Restoration Hardware Redux or...

How Gary Friedman is Intent on Building Something The World Has Never Seen

Location: multiple locations and online

"Great brands don't chase customers; customers chase great brands." - Gary Friedman

This weekend I attended the opening of Restoration Hardware’s newest store, out in the beachy, posh, summer town of East Hampton. It was quite a scene — a two-story, luxurious and eclectic showroom filling up with the early crowd of women in white dresses and men in bright shirts all flanked by two lines of waiters bearing tall glasses of cool drinks.

This is what I tweeted: “Watch out Raph Lauren, Resto’s on the warpath and moving quickly…”

Just a few doors down, a gaggle of Ralph Lauren shops sat eyeing the new kid in town with the big crowd outside.

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Another tweet: “Gary just arrived. Man is he buff.”

Indeed, like a younger, ripped, but still white haired version of Ralph Lauren, Gary Friedman, CEO and head design guru behind Resto’s remarkable turnaround, stands out by a mile, graciously welcoming everyone into his world.

Resto is far past the point where, recession be damned, they worry about making a big splash that might raise eyebrows, and this opening was no exception. There was valet parking, lots of camera flashes and a velvet rope out on main street of this small town.

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And remember, it’s a furniture store.

Before the crush ensued, I received a full walk-through from Resto’s head of Public Relations and took tons of pics. There were a number of new things that I hadn’t seen up close before. After the crush set in, I exchanged a brief word with Gary and set up a call to chat with him at length the following day.

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What I learned the next day continued to surprise me, as Gary said what’s REALLY going on is that they’re about to open a showroom in LA this week that the “world has never seen.”

Restoration Hardware is about three years into an improbable turnaround that resulted from a near-death experience in the midst of the recession. Having run out of steam selling sage green paint, furniture, lighting and "itemy" stuff, Gary Friedman decided to totally overhaul the company, refocus it and — while still selling furniture — aim higher. Rather than chase prices down as people felt the pinch of a faltering economy, he upped the quality and prices, while also taking the style in an extremely personal direction.

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The style is often what catches people's attention first, as they don't recognize the Restoration Hardware they once knew, with its dark, moody interiors and large scale, almost baronial furniture. Rarely has a brand taken such a hard turn and survived.

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But Resto has never been better, according to Gary, and the experiment seems to be paying off as the freshness and energy to Restoration's offerings are a bright spot in an industry still suffering aftershocks (Restoration's actual finances are private and performance figures are not available.)

Describing the depths of 2009 as a "liberating moment," the antidote to the old Resto that Gary hit upon was to take the store back to a very personal place — his place actually — and offer only home furnishings that he loved. As he spoke about his style direction, he referred to his small creative team — 4-5 people — who shop the globe and make every decision with him. There are no focus groups in house, there's not a lot of diversity and the mix is decidedly eclectic and masculine, but each piece has to be "loved" to get chosen. This also means that Gary can't (or won't) describe Resto's new style and can't (or won't) say where it's going next.

"It's a mystery!" as Geoffrey Rush's character in "Shakespeare in Love" used to say whenever pinned for an answer.

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Which feels, oddly enough, totally refreshing. In an era when so much is known and so few risks are taken having someone buck the trend like this AND serve up some really interesting furniture (even if it IS too big for my home) with old school merchant charm is inspiring. It also works hard towards restoring one's faith in the concept that businesses should be personal and should take risks and LEAD the customer, rather than the other way around.

As Gary said on the phone to me, "Great brands don't chase customers; customers chase great brands."

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The truth of this will certainly start to be borne out this Friday (June 24) with the opening of Resto's newest store in Los Angeles, which will take the place of six mall locations and centralize the experience in one 24,000 square foot space on Beverly Boulevard. This new showroom will be totally different from the "Gallery" concept stores that they've been rolling out over the past two years and will constitute "something the world has never seen."

It will also be the next giant step in the slow but steady evolution of the brand away from a fun, cheery "item business" towards a much grander lifestyle business that we have never seen. Or have we?

As Gary and Restoration Hardware "bat for the fence," it's clear that they would be very comfortable selling you furniture with the same quirk, panache and drama Ralph Lauren brought to the polo shirt.

And I, for one, would not bet against them.

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Good Links:

>> Restoration Rewired in the WSJ Magazine, June 2011
>> Restoration Hardware Store Page
>> Restoration Hardware Roars Back!! in Apartment Therapy for their NYC store opening in 2009

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.

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