PORTLAND, United States — With its outdoorsy-meets-grunge aesthetic, this damp city in the forested Pacific Northwest is no glossy fashion capital. But in recent years, Portland’s DIY culture has given rise to a burgeoning artisan economy — comprised of everything from microbreweries to independent bicycle manufacturers — that has helped turn this post-industrial town into something of a hub for urban American cool.
Now, entrepreneurs Joseph Magliaro and Shu Hung have launched an impeccably curated concept store, Table of Contents — stocking progressive fashion brands like Patrik Ervell and Tim Coppens, alongside Max Lamb crockery and Carl Auböck watering cans — just inside the gates of the city’s once blighted Old Town Chinatown district, home to many artist studios and the site of an urban renewal program that includes an “art hostel” being developed by veteran Wieden and Kennedy creative director John Jay in collaboration with the Ace Hotel.
“We’ve always been attracted to Chinatowns,” said Magliaro, who, with Hung, has lived in New York, Beijing and Berlin before coming to Portland in 2008. “There’s a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that seems to be woven into the notion of Chinatown that we identify with.”
When BoF visited Table of Contents, on a rainy Saturday, the store was calm and filled with a carefully edited array of fashion, accessories, furniture, rare books and design objects, mostly made by niche brands and artfully placed around the self-designed, 1350-square-foot space. Among the offerings were soft leather pouches by Los Angeles-based Otaat, mohair sweaters by Berlin-based knitwear designers Maiami, ceramic necklaces by Object and Totem, faux fox stoles by Slow And Steady Wins The Race, gold bracelets and finger rings by Uncommon Matters, and brown paper bags refashioned in leather by Los Angeles-based label Marie Turnor, who developed the concept several seasons before Jil Sander.
Exploring the store felt remarkably like reading a set of symbols that, taken together, have a broader story to tell. And indeed, Table of Contents, true to its name, is inspired by the process of editing books and magazines. “Shu and I have both spent time writing for and designing publications, so our approach to developing a retail environment draws on that experience,” said Magliaro. “We’ve tried to create a kind of three-dimensional publication,” he continued. “Each season we develop a theme or organizing principle around which we try to build a collection of disparate, yet related pieces.” For the Autumn/Winter 2012 “issue,” the theme is “action is character,” a fragment from a notebook kept by F. Scott Fitzgerald while working on his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.
Magliaro and Hung believe strongly in the physical store experience. “It’s an opportunity to provide customers with a tactile experience with rare, beautiful and significant objects and clothing,” said Magliaro. “We feel that first-hand experience with texture, weight, hue, smell and volume is crucial,” he added.
Yet e-commerce is a critical part of their strategy. “We expect our online shop to account for at least half of our total sales,” said Hung, who is also a digital director at sportswear giant Nike. “Many of the designers we carry have loyal followings around the world and we’re already receiving enquiries from customers across the US and Europe.” Indeed, the global reach of the web means even a niche audience for highly specific products can sustain a profitable business. For example, London’s highly curated LN-CC does what is thought to be around 80 percent of its sales via e-commerce, underscoring the online potential of niche retailers with a strong point of view.
Hung is a long-time friend of Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, founders of mini fashion empire Opening Ceremony, who offered her and Magliaro their support and advice. “Carol was great about answering all of the minutiae about how to run a shop,” says Hung. “But I think her best advice was directed at the larger project: she told us that if we only bring things into the shop that we really love, we’re bound to find others that will feel the same way.” The Internet, where Table of Contents is active on social platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, makes this more true than ever.
As for the future, the duo aim to expand their physical footprint to “a couple of spaces in other cities,” grow their e-commerce offering and experiment with an in-house line of products, including clothing, design objects and furniture. In fact, working with local artisans, Magliaro has already developed a number of interesting homeware products, under the name TOC Studio.
“The shop provides a great place to test out products with a real audience,” he said. “We can get direct feedback on prototypes and when we’ve gone through enough iterations to where we feel like we’ve arrived at something worth bringing to a larger audience, we may try to increase the volume and find larger distribution channels. We’re not in a rush to bring out a full product line, but we’re definitely keen to prototype, produce and ‘publish’ more of our work.”
Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion