“Why did you open up in this alley?” That’s what friends of Jay Wolf, the longtime WeHo clothier, asked in 1989 when he started his business at 517 N. Robertson Blvd.
“That was Morton’s,” he said, pointing across that alley. “And across the street was Trumps.” The former spot is now John Varvatos, and the latter (nothing to do with the man in the White House) is now Cecconi’s. “They were the two hottest restaurants in L.A.,” Wolf said. Fine diners waited for valeted cars and “looked at my windows. You got a nice little Hollywood business.”
Twenty-eight years later, now with 3,700 square feet of retail space carrying both men’s and women’s lines, Wolf and his wife of 25 years, Jackie, don’t regret it. “That’s how we started,” he admitted. “Yeah, it was in an alley, but you could see it from the street. And it was affordable.”
Wait. WeHo affordable?
Sigh, it was all so much simpler then. “The rent was nothing,” Wolf said. “Having a business in WeHo in 1989 required no permits. You just opened your doors and said, ‘I’m here’.”
Today’s entrepreneurs face a different reality. “This city has changed a lot,” Wolf said. “This neighborhood has changed more than a lot. And it’s about to change, I think, even a lot more.”
Wolf is optimistic. Kimpton’s La Peer Hotel is coming in, and restaurants such as Craig’s, Cecconi’s and Gracias Madre are busy (and then there are the paparazzi) “I just don’t see how retail isn’t going to be a part of that,” Wolf said. Indeed, he wants competition. “What we’re missing is ten more stores like ours,” Wolf said, quickly mentioning it should be “ten other people” and not him. “When there are more of these, it’s better for everyone.”
Empty storefronts – like the Ralph Lauren and Chanel stores south of Beverly – are a cautionary tale. “Lower Robertson, for a long time, became this thing,” Wolf said. “And landlords got a little greedy. Rents got very high. The area wasn’t ready to support that.’
Yet Wolf’s perspective isn’t limited to commercial history. “It will always be recognized as Boystown, or whatever you want to call it, [but] there are more strollers today than I can ever remember.”
How did he begin? “We were both doing it for other people,” Wolf said. His wife opened Armani’s store in Beverly Hills and Wolf ran a group of Kent & Curwen stores, which now have soccer heartthrob David Beckham as their frontman. “Young and blind is a great way to start a business,” he joked.
Division of labor is key to their success. “We definitely have separate jobs,” Wolf said. “[Jackie] is definitely more in touch with all of the customers. I do the accounting and deal with vendors, factories and the banks.” Their strategy trickles down to how their collections are assembled. “I still do all the menswear buying. She does all the women’s buying.” Five staff members are in-store, and they use tailors off-site.
What makes Wolf’s brand unique? “Our store is not merchandise by company, it’s merchandise by style.” Although you find “about 20 brands for men,” Wolf said, “I only like one thing.” He curates for a target audience, “a core clientele of businessmen who need to dress and be appropriate in a businesses environment. Who aren’t, necessarily, six feet, 150 pounds. [We are] a little more classic.”
Jay Wolf has its own brand for men, too. Suits, sport coats, trousers and shirts are made in Canada and on the east coast. Wolf travels to New York up to six times a year for business meetings. “It’s all about fabric and fit,” he said. “I don’t think that clothes are supposed to wear you. I think that you’re supposed to wear the clothes.”
Regarding womenswear, Jackie Wolf knows what she likes: “Feminine, sexy, simple. My customers are professionals. but they also want to look sexy,” she said. She then clarified, “but not overtly sexy.” According to the Jay Wolf website, Ms. Wolf features 20 brands, like Saint James and Ulla Johnson. Currently Jay Wolf does not offer its own women’s line.
Getting back to when Wolf opened, “There were probably 20 stores like ours,” he said wistfully. “I think we have, like, four today. And it’s really a shame.”