipping containers, and folks shelling out $100+ without blinking an eye for exclusive pop-up dinners. Plus, it’s hard to argue with Texas Monthly, which just gave nods to The Granary Cue and Brew, Arcade Midtown Kitchen and Barbaro in its 2014 best new restaurants and bars list.

Image from Texas Monthly.

As the gastronomic ecosystem stands now, there’s a broad spectrum available, from cheap to pricy and generic to totally unique. If you want to spend less, you can opt for chain (no disrespect, but think California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Starbucks) or local (Main Street, The Station Café, Local Coffee) restaurants and cafes. If you want to spend more, options range from known national brands (Fogo de Chau, The Palm, Perry’s) to SA stand-alones and stand-outs (Bakery LorraineRestaurant Gwendolyn, Minnie’s, Bliss, Cured).

Returning to Geiger’s framework of linguistic development, let’s transpose the hierarchy of color words onto the food scene. Let’s say that affordable, local restaurants, which we’ll equate to red, preceded bargain national chains – yellow. Then came high-end nationals, green; and last, most recently, the market has welcomed a building, critical mass of high-end local restaurants – blue.

Now, let’s put that same framework into another field entirely, one far less established in SA: fashion.

In San Antonio, we’ve got plenty of local, affordable consignment shops—we’ll call those red. Look around North Star Mall or La Cantera for abundant national options, both lower and higher end—yellow and green. But what about blue; the Restaurant Gwendolyns of wearable style? I’d propose that blue may not yet be a part of SA’s fashion lexicon.

To be fair, there are a few—but only a few. Penny Lane, Aquarius, Sloan/Hall, The Richter Co., S.C.R.Kathleen Sommers. Beyond that, I’m at a loss.

Inside S.C.R., a high-end menswear shop on Broadway. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Inside S.C.R., a high-end menswear shop on Broadway. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

I started thinking about fashion while talking with Shawn Rhoder, 31, the owner of S.C.R. (Style Comfort Relativity), a men’s boutique on Broadway.

S.C.R. set up shop in May 2013, first carrying labels such as FilsonHudson’s Bay and Grenson, and now selling their own products, designed by Rhoder and manufactured in the industrial city of Vernon, Calif., where clothing is created for the likes of BCBGRogue Territory and Joe’s Jeans.

Rhoder called S.C.R.’s initial reception in the city as “not even lukewarm; no one knew who I was.”

He didn’t launch a massive marketing campaign from the outset, instead opting for an organic, show/tell/let-customers-spread-the-word strategy. (I’ll take this opportunity to spread the word to you: S.R.C. is hosting a launch party in the store on Saturday, 2/22; more on Facebook.)

“The response has been different than I expected,” he said. “You have a group of people who like what we’re doing and then some that don’t.”

Sales of the very same products Rhoder sells in his San Antonio stores, such as a jacket created through a collaboration with Golden Bear Sportswear, have been much more robust in Houston and Dallas.

“If it just doesn’t work here,” said Rhoder, who has called San Antonio home since the age of 12, “I may have to leave and try somewhere else.”

Uniform Wares watches at S.C.R. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Uniform Wares watches at S.C.R. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Additionally, Rhoder explained, “it’s a disadvantage to be one of the only stores (of this kind).” He described the fashion world as collaborative, and competing stores as complementary to one another.

“In Vernon, you have all these segments of the industry that rely on each other; everything is a derivative and it all works together. We’re lacking components here [in San Antonio] to make it work. We need a real small business district.”

In a San Antonio Current article discussing the recent proliferation of Asian fusion joints, restaurateur Chad Carey described the healthy competition with this pithy—and true, in my opinion—remark: “If a city of 2.3 million people can’t support Tuk Tuk, Kimura, Hot Joy and Umai Mi, then f— us, what are we doing?”

In that same vein, if a city our size can’t support more than, what, three high-end, high quality clothiers for women and two for men, what does that say? Do we care? If operating in San Antonio is a struggle for a store like S.C.R., one that’s doing something unique and innovative that would catch like wildfire in Houston or Dallas, what’s the solution? Do we, as consumers, want or need to start demanding the same quality craftsmanship of the things we put on our bodies as the things we put in them?

“It’s been a learning experience,” Rhoder told me. “You can’t change people that don’t want to be changed. They have to want you.”

So, what do you want? Do you want to stop, for now, at green, or aim for blue?

San Antonio hats at S.C.R. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

San Antonio hats at S.C.R. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

*Featured/top photo: high-end, designer clothing at Sloan Hall. From www.sloanhall.com.

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11 thoughts on “Is San Antonio Ready for High-End?

  1. I have a very high end photography studio and gallery and I don’t see San Antonio as “ready” for high end, as it is, “potentially ready”. The folks who come visit are usually from out of town, so I get their read on our city. My mother told me “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”, so you can infer what I hear a lot.

    I know of a few other high end businesses here in town and all of us subscribe to sage advice given from a friend recently, “Live locally, and market globally”.

    I would be ecstatic if we had a high end market here, but I don’t think we have enough businesses who can stick it out until we reach a tipping point. My hat is off to all who try, as there is almost no competition at that level here, but there is not a market either. Aim for blue!

  2. I get what this article is about in terms of having locally owned businesses that successfully develop and sell high end items. However, the items in the photographs chosen are so far from unique in appearance that it makes me think of a The Onion piece. Between the minimalist gallery-like presentation to the probable price of the articles compared to the same items at your local Academy, it’s pretty funny. A high-end Jerry Seinfeld costume.

    It bears mentioning that there are plenty of stores at La Cantera where you can spend any amount of money you can imagine on clothing, so it’s not necessarily that San Antonians are not clamoring for high end threads. What they probably need is a location that gets some foot traffic as well as word of mouth, unique or custom products and great service. Not mentioned is Las Dos Carolinas, which seems to do well selling expensive custom items to both locals and tourists.

  3. I think some may be missing the point of this article. From a broad perspective, I believe this city has both the means and the desire to step it up in the fashion sector. There’s a fair amount of support in art, and for music, but why not fashion? I think a lot of it has to do with education. A $400 jacket may not be feasible for some, but when you understand just what goes into making that jacket, it’s an appreciation of fine craftsmanship. Comparing items that are of high quality to ” your local academy” is a part of the problem. As for the “minimalist gallery” compared to the onion, where’s the support for local business there? Don’t knock on something just because you don’t understand it. We, as a city need to change our mindset and show appreciation for the individuals trying to contribute to our community.

    • I don’t want to knock down somebody who is making an effort to offer something different. The shop’s website does show more distinctive looking merchandise. If given a choice between something mass produced overseas and something produced regionally, I think paying more is worthwhile. My comment was that the choice of illustrations for this article did not support its thesis very well by showing somewhat generic looking items. I also object to the fallback that San Antonio is not hip enough to appreciate something when other factors such as location and marketing may be the issue.

  4. I agree with Camilo. I think we need a unique location to get a lot of foot traffic. Maybe they could make a walkable section of Alamo Heights and put high-end shops and cafes lining the streets. Of course, it would be difficult to get a project like that on board there, but you get the picture.

  5. I’d suggest South Alamo St. is already halfway there, but needs more retail. A space near Propaganda Palace and The Friendly Spot would be great.

  6. First, I agree with Camilo, it may be about marketing and location.

    Second, I had a conversation recently with a person with extensive experience in development fundraising for large organizations. They said that, unlike Houston or Dallas, the high end folks in San Antonio are not so interested in the “see and be seen” atmosphere. It exists, but to a much lesser extent than in the other Texas cities. High end fashion is, ultimately, all about the “see and be seen” culture.

    When we’re out, say at a bar where it’s normal to pay $10-15 for a cocktail, the men are dressed in long shorts, shirts hanging out, and baseball caps. This is a casual city.

    Fashion is different from high end cuisine. The foodie culture is alive and strong and is about enjoying quality, innovative food. This took time to develop though, moving from $2 tacos to $12 Mexican Street food took some work, and moving on to $100+ per plate dinners did not happen over night. Indeed, such restaurants are still few and far between. But it’s a different culture than that drawn to high end fashion.

    Even amongst the very wealthy, this city is, for better or worse, down to earth. That’s what we thrive on and what we celebrate.

    (FWIW, my Swiss husband is far more fashion conscious than myself, and he’ll spend a fair amount on high end clothing. He’d laugh at the items shown in this article – that’s not innovative interesting fashion. That’s a baseball jacket and cap. He gets very frustrated shopping for clothes in the US, esp in San Antonio. He ends up buying clothes when in Europe or in San Francisco.)

  7. How does San Antonio compare to the rest of the world?

    World’s most livable cities in the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World%27s_most_livable_cities

    Mercer Quality of Living Survey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercer_Quality_of_Living_Survey

    List of freedom indices: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_freedom_indices

    Index of Economic Freedom: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_of_Economic_Freedom

    Press Freedom Index: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index

    Democracy Index: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_index

  8. San Antonio is such an original city, and it pains me to find so many new businesses (and particularly restaurants in town) trying so hard to position themselves based on almost comical views of what they believe to be ‘high-end’ (meat cured 8 to 18 months – no more, no less, exhaustive beer menus, etc.) – dismissing elements of and opportunities in the city that many in the world take as real luxury and unique about and to the city and our Mexico-US region . . . attributing any business failure to a market ‘not ready’ or refined enough for their offerings.

    From my limited experience as a diner there, Tuk Tuk isn’t working out because the music is terrible and too loud, there’s no easy way to enter the place on foot if you park off Broadway (where parking abounds) and the food is ‘meh’ – including in comparison with more established Asian food offerings in the city (no frills Pho’ Sure near San Pedro Park has my personal vote for best Asian dining experience for the price, including as someone who has spent years in the Asia Pacific).

    I can say the same thing about the Luxury – cool concept, but poorly executed most days (your loud and terrible music is literally repelling people to the outer edges of the joint).

    Stop blaming the city and local residents – you’re offerings just aren’t superior to or as good as established businesses in town . Get the basics and balance of customer service right (numerous mom and pop shops in San Antonio absolutely nail this every day) and maybe your offerings will one day be considered exceptional . . . without trumpeting that you are ‘high-end’ (never a good sign).

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