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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photo: R. Lopez
Tucked in the driveway of the Four Seasons in Georgetown, M29 LIFESTYLE feels like a place to find something special. The focus in the gallery-like shop is on emerging designers, unique artists, and one-of-a-kind pieces ranging from fashion and accessories to home decor, books, and neon nautical dog leashes. That mix is meant to appeal to Washingtonians and global travelers alike – there's branding for M29 on every hotel keycard and bookmarks in each guest room. Of course, Four Seasons guests want more memorable souvenirs than a Washington monument key chain.
The woman behind the vision for M29 LIFESTYLE is Deborah Bush, retail director for Strategic Hotels and Resorts. Deborah oversees retail stores at hotel properties across the country and the globe, which means when she's not at her home base in New York City, she is visiting D.C. once a month, or jetting off to enviable vacation destinations like L.A., Mexico, or Miami. Fashion and retail is second nature to Deborah, and her resume includes huge names like J. Mendel, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Bloomingdale's, and Hermes.
Since opening in 2010 on M Street, M29 has been through several changes, including a move from M Street to its current location, and now after months of construction, the store is about to get a new neighbor, ENO Wine Bar. We spoke with Deborah about how the store landed in D.C. and the next chapter for M29 LIFESTYLE. She also shared a few tidbits about last minute shopping requests from Four Seasons brides, and why kids riding scooters around the store makes her so happy.
How did M29 come to be?
We wanted to play with the idea of a white box concept in space that belonged to the ownership. It was the idea of creating not really a pop-up, but a white box lifestyle store that could be kind of a laboratory for different ideas. And if we did it to the vision, it would be part of the local community, part of the transient hotel guest community, and intersect ideas of local, national, international, fashion, and design.
What is your background?
I worked in retail since I was a teenager. My first retail job was in the basement packing and shipping, mostly bridal gifts. I can pack a lamp, a lampshade, china, crystal. I remember I used to come in high school and organize all the holiday items on the shelves. And when I was proficient I was promoted to come upstairs and work with customers, and I worked there all through school. And I loved it. I always wanted to work in fashion. I was obsessed with Paris and clothes, and I knew a store was a place I'd like to be. So I interned at Bloomingdale's while I pursued a liberal arts college education. I went into their training program after school.
For the past seven years, I have been working for Strategic Hotels, which is the ownership group for Four Seasons DC, and I was assisting with our spa and fitness area and then we had the idea to play with the store since I was doing retail projects for other hotels. We own about 17 different hotel properties, and I have about eight or 10 different projects with the company, and we thought, why not play with D.C.?
Are they all called M29?
No. They are all unique to every location. So something that we create in Four Seasons in Punta Mita, Mexico is specific to that resort location. There's 6300 square feet of retail there, men's, women's, craft. Here was a completely different idea. It's a little more specialty, like artisanal. It's not your typical hotel boutique. And we didn't mean for it to be.
It's not like baseball caps.
We do that some places, but that wasn't my background even when I came here. I came here to help open Mexico. The idea was to do luxury lifestyle and to bring fashion to the guest who was visiting that distant location but wanted to find beautiful resort wear. It was a great adventure and it still is.
How do you get the flavor of the city, the flavor of D.C.?
Well, my parents met and married here in Georgetown. My dad had cousins here, my grandfather is buried in Arlington. I had some connections to the area. Before I opened the store, I'd been working with the Four Seasons hotel in their spa and fitness area for a few years. I definitely had a sense of the town, and as a shopper, I had my favorite places, one of which is running up to Wisconsin [Avenue]. One of my thoughts when I got the challenge to do the store is I never have time to get all the way up there at the end of my day, before I go back to go to the train — I live in New York. How could I bring elements of what I love up there to this block or this location because I suspect there are other people like me who would love to be around that type of thing. Whether it would be antiques or home, or beautiful children's wear.
Those are some thoughts I had when I knew our block as well as the guests and the members that I already worked with. I had a sense of just watching what everyone wears. I am a quick study. I walked the streets on my visits. I knew this was an interesting location because we have a street full of fashion. How could I attempt to compete, or match or fill a need that wasn't there. But I did notice that some of the designers I worked with weren't represented here. So I started out by making calls to them to ask them, "Why aren't you in Georgetown?" And mostly they said let's do it. Let's be there.
What designers were those?
You'll laugh because now it's almost four years later and some of those designers are opening stores down here. Calypso was one. Marika Charles cashmere. Chan Luu, you might know for their wrap bracelets but they also do ready to wear. Christopher Fischer cashmere. Those aren't what I called the emerging designers which I also try to promote here, but those were just some ideas I had.
We learned very quickly that ready to wear was the most popular category in our store. Four years later, and in a new location, we know more. We still play, but we are also following what the customer is telling us a lot more. We are definitely women's fashion and accessories-focused, but there are things like the dolls, and the ballerina dresses that people love. We really wanted the store to be a happy place where you discover things and there is a sense of play and a little bit of magic. I loved watching that take place here. If a kid runs and jumps on a scooter and rides around the store, I feel like we did it. In fact we are about to order scooters in metallic for Christmas.
The ballerina dresses were a huge hit even during the Cherry Blossom Festival. That was a surprise to us. Jess Brown dolls are just so beautiful to look at, we have return and repeat clients, and we have mothers and daughters come in and that's a beautiful gift the child will have forever. So those are sort of little mascots. They have to be here. Things like pet accessories, we drift in and out of certain things.
We have a lot of construction next door, we're going to have a new neighbor, our wine bar Eno. So maybe we can have some fun wine tastings over here. But it's been a little challenging to be hidden, and we're really excited for the wall to come down. And I feel that we are going to rediscover our client again.
Was it better to be on M Street?
It's not that it's better. We actually love the space, I think it's easier for the customer to navigate this store. It still has that kind of gallery feel, but I think you can tell what it is more easily when you walk into it. By the same token, I have a lot of new ideas of what might change when we have a different kind of traffic. I feel like we might have traffic longer hours into the evening, I am curious to see if we will have more of the college audience that we might have lost from the construction. It's just hard to see us right now. There's a glass atrium room in the wine bar, and when you're walking down the street, you'll be able to see us. It's going to be beautiful.
Who are a few designers in the store right now that you love?
One of our new designers is Annelore, she is New York-based. She's been in business since early 2000s, she was just featured in Fashion Week about small businesses. She only makes about 30 items per collection, so her collection itself is really curated and finely tailored. It's done in a studio in New York. She has a client base here in D.C. as well in Tribeca, where her second store opened two years ago. I was a customer of hers for a long time, and I tend not to put things in the store that are something I personally wear, I just don't do that. But she sold me. I said, let's try it. We are about emerging talent as well as established brands. It's got a hand-made appeal and it's something new for someone who loves fashion. It's got a little edge, but it's soft and feminine.
Another is Jess Brown, the woman who I mentioned who started out making dolls. She's expanded her whole business into home. She started out making dolls for her children with remnants and vintage finds and carried it over to women's apparel, quilts, throws, she does a collection of ceramics with a friend of hers. I just love to watch her grow. She's a mom in Petaluma working out of her studio space. She's very talented. She had windows for Bottega Veneta for fashion week and I think she's in Milan, they gave her life-size dolls for her to dress. I love her story. I do have a soft spot for her world.
Do you only stock so many of each item?
There's a lot of one-of-a-kind things, and we used to say if you see it and you like it, buy it. We pretty much have our inventory on the floor here.
Handbags are really popular for us. Clutches. Being in this location too, another thing I love is when a bride comes in and says I need a shawl for my wedding. "When are you getting married?" In a few hours. And then I realize, I have everything but a white shawl. At the last show I just found one designer and I said, "Can i have four white shawls?" I have to have it. A lot of people do come running in on the day of a wedding looking for a bag. So we really have the opportunity to refine and tweak what we offer, based on the requests that come in the door. Literally come in the door.
When we were going to open on the street, we had the chance to maybe open here. And I thought if we opened here, it might not have turned out to be this store. I think I was thinking something different if it was in the hotel driveway. When we opened on the street, I created an idea and started with that. So when we moved, I had to start with the idea that was already created.
So now we've been here a year in this location, but we still need time. Because we have another chapter coming. I have certain ideas and ways we think it might trend but we have to see. I love following retail, I love looking at other stores, I respect so many of the merchants that have come here in the past few years. I live in New York, I can see many ideas at once, but I also love traveling and looking at boutiques and stores everywhere. And I think you have to keep changing. That's great, but you have to think it out a little bit before you do it. We're in the thinking stage now. We want to be right.
Ok, now for the lightning round: Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook
8 a.m. or 8 p.m.?
Fall or spring?
Seinfeld or Friends?
Seinfeld because I watched it last night.
70, 80s, or 90s?
Don't love any of those. I would say the 20s or the 30s or the 40s for fashion.
Whiskey or tequila?
Tequila, because I go to Mexico for work.
· M29 LIFESTYLE [Facebook]