If you want to purchase clothes designed by Ann Demeulemeester, you have two choices: You can go to the megalithic Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills to buy the Belgian designer’s deconstructed, imaginative pieces, or you can enter Fetneh Blake’s eponymous boutique in Laguna Beach, which measures a mere 1,100 square feet and has managed, in just over a decade, to become one of Southern California’s most important and influential fashion showrooms.
Often cited by Vogue as the sole Southern California supplier of some of the world’s biggest names in fashion, the tiny shop is a powerhouse when it comes to identifying any season’s “it” pieces, and ensuring that those of-the-moment, must-have items don’t end up on the backs of every woman in town. It’s a tricky balancing act performed within one of the world’s ficklest, most ego-driven forums: high fashion. And yet Blake has managed to not only maneuver her way through its obstacle course of high demands and economic downturns, she has created a niche truly her own as one of Orange County’s most powerful influencers in what women will – and should – wear.
“I love to see individuality in style, to see women who are really dressing as a form of expression,” says Blake. “What I don’t like is when people adopt a look and suddenly everyone looks the same. To me, that’s not style; it’s not fashion.”
To combat the lemming tendency of Juicy Couture sweat suits and Lululemon uniforms, Blake makes it her mission to constantly be on the hunt for unknown design talent, whether it’s in London or Los Angeles, Paris or Japan. She regularly works the Paris and New York fashion shows, attending each event twice a year, and studies books and magazines with a scholar’s fervor.
“It is a passion for me – finding designers whose work is unique, interesting, not known and not necessarily everywhere,” says Blake. “It makes the research more exciting. It becomes thrilling.” After identifying those must-include designers, Blake then moves into another mode: contacting them, and working out the most exclusive arrangement as possible. When she discovered Lainey Keogh, an Irish knitwear designer, Blake tracked her down, and flew to Paris to meet her and work out an arrangement as her sole outlet in SoCal. Ditto many others, including Rick Owens, Olivier Theyskens and jewelry designer Irit. “Exclusivity is very much a challenge,” says Blake, who manages to talk about the highest rungs of catwalk creations without a hint of snobbery. “There are designers who really only want to be in certain specialty boutiques. That’s when the relationship really works.” But exclusivity can also have its pitfalls: When those Irit necklaces appeared on Halle Berry and Michelle Obama, demand hit the stratosphere, Blake sold out in a nanosecond, and suddenly nothing was left. Anywhere. “It’s a mixed blessing. Tiny designers suddenly become hugely famous and they’re not so tiny anymore,” she says. “But it makes me happy to know that a lot of the time, my clients are wearing pieces before celebrities do.”
And when those designers suddenly become the must-have sensation? Blake is clear: “I’ve had to walk away from certain designers because they became too saturated in the marketplace.”
It’s the kind of attitude that brings in the loyal customers. Or maybe “Fetneh fans” is an even better description. Many clients have been relying on her rotating list of designers – Blake says she carries around 10 designers at any one time – since the store opened in 2001, knowing that every single piece will carry her seal of approval, that it will be unique, not everywhere, and – get this – that it will be wearable.
“Comfort is so important to me,” says Blake. “I want pieces that blend comfort with practicality and sophistication and often a bit of femininity. For me, that’s the sweet spot. It’s how I like to dress and it’s how my clients like to also, whether they’re CEOs of big companies, or simply want to dress casually, but not like everyone else.”
If the clothes are a major draw to the shop, Blake’s presence – which is near constant – is just as much of a lure. “I love it when clients come in here and are open to exploring what might be best for them to wear,” she says. “I see them a little different from how they see themselves, so I can suggest things that they wouldn’t necessarily notice. That’s what really drives me: I like to see women who are excited about what they’re wearing.”
Photographer: James Cant at Artists By Next/jamescant.com
Stylist: Jennifer Smit at Aubri Balk
Hair: David Keogh at Celestine Agency
Model: Klazina at Photogenics
Digital Operator: John Cizmas
Photographer’s Assistant: Matthew Linker
Stylist’s Assistant: Sarah Mosqueda
All clothes and accessories available from a selection at Fetneh Blake, Laguna Beach, 949.494.3787