Anyone who opens a retail store in Dallas is nuts, Ort Varona says.
“There are so many retailers in the market that are already established that it’s just a crazy thing to do,” he says.
So why does he own Octane and Premium 93, two West Village boutiques? And why is he opening the Lift Fashion Terminal in downtown’s Victory development next year?
“Because, I’m crazy,” says Mr. Varona, 34. “I don’t mind jumping off the roof, and I was fortunate enough to have it work.”
Mr. Varona opened Octane, a casually cool store decorated with auto garage touches, in 2003. The store, which recently moved from one West Village post to a larger one on the McKinney Avenue side of the popular strip, has become a destination for designer-denim lovers.
He opened the collection-driven Premium 93, with gas-station pumps for door handles, in 2004.
“And I can’t tell you just how great it’s been ever since.”
How did you go from psychology major to fashion entrepreneur?
All through high school and college, I did retail, working at places like Gadzooks, Eddie Bauer, Dillard’s and Ralph Lauren. Then, I decided I needed to get a real job. I ended up at Southwest Airlines in the human resources world. I knew at some point I would open a store, but I didn’t really think it would be this soon. I thought I would retire and go open a store, a taco stand or something, you know, where I was working for myself. But the timing felt right, so we went into heavy planning on it, and I decided just to cash out and do it all on my own. I took all the earnings and all the retirement and used it for this.
So how did you come up with the concepts for Octane and Premium 93?
I really didn’t know what we would sell. It would be clothing and it would be young and hip, but I didn’t have specific brand identities in mind. The primary thing was to create a great place for people to work. The thought was to give people the opportunity to be really good at what they do and have fun in their jobs. Then, it was, what are we going to sell and how?
So we backed into that with another thought and that was service for our generation, because our parents, they get great service in their stores. But we are the self-service generation and in most of the usual stores that target our generation, you walk in and it’s, “Can I help you find a size?” and then you try it on. The rest is self-service. That doesn’t make sense. I have the right to really great service. Not snotty, sort of boring service, but I like to be waited on, too, by somebody fun who tells me whether it looks good or not. I shouldn’t have to wait until I’m 50 years old to get that kind of service.
How did you come up with the stores’ names?
We wanted a cool service icon and thought about the old gas-station industry, when people actually pumped gas for you and that guy came out and checked your oil and your tire pressure. People loved that guy and that guy was always happy. We backed into the name Octane and the whole gas station-service station idea came from that.
Where did you get your fashion sense?
My father’s very fashionable. He’s a physician, but if he weren’t a physician, he would have been in the clothing business. He always wore a coat and tie, not a lab coat, because he just wasn’t a lab coat kind of physician. It was always tailored clothing for him. He insisted on quality and he didn’t mind paying for it. When Air Jordans came out, he thought it was the coolest thing ever. He was like, “One-hundred-dollar Air Jordans? Sure, I’ll buy those for you. No problem.” His thinking was, they were the best quality, so they’re going to hold up. Pay the money to buy the best because you don’t go wrong with quality.
What do you think of Dallas’ fashion scene?
It really is one of the core fashion cities. There’s New York, for sure, and LA. Now there’s Miami and then Dallas. It has an amazing heritage. What Neiman Marcus has done for fashion retail can’t be overstated. I’m a fan of fashion history, and in the 1970s, people would fly to Dallas to shop and it was a big deal. On Lovers Lane, there was a whole row of high-end boutiques, and if you were going to a party, you flew to New York or you flew to Dallas and shopped Lovers Lane. We’re headed back to that. The Victory project has all the markings of being able to draw that type of cachet back to the area.
Tell me about the Lift Fashion Terminal.
We’re not going to deviate from our principles. It’s going to be a great place to work, an environment where the best of the best can practice their trade. It will have fashion retailers from New York, LA, Miami and Dallas sort of clamoring just to be employed there and just to be around it.
So what’s next for you?
I don’t know. I never really know. As long as I can create great places for people to be and experience life, I’m happy. I can’t tell you what I’m going to do, but whatever it is, that’s what it will be hung on.