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Ron Herman on Four Decades of Retail Theater in L.A.

·10-min read

The Ron Herman flagship at 8100 Melrose in Los Angeles is a retail icon, even if its founder has stepped away from the brand he built over four decades.

After licensing his brand in 2012 to Sazaby League Ltd. in Japan, which grew it to encompass 27 stores, he sold the company outright to the Japanese conglomerate in 2019. The new U.S. chief executive officer Toshi Fujita and buying directors Ami Lasser and Ruben Leal have spearheaded a rebrand of Ron Herman just in time for its 45th anniversary.

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Meanwhile, WWD spoke to Herman for his first interview since selling, to get his thoughts about why he exited, how Sazaby is doing with the rebrand, and what’s next for retail.

WWD: Why did you sell in 2019, and do it so quietly?

Ron Herman: It’s not much different than how I ran my business. There is a place for press with different businesses in different ways.…The idea of press for the sake of press, the way it works now, where you have to post every day, that was not the rule of thumb for stores like mine seeking status. Status came along with mystery and magic, and not giving away the secrets or what we all felt as retailers was our secret sauce.…A lot has changed. I used to compete with other stores, similar ones that sold what I sold. But then the whole nature of competition changed and the very vendors I bought from became competitors. That’s unique.

I decided to leave quietly, and that was a decision made in collaboration with me and Koki Mine, who is the head of Sazeby League, North America. He built the business in Japan, not alone but with the team. We decided to be quiet because honestly if the goal is to take care of your customer, what is served by telling them about what you’re doing to keep your business alive, just do it! If they notice a change, explain it, if they don’t notice, don’t explain it. In our case, it allowed them time to learn about America, because they didn’t have any businesses outside of Japan.

The initial decision to go into business together was made in a room with only the two of us and a translator at the end of 2008. I watched Koki and he poured his heart out. It was not about business, it was about something personal, filled with passion and emotion. The deal had to be put ink on paper.

At the time, I wasn’t sure, but it turned out over the years, I started to think of it like an oyster, maybe I put the grain of sand in, but they grew the pearl and polished it. When they were opening one to three stores a year [in Japan], that’s a lot of stores. And we developed not just the Ron Herman brand, but an adjacent brand RHC, and that’s very tricky.

Beginning about 2016, I began to understand that my daughters did not want to take over the business and I needed a natural successor. Koki and I began to talk like he was my son and we got closer through the process as opposed to companies selling in a corporate way. It was passing a family owned and operated business to a larger corporation, but hopefully holding on and maintaining our nature and values and core spirit.

WWD: Are you 100 percent out of the business?

R.H.: I have no financial interest but I’m never going to be out. I don’t buy or merchandise. I’m not obligated to go to stores, I have no landlord, employees or inventory. But I’m emotionally invested the rest of my life. Fifty years I spent in those four walls. I will never be separated from my memories.

WWD: What are the best memories?

R.H.: There’s a couple parts of that, my family actually worked in the store. My wife, Carol, worked with me during my entire career, I met her in the store, we were married in 1976, the year we began Ron Herman Corp. My daughters worked in the store.

And there is the group who worked with me that went on to do things themselves, some in fashion, some went into real estate, finance, some had babies. If I gave a reunion I would have to rent Dodger stadium. One of the greatest pleasures was them bringing friends and families to the stores, and telling stories.

But the other thing is the friendships. I was in Japan in the 1980s with [Barneys New York founders] the Pressman family, just me and them discovering things. They were there and I was traveling with a denim buyer who was also a bass player and we went to a lot of nightclubs.

Then there are the designers. When I first traveled to Italy, I was fortunate enough to come across the Genius Group. There were seven brands in that group. The head was Adriano Goldschmied and his wife Rosella, who is a designer. Adriano was doing Goldie and Renzo Russo was doing Diesel and Replay. They weren’t used to seeing Americans come and buy jeans in Italy. We were among the first, the same was true of Girbaud. I met Henry Cuir making tie dyed leather. I can remember all these incredible people. I can’t tell you the cost of jeans, but I can tell you I flew on a private plane with Wolfgang Mauch to St. Tropez to open a Lothar’s store. We didn’t sleep for five days!

The newly renovated Ron Herman in Los Angeles. - Credit: Michael Buckner/WWD
The newly renovated Ron Herman in Los Angeles. - Credit: Michael Buckner/WWD

Michael Buckner/WWD

WWD: Have you been back to the store?

R.H.: I’ve gone to the store three times…not to work, not to comment, but I did walk through the store. I like what they’ve done. I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that the brand Ron Herman and the store has taken its first step into the future. I like the role of being a leader rather than a follower. They are accomplishing that goal.

They have the same vision and mission statement. When I first went to Japan, it was difficult to tell people what’s different about Ron Herman. It’s like going on “Shark Tank.” There was a language barrier, even if people I was speaking to had the same feelings about business and fashion and life, it was difficult to communicate. I was lucky to be introduced to John Moore, and he took what I had to say and translated it visually. I had something to take to talk to people. I met with staff, hundreds of people, and used tools to explain what it was that I thought was the nature of Ron Herman: that happiness is the goal not just for them, but for customers, that Ron Herman doesn’t believe in the word “lifestyle.” I wanted to call it “style of life,” because it’s everything you do, what you read, your furniture, your home, it’s the style of your life.

I love what Japan created with all those tools, and what they now have come up with. If you take “today is beautiful” and put in the work and experience, and what Japan has put in, what you come up with is an evolution into “love is for tomorrow.” That includes concern for the environment, community, customers and staff. I think that philosophy will be the stepping stone that will allow us to not fall prey to the seduction of this retail climate. There are things being done in our industry that can be destructive. I saw it happen to Barneys and I don’t want it to happen to Ron Herman.

The newly renovated Ron Herman in Los Angeles. - Credit: Michael Buckner/WWD
The newly renovated Ron Herman in Los Angeles. - Credit: Michael Buckner/WWD

Michael Buckner/WWD

WWD: What’s behind the love affair between Japan and California?

R.H.: We’re not the only place people surf or where there are beaches or mountains or wine country. The world is filled with that, but what I felt in Japan is people liked the dream and it wasn’t the American dream, it was the California dream. We represent an approach to living that’s very different. Southern California represents to Japanese people the dream of a way of living — the spaces are larger, the sun shines more, they enjoy our food, our cars. They want to immerse themselves in this dream.

I was born and raised here, the first class to graduate from Palisades High School, I remember living in Venice when Hobie and the other surf companies were coming up. My story was a true story. We can’t say the brand is authentic. The person is authentic.

The history of fashion in L.A., the real fashion of L.A., goes back to the early 1970s. I remember when the first designer store opened, it was Torie Steele, that’s how Rodeo became Rodeo Drive. I was sad to see how Theodore went out. I knew him and his family. We are very lucky at Ron Herman to be where we are today, it’s a miracle.

WWD: Do you still shop?

R.H.: I don’t shop, my closet is really full and I don’t plan on selling it on Poshmark or eBay. So I wouldn’t consider myself a shopper. I grew up wearing Vans, J.C. Penney’s one-pocket T-shirts and Levi’s, I’m still true to that. I wasn’t what you would call trendy, but fashion I follow every inch of it. I am passionate about it still. I can tell you when Sarah Andelman took 12 months to close Colette in Paris, she did it in the most honorable way.

I still follow fashion and the stories behind fashion. It’s not just a meaningless fabrication, it’s something I believe fulfills a need for people and can make them happy. That’s why it’s important we get back to shopping in stores. While I understand the convenience of online, nothing can replace the experience of a well merchandised environment where you have fun and interact with people. We don’t charge anything to come in and you can stay all day and try on clothes from around the world. At Disneyland they charge $75!

I have driven on Melrose a lot, and seen what’s happened. Many stores have closed, and maybe it was OK for some of them to close. Maybe if you are not an AAA store, the best of the best, you shouldn’t be in business. To be in business, you have to be better. What if good quality product, merchandising and planning requires you to be a real professional just to open your doors and pay the rent? Maxfield hasn’t changed. It’s the same store. You go into Chrome Hearts, there is no sign but people know it’s there. There’s a lot to be learned from what we’ve gone through together. Some things we’ve learned will help lead us into the future.

WWD: Will Ron Herman still be on Melrose in 45 more years?

R.H.: It would be my pleasure to have my grandchildren see that brand on the building and say my grandpa and grandma, they started that.

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