Fifty profitable years in the retail business is a feat within itself. It is a notoriously cutthroat industry, in which most eventually sink and only the most innovative manage to swim. Of those that swim, even fewer do so gloriously—setting trends, becoming engrained in popular culture, and, ultimately, becoming a natural part of its patrons’ lives. Fred Segal exemplifies each of these virtues.
I deem it tough—maybe impossible—to have any enlightenment into the luxury world without knowing the icon that is Fred Segal, and I’m talking about both the man and his eponymous shopping emporium. And yes, Mr. Segal is a real person and the driving force behind the iconic brand that recently celebrated 50 years in the business.
Fred Segal is innately Los Angeles. Despite only having two locations—one on Melrose in Hollywood and one in Santa Monica—it is vastly known as an authority on all things luxurious and avant-garde. From the opening scene of the Entourage pilot to references in quintessentially L.A. movies like Clueless and Legally Blonde to the imagery of the red and blue scripture embedded in ivy—nothing says L.A. in the mind’s eye quite like Fred Segal. Fred Segal has done far more than seep into popular culture. It has spent 50 years as an icon in the City of Angels.
Truthfully, the list of celebrities who shop here is far longer than the list of those who do not. Lionel Richie stops by almost every day. There are those famed legends of an elderly Bette Davis patrolling the inventory in a wheelchair and Barbra Streisand making calls on the store’s phone. Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, Colin Farrell, the list goes on.
One is just as likely to spot a celeb at Fred Segal as they might catch a glimpse of one at The Ivy or The Beverly Hills Hotel. Fred Segal is, simply put, a Hollywood icon. But how, in a retail climate so unforgiving and already dominated by giants to the tune of Saks, Barneys and Neiman Marcus, does a pair of freestanding stores make themselves so imperative?
It’s by no small effort that the Segal family members involved in the business, starting of course with Fred, but trickling down to his son, three of his daughters, and most recently, his granddaughter, have maintained the integrity of the store.
From his starting point, Fred Segal had a unique concept and an overwhelming desire to make people realize what he believed to be the future of sportswear. If I could describe Fred Segal’s approach to retail in one word, it would be “forward.” Forward thinking and forward moving.
“My concept was that people wanted to be comfortable, casual and sexy, so I thought it would work and obviously it did work,” Fred said. “But I don’t think people understand the depth of the psychology of this whole thing. That’s the core story of this.”
Enlighten us, Mr. Segal.
“I was selling; representing a manufacturer and I didn’t want to travel anymore,” he said. “So I decided to open up a retail store. And I had some unique ideas.” Unique for certain, Fred Segal opened its doors in 1960 and there was truly nothing like it in the market. It was a jeans-only store during the “man in the grey suit” era, yet, against all odds, people responded. And they responded well, at that.
“Lee, Levi’s and Wrangler jeans and overalls were sold in basements of department stores, selling for a $1.69. I thought that there was a place for a $20, $10 blue jean hip hugger,” Fred said. It was more than a revolution of inventory; Fred Segal’s bold endeavor began a shift in style; the catalyst to a culture that wears jeans. This is, of course, omnipresent today and it’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nuance of it. However, it was truly risqué then.
“Hip huggers had never been made and I decided to open a men’s store, a strictly men’s store, that had merchandise that would fit a female or a male. That was over 50 years ago, at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights,” Fred said. “I had designed and created a hip hugger model pant, which was an indigo, denim material on a jean style pant that I decided could fit men or women–if it fitted on the hip rather than on the waist. You can’t go into a women’s store and buy a pair of pants for a man. But you can come into my store and buy hip hugger jeans, men or women, boys or girls. That’s really the basis, that’s the embryonic stage of the entire jean sportswear industry.”
Though fitted jeans are hardly a novel concept today, with thousands of companies manufacturing said styles, “when I started there wasn’t one,” Fred said, “I had to dig out someone who had the guts and courage to make it.” Completely rogue for the time period, he took a gamble by selling t-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes, but after four or five years it was the most successful store in the country, per square foot.
Today, Fred Segal is far more than a men’s jeans store. Both locations function as high-end emporiums of a sort, containing multitudes of miniature boutiques inside. Specializing in anything you can imagine—from quite ordinary sections like cosmetics, denim, footwear and jewelry, to the extraordinary like lush wraps, the restaurant Umami Burger, Fred Segal Salon and Fred Segal Yoga—the facets of this bazaar are ever expanding.
The business is now, and for the past 25 years, overseen and managed by Fred’s son Michael Segal, who serves as the company’s CEO. It houses three stores owned by and eponymous for three of his daughters: Sharon Segal, who has three clothing boutiques; Annie Segal’s cozy wrap boutique, and Nina Segal, who has two jewelry stores. It is where trends come to blossom; the birthplace of Earl Jeans, Hard Candy cosmetics and Sparkles, the hair accessory line endorsed by the queen of hair herself, Jennifer Aniston. And in a rare mom-and-pop style that is sparsely seen these days, Fred’s granddaughter Kirsten Segal jumped on board her junior year of college, and currently helms the PR and events section of the business.
“My grandfather created something that’s so special and unique and my father is maintaining that legacy,” Kirsten said. “I just want to make sure that, being the youngest of the three generations, I can keep that legacy alive.”
In fact, after speaking to Kirsten, Michael, and of course, Fred, it becomes obvious that one common thread running through all of the family members is their dedication to maintaining the integrity that put this store on the map in the first place.
“Our name’s on the building so there’s the pressure to make it perfect,” Kirsten said. “But it’s really more the passion that my whole family feels towards Fred Segal and the importance to keep the legacy, keep the history alive that makes us want to achieve perfection.”
Fred notes the integrity of the business as a defining factor.
“I learned at a very young age that the area of no competition is in integrity,” Fred said. “So if people are totally honest with themselves and then they’re honest with everyone around them, there is not any competition in that. For example when I was selling in my store to my customers and they came in wanting to buy this or that, if they put an outfit on and they asked me for my advice part of the time I’d say, ‘Take that off don’t even buy that, that would be ridiculous, you don’t even look good in that.’ That’s really deep honesty. You don’t find that in business you know?”
When Michael took the reigns at Fred Segal, there were certain untouchables.
“Very little and a whole bunch [has changed],” Michael said. “Some things—the red, white and blue, the emphasis on customer service, quality and unique fashion, should never change. While some things must change—awareness of the world around you, technology and, sadly and happily, some of the people with whom I have spent years building special relationships.”
As the saying goes, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, meaning the more things change, the more they stay the same. In essence, being at the brink of trends has always been a value deeply engrained in Fred Segal’s business model. So adapting to what’s new, what’s in, and what’s in-demand is something that the store will always do. But Fred’s focus on impeccable service, luxury quality and providing selection has not wavered over the years or through the passing of the torch to the generations below him.
“Authenticity is a unique energy and you don’t find it often,” Fred said. “There is so much competition in the retail business today and in jean sportswear, because everybody transformed into that. But it isn’t all equal when it comes to high-level honesty or integrity in everyone and anyone.”
He doesn’t have to spell out the fact that Fred Segal stands out in this way. It just does.