Situated in Old Town Pasadena, sits Clothes Heaven. As soon as you walk past the store, any fashion lover will have an absolute need to step inside the high end consignment store. The first time I walked past, the store was closed but the window display was enough to draw me back another day.
When I returned Larayne Brannon, the owner was there to greet me and draw me in even further with her clear passion and knowledge for fashion. As soon as I walked in, her first question to me is, “Are you having a fun day?” I later learn this is something she asks all her customers, as shopping, she rightly says, “should always be fun”. After she gives me a tour of the store (something she does with all first time customers) I ask her if she would be open to an interview for Eurasian Vogue, she replies “Yes! How fun! To talk about fashion!” So today on a sunny Friday afternoon, I’m back.
As I approach the store I see her famous huge Chanel sign sitting center stage of the window, something Larayne has become particularly known for stocking. There is a beautiful array of other designers from Pucci, Prada, Oscar de la Renta to lifestyle pieces like Lulu Lemon all displayed in their correct section of the store inside. Each item of clothing tells a story, but none more so than Larayne herself, who has seen her store’s incredible rise in popularity since she opened an amazing thirty three years ago.
Larayne says she would love to take me around the store and just chat, and as she does I can see why, she loves being around the clothes and loves to talk about them and her knowledge is incredible. It's clear she has always adored fashion, “When I was a little girl the day after Christmas was always more fun than Christmas because that was the sale day. My mother and I would go to what’s now Macy’s on Pasadena. I was always a little girl who liked going to sales. There was another store in Pasadena that was a discount clothing store that my mother and I would always go to and I would always find fun things. I’d always have a good time when my mother and I went shopping. My mother was somebody who liked clothes.”
Larayne’s love of fashion continued into adulthood and by the age of 27 she was working for a retail store in Pasadena, but Larayne tells me she got, “tired of my energy and knowledge and enthusiasm going into someone else’s pocket.” Larayne eventually got fired from the store, but for “a funny reason. They were opening up a men’s resale store in old town, which back then was the really bad part of town, the worst part of town.” The owner wanted Larayne to run that store, she refused and therefore had no choice but to seek work elsewhere. However it turns out her boss did her a favor as this was the catalyst for Larayne to start up her own business.
Thirty three years on, Clothes Heaven’s story is an unusual one, to have survived as a high end consignment store for 3 decades is a feat in itself, to have only moved once is another. Larayne moved to East Union Street in 1983 knowing the area was going to rise in popularity. She had her eye on the properties on the street and when an answering service company went out of business located at number 110 East Union Street, Larayne moved in. After two years she expanded and rented out the next-door store in addition to her current place so her store became numbers 110-112, as Clothes Heaven continued to grow. After a huge fluctuation in rent (49% from when she had first moved in) she eventually moved out after 19 years. However the move was not a far one, in fact she amazingly just moved across the street to number 111.
You see, as well as Larayne’s love for fashion she is also a savvy businesswoman. Having worked in retail most of her adult life, she quickly picked up all the tips of where to locate her store as she researched all the logistics, from being near a beauty salon or places “where women care about what they look like.” She did her homework researching everything she needed to know to have a successful store “down to the simple basics of where is the best place to hang the tag” (always on the lower sleeve, depending which way it’s hanging, figuring out which sleeve, the left or right). There is nothing that Larayne hasn’t thought through.
Despite the success of her company, opening the store wasn’t always smooth sailing. The hardest part when starting out was getting the clothes. Resale wasn’t so well known and people didn’t know how it worked, but Larayne tells me she just hustled, “I got on the phone and called a bunch of people and asked the question, who is a clothes person that you know?” she continues, “It was like a tree, the business has the roots of the people who give me the clothes on consignment and the branches are of the people who shop with me and both are always spreading. You just don’t know which one’s going to grow the fastest.”
As Clothes Heaven grew, and as Laraynes branches and networks spread it became easier to get those special designer pieces. She has some incredible pieces in store, with an entire area filled with special Chanel pieces. I would even go as far as saying Larayne has now become synonymous with selling good Chanel having collected it since she first opened.
I'm curious what the criteria is for Larayne to accept pieces into her store, “I always look for pieces that I say talk to people. Because everyone has boring and namby pamby in their closet, everybody is looking for pieces that make them go ‘ohh’.” It didn’t use to be like that, people would come in and buy a whole new wardrobe, now people are more cautious. The other thing I find really interesting now that’s different than before, when I opened back in 83’ it was into brag about how much you spent, now it’s in to how much you saved! It’s so different than before. People didn’t even want to admit they bought something on sale before! Now people have to fall in love with something to buy it. We even have a sign that say’s please love what you buy as there are no refunds. We want people to love what they buy anyway. That’s what makes people come back.”
I ask Larayne who a typical Clothes Heaven’s customer is? “If I had to generalize I would say it’s a career woman, who doesn’t have time. I like to save women time and money. I remember what people have bought before because we have the client number thing going on.” Larayne has a list of clients who bring in consignment pieces for her to sell and each client has a number, “When people come in I try and match them up to a client number, so we can call them when we get their favorite client numbers things in.”
It’s this personal touch that has undoubtedly made Clothes Heaven such a popular store. “We still do it the low-tec way. I don’t know if any other stores still do it by writing on the tags by hand. Other people get it printed. I think it’s more classic old time that we still write it out by hand. We then are more picky about what we bring in and the condition and all that good kind of stuff!”
Larayne took art history in school but has spent her whole life learning about fashion. “I’ve always been very visualize, I love to put things together and cross reference for my customers. I also always tell customers if they have things in their wardrobe that they don’t wear much, bring it in and we can find something to go with it, so you can get more bang for your buck. It’s all about that these days. Value, value, value. That’s also why we empathize labels, so people know what they are getting for their dollar as opposed to things that don’t have labels, or what designer it is or was. Then they don’t know how much it would have originally been.”
When Larayne opened her store she was 29, she’s now 62 and when she began her business she said “It was a gift from my past to my future when I opened. I’m so glad I opened a business. You learn so many things and from a different perspective than you would. I loved opening up a store. I wish I could open up another one! I don’t think (if I did) though I could keep straight what clothes were in one store and which were in the other!”
At Clothes Heaven they consign items everyday, “It’s a rare day we don’t get things in, and every Thursday I do pick ups on the westside from clients who have called me to tell me they have things for me to pick up.”
Larayne’s job is an incredibly interesting one, not least because of the people she consigns from, “I have members of the Nordstrom family. I go to Brentwood and Beverly Hills and all those good places to pick up things from my clients.” Larayne shows me some of the incredible pieces she currently has in store, one of which includes a beautiful collectable Prada piece with the original price tags still on, showing it's original retail value of $9,700, the same client who gave her this once even gave her six Kelly bags! "It’s so much fun, I get to go to all these snazzy houses and pick up from all these women who are like the best dressed women in Los Angeles. I also get pieces from this woman who was an YSL model from Santa Barbara and she sends YSL pieces in the mail. I was also referred by someone who sells vintage." She called Larayne up and said, 'There’s someone who might have something you might be interested in.' It turns out this woman was one of the bond girls, “She’s seventy-eight now but she had saved all this stuff, so she had all these interesting nifty things so I got to go to her beautiful home yesterday.”
I ask Larayne if she’s ever had pieces that she hasn’t wanted to sell as she loves them so much, she smiles, “ A lot. I love this Chanel belt.” She points to a beautiful gold CC logo’d belt she is currently wearing. “I’m so lucky though that I get first dibs!” Who are some of your favorite designers? “ I love Oscar de la Renta, I love Manolo. I’m a girlie girl. I do love Chanel, it’s just going on and on as Karl Lagerfeld has done such a good job of keeping it from being common or trite and kept it fresh and edgy. But there’s hardly any designers that I don’t like.”
There is a beautiful, luxurious simplicity to the store, with all the tags on the items, being hand written, as I learn the key behind the coding, with the number of the client but also cute nicknames for them.
The customers who walk through the door are as interesting as the women Larayne consigns from. She’ll have designer’s assistants come in and say they are looking for clothes with a certain silhouette or that they're needing archives of trench coats. It certainly helps give Larayne a heads up about what will be big the following seasons. Stylists will also pop in to pull from her store, most recently the stylist from Scream Queens and The Real.
With Larayne’s knowledge and passion it’s easy to see why her customers come back, however it’s still amazing to see how many stores have gone out of business, particularly higher end stores, and especially during the recession and yet for thirty three years Clothes Heaven has stayed put. I ask Larayne how she has survived so many changes in both the way people shop as well as seeing her business survive through the recession, she tells me, “ My father was a business major in school and was the president of the Pasadena board of realtors in 1968 and he was in real estate and stocks so what he said about my business was that it’s good in hard times and good times. It may have its little bits of dips but it’s consistent because new people are always discovering us. Good customer service never gets old. We try to do what I call treatment on people, we have a lot of regular customers who come shopping who will tell us they’re coming and we will put a pile of clothes in the dressing room for them and they don’t have to look around if they don’t want to. They can literally go to the dressing room and put everything on and decide. And then we keep track of what they’ve purchased before and we can say this would go with this.”
I have to say I agree with her father, it’s most definitely that personal touch, almost having a personal stylist as well as such wide range of items in store from their exquisite pieces in the extra snazzy section, as Larayne calls it (“it’s all about making people smile and when you say extra snazzy it makes people smile!”) all the way to the back with their $29 and under rack. There’s something for everyone and whatever customer Larayne is helping out will be treated just the same. “I just love helping somebody update their look and evolve their looks too and to play a little bit!”
Having visited the store I can see Larayne truly creates a shopping experience for her customers, taking it back to the days when people knew each one of their regular customers, what size they are, their taste and is not just the owner of their favorite store, but also their personal stylist.
Larayne’s success also clearly comes from not only understanding her customer and sticking to the old school traditions of good customer service but also being aware of the changes that are happening with consignment stores both in the US but also globally. Social media has become a big part of Larayne’s advertising but also realizing the growth in popularity of consignment stores in the West but also the East with the Asian market. “When the Yen was really strong, people from Japan would take pictures of the clothes we had in store and put it in their magazine. It was really fun, I even had one woman call me up literally at around 5am in Japan and it was 11am here and they were like 'I had to set my alarm as I had to call as I want to buy this'. That just cracked me up that I would have someone do that. I also had people who would literally come in a limo with a suitcase straight from the airport because they wanted to go shopping with us first thing. It used to be that Asians were a little bit disdainful of used (clothes) a little bit, but now that’s changed."
Larayne even managed to find out where a group of Japanese tourists would be having dinner during one of their stays and went to the restaurant to put her posters behind each of the toilet stalls, “We found fun ways like that!”
It’s clear that Larayne is always on the look out for good organic ways to advertise, using the personal touch over blind advertising either for her store or for bringing customers in to her store. Preferring the smart approach of finding her target customer and hand delivering her card anywhere from the Langham Hotel in Pasadena all the way through to volunteering for the Emmys to be an usher so she had the opportunity to personally give out her cards to the women waiting in line for the ladies room! “That was the year that Cybil Shephard wore tennis shoes under her dress and I gave different business cards out as I’m always planting seeds. Because you never know what seed is going to come to fruition. So you just always have to be paying attention and being aware and thinking about business and what can I do to make it better. Always planting seeds.”
Oh darling, I'm a keeper- Diana Ross
Larayne tells me she is a keeper herself, and I laugh that there is some irony to that. “Yes! I have far too many and this is like my extended closet.”
Just as we wrap up our interview, Larayane spots a customer looking at a dress, smiling she says, “Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s Alaïa, It really is a work of art.” And proceeds to tell the customer all about it. The store is filled with beautiful pieces, all organized by Larayne herself, and incredibly she knows where each piece is, what client it came from, and who, if any of her regular customers it would fit and who could give it a new home.
I love the way Larayne is with her customers, she smiles, "I want to make it as easy as possible for people to have fun. Shopping is women’s recreational sport. I wish it would be in the Olympics! I would be really good at it! It’s all about having fun, the way The Americana owner Caruso has made shopping a whole experience. It keeps me young, in some ways I’m still like a girl because you need that, to be joyful for people and make them have joy. Some people walk under a cloud and aren’t happy.” Not that what Larayne does is always easy, “I love what I do but it’s still work but it’s still fun, I am so lucky to have something that I’ve been doing for this long still be fun and I can still be enthusiastic and passionate about.”
I couldn’t agree more, I love Larayne’s store but more than that I love her energy and the fun spirit she has. Her passion is so infectious and I leave Clothes Heaven with the biggest smile on my face.
Clothes Heaven is located at:
111 E Union St, Pasadena, CA 91103
Phone : (626) 440-0929
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