Opening a small business in a deep recession is far from fashionable—just don't try to convince designer Luigi Vera of that.
Vera's new Hillcrest store, an amalgam of neon, vertical stripes and acid-washed denim that he says reflects his 1980s youth—a time he jokingly refers to as his “most prolific”—almost immediately attracted a following. Some of that was thanks to its location next door to Corvette Diner, the '50s-style eatery as famous for its long wait times as for its burgers and shakes.
“The first weeks were wonderful. Customers waiting to be seated would wander in, browse around, and almost always pick something up,” Vera recalls. Then the popular diner closed its doors, and the budding cousturier found out who his new neighbor would be: Urban Outfitters, the “lifestyle specialty retail” behemoth, responsible for 140 stores worldwide, whose 2008 revenue was $1.5 billion. While that's enough to make even Karl Lagerfeld shake in his bitchy stiletto knee-high man boots, Vera took it in stride.
“I've never been a fan of the word ‘competition.' I subscribe to the belief that I'm in direct competition with myself, to keep putting edgier, more innovative stuff out there,” he said, reaching for a pair of pliers as he worked on a mini-handcuff necklace. “If anything, it will only draw more people to Hillcrest, which, in turn, will benefit everyone.”
A native of the Mexican state of Sonora, Vera showed a flair for design at an early age, helping his sister get ready for nights on the town.
“She was always very confident and fashionable,” Vera recalls. “But she would never leave the house without getting my OK.”
Word of his savvy got around, and soon all the girls from his block followed suit, he says. His first foray into the business was designing his own line of Grecian sandals, using flip-flops that he'd modify by poking extra holes with a hot knife and passing shoe laces through them. He was 12 years old, and he hasn't stopped since.
Years later, on break from college, he visited his sister, who now lives in Escondido, and landed a job in a clothing factory that eventually went belly-up. With no income and desperate to look good, Vera—a bit of a social butterfly—made a splash in the local club scene by wearing clothes he designed himself. Word got around, and orders started coming in.
Close to three years ago, he stumbled upon his first retail location when a friend decided to close his Downtown boutique and sell Vera his store—racks and all—for $3,500.
Vera jumped on it, and the result was Luigi Vera One-of-a-Kind Clothing, a locale that—with its unique jewelry, new-wave vests, vintage rock 'n' roll-poster-inspired tube dresses and T-shirts emblazoned with an array of religious iconography—was at the forefront of San Diego's DIY fashion scene.
“Japanese tourists described my style as Harajuku; I called it modern-retro funk,” Vera says.
His most popular items had one common trait: the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and she told me at an early age that I should always surround myself with the Virgin's image for luck,” he said, adding that she has proved to be a good omen. “She's my best-seller,” he says as he puts one of his designer holy shirts on a mannequin.
Feeling the Downtown location had run its course, Vera closed up shop, put his excess inventory in storage and headed on a European trek—for solitude and inspiration.
Then it happened.
“I was blown away by a line of independent stores a mile long—each one different, each one owned by their respective designers, who would sew everything up in the back room,” he says. “It was a magical place.”
That place was London's Camden Town, renowned for its trendy, avant-garde garments.
“It's also where Amy Winehouse lives,” Vera points out.
Reinvigorated, he returned to San Diego and sought out the perfect location for a new store. He found it four months ago on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, a stretch lined with stores sporting similar fashion sensibilities.
“My friends thought I was crazy to start a business amidst the financial crisis, and I must admit, they made me second-guess myself for a moment, but my main concern was that my pieces would be out of style after seven months in storage,” Vera says.
Vera, who's currently obsessed with “lo-fi fashion”: cassette-tape and boom-box imagery, says he chooses to focus on the positive. “And as long as my customers keep coming in, I'll keep reconfiguring my window display with garments that show my Holy Trinity: The Virgin, Blondie and David Bowie.”
He says he believes in karma, and he happens to be a fan of Urban Outfitters. “So, I wish them all the luck,” he says.
“Their customers will see my window, it will catch their eye and they'll walk in. Their window displays are nice and all, but very commercial, whereas mine are unique.
“Besides,” he adds, “my grandmother was never wrong.”