The Owner of a Fashion Boutique on the Realities Retail Is Facing Right Now

Brandon Tran
Brandon Tran

If you think fashion is frivolous in the time of coronavirus, you probably don't depend on it for a living. My friend, the founder of San Francisco's Hero Shop, Emily Holt, does. She's a former Vogue editor who set up shop on the West Coast in 2016 after she spent years covering the fashion industry in New York, and Hero Shop has become a bright spot in our city's fashion landscape ever since. It's a gem, housing an expertly curated selection of contemporary and luxury labels, the likes of which you're more likely to find strolling around Soho than the streets of San Francisco. Fashion fans and shoppers like me have found her store to be a haven of sorts, and happily indulge in the designer trunk shows and events she offers regularly as a chance to engage with the style world that can, at times, feel so far from the Bay Area.

As I watched the news of the pandemic and its effects as it spread across the country, it became clear that the fashion world would be one of the many industries to take a monstrous hit. Economic uncertainty means that fewer people are spending on anything they don't need, and that most obviously can mean buying new clothes — especially designer ones. For Emily, whose shop is an experience in itself, shuttering her storefronts — including a second location she opened in Marin last year — in the wake of California's shelter-in-place mandate has fundamentally altered her business in the span of just two weeks. Fortunately, creativity and innovation are baked into her brand, and in the face of uncertainty, she might just be on the brink of transformation.

Her store — a place for style-obsessed shoppers to get hands-on with designs from Brock Collection and Rosetta Getty, where Emily introduces her following to new labels and handpicks merchandise for clients that she delivers door-to-door — was founded with a small, but mighty, mission. On her website, she elaborates: "The name Hero Shop refers to a lot of things, especially the transformative nature of things we love. The perfect birthday gift can save someone's day. Or the right cuff bracelet can turn an ordinary human into Wonder Woman. We all have the power to be heroic in different ways. Just like Bowie said." During times of crisis, acts of heroism and kindness — however big or small — are even more important, and who's to say that fashion doesn't still have a place in that?

I jumped on the phone with Emily last week to talk through what she's doing to pivot, how to help small businesses, and the importance of fashion right now. Because, yeah, for people like us, it doesn't just remain relevant — it's essential.

You have to assume that your followers or people on your email list are people who like fashion and want to keep seeing it.

POPSUGAR: I read your piece for Vogue, and you said something that I thought was such a perfect way of describing what you're dealing with right now. You said, of messaging customers, "The world is ending, please stay safe. But wait, this cute new Ganni dress arrived." That's exactly what we're dealing with, this tension, this question: why is fashion still important or relevant? I'm wondering, how are you bridging that gap?
Emily Holt: I don't know if you read Vanessa Friedman's piece in the style section yesterday . . . she's talking about online shopping and whether it matters. And then Lynn Yaeger wrote a piece for about getting dressed, and she basically said, "If it makes you feel safe and brings you some sense of normalcy, then do it." So sort of taking the apology out of it. I think the only way that I was able to bridge that gap was, you first have to say, "This is what's going on. Yes, the world is ending, we're as fearful as everybody else." You have to assume that your followers or people on your email list are people who like fashion and want to keep seeing it. And it's [saying], "Just so you know, we're going to be putting out a lot more stuff and it's not because we're tone-deaf, it's because things have to keep going." And I feel very invigorated by our clients really knowing that, and by the reaction that some of them have had, saying, "Oh I got this box and it made my day just to try this stuff on." Whether or not they buy anything, at least we got it in front of them and it brought joy to their day and there was some connection to each other.

And we've had clients reach out to us saying, "How can I support you?" People buying gift cards and people heart-eying whatever we're storying [on IGS], people saying, "I like looking at your stories because it gives me a break from . . . " whatever it is — homeschooling, dealing with my husband, not showering. I'm not trying to be insensitive and I'm not necessarily saying that now is the time for some of the stuff we have, but there is some stuff that you can enjoy right now, and if it makes you feel happy then that's kind of what you do. And I do think that we have clients who understand that this is critical for us, and that if we don't get support right now we're in big trouble and maybe we go away. And from what it sounds like, people don't necessarily want us to go away, and they sort of understand the gravity of what's happening.

PS: I think that's the important part. People who are in a position to help want to know how can we help because when we wake up and this is all over, we want our life to go back to normal. And that includes all of these things that right now we might consider luxuries.

For a store and boutique experience like yours, where the ideas, your curation, getting people to see these things in person, bringing designers into your stores is at the heart of what you do, how are you taking that onto social, and how has your digital strategy evolved in the past week?

EH: I wish I could be doing more. It's just about getting the stuff online. I do all the social and all of our emails. I'm trying to make our stories more engaging, I really do want to, but the reality of the matter is that I'm the only one going into the store packing these orders — and thank God there are orders to pack — but that takes several hours . . . and so I can't be quite as engaged.

PS: I think you also raised a good point that the reality is also just keeping a business alive.

EH: Exactly. Typically I'm much more on top of it because I have some staff who can help pack stuff up.

PS: Right. Totally. What have your conversations been like with other people in the industry?

EH: Yeah, I heard this morning from Adam Lippes, and it was just, "Thinking of you, sending love." Or I emailed Nikki Kule this morning because all we've been selling are sweatshirts and stripe [Kule] tops and Birkenstocks. And so I emailed her and I said, "Thank you for creating things that people not only want to wear, but will actually spend money on in this most uncertain time." I've tried to maintain those sort of personal connections that I have. A lot of our vendors are — it's a little bit split — some of them are being very understanding and know that we are already selling new merchandise at a discount and know that we're in a cash flow crisis, and so they're trying to work with us about payments and shipments and things like that. And then, occasionally, you'll get a vendor that just seems to be so strict and hard-lined and not understanding at all what's going on.

That's hard to deal with. But fellow retailers have been super helpful, and it's the ones that I always leaned on anyways. But filling out this small business loan, which has had me in a complete tailspin all week because every single human I have ever come in contact with has forwarded me this link and they're like, "Just fill it out, just fill it out, just fill it out." Meanwhile, I put outfits together. I do not know how to fill out loan applications. And so I had just been looking at it, and I'm feeling overwhelmed all week. And then [fellow business owners] who I talk with quite a bit were like, "Oh, we just filled this out, did you do it?" And I was like, "No, please walk me through it." It's just sort of sharing strategies and what we're going through. Somebody who speaks your language, like a fellow retailer, can help walk me through what it's like to fill out a loan application. Somebody with an MBA might think they're explaining it to me, but I'm not understanding.

Thank you for supporting us now, and please, if you can, support us four to six months from now. That's when I think shit's going to hit the fan for any small business that makes it to the other side.

PS: On a lighter note, who are the people maybe that you're following right now or the friends or industry bright spots that you think are helping you to stay positive and creative?

EH: I mean I have to be honest, I'm trying not to look at Instagram because in the best of times it doesn't make me feel good. What I am inspired by are the things that I am directly experiencing. So I am inspired, or rather comforted, by the clients that I am personally speaking with or sending things to or who are shopping, and their words of support are what are inspiring me, in terms of creativity. A walk on the beach and actually sitting here — I read my coffee-table books with a cup of coffee the other day. I've never done that before and I never expected to ever read those coffee-table books. I just buy them because they're pretty, and I actually cracked open like six of them. And I was like, "These books are fabulous. I'm so glad I have them." The direct experiences are where I'm finding the creativity, and where I'm finding the inspiration and the hope.

PS: If you could tell your customers something, or if you had a message of what we take away from this . . . I don't know if you're even there yet, maybe it's too early, but do you have any, like —

EH: Yeah, the first thing I really truthfully would say is "thank you." Because they are reaching out and they are supporting us and I'm so, so grateful for that. And I think the message is, thank you for supporting us now, and please, if you can, support us four to six months from now. That's when I think shit's going to hit the fan for any small business that makes it to the other side. That's what I think. And we are on sale. We have a 15 precent off promo code. I am very buoyed by the clients that do not use it. I think that's very generous and thoughtful. That's how you know people are thinking of you and they know the gravity of this.

PS: Right. Especially because you're also thinking of other people, with the percentage you are giving back to charity (a portion of Hero Shop's sales go to benefit the SF-Marin Food Bank). So, I think that's a nice way of looking at it, to have your customers pay it forward too.

EH: Yeah when they can. Exactly.