Tanya Stevanovic in her shop Pretty Dog in Newtown Photo: Fiona Morris
You'll find them tucked away in suburban side streets or inner-city laneways. There will be scented candles burning, fresh-cut flowers, inspiring window displays and atmospheric tunes. Staff will be attentive, but not overbearing, and the racks will be sparsely dressed with the latest local and global delights.
These are our independent fashion boutiques - a small but influential group of owner-buyers who are seemingly bucking the trend of retail's downward slide.
As the fashion high street still reels from post-GFC fallout, many niche store owners have emerged from the past four years unscathed, but not entirely unscarred.
Loren Abood offers styling tips at her women's fashion store Bloodorange in Elizabeth Bay in Sydney. Photo: Mick Tsikas
While the proliferation of independent boutiques might not be quite as rampant as the small bar phenomenon, some openings have seamlessly weaved their way into the community - the unisex Collector and The Standard stores in Surry Hills are both examples for women, while men now have Mr and Mrs Smith in Manly and Meanwhile in Potts Point.
Retail analyst Michael Baker, of Baker Consulting, believes the rise and resilience of upper niche retailers is part of a global trend referred to as the "hourglass effect''.
"The phenomenon reflects the preference of consumers either for quality and heritage brands, the high end; or value, the low end,'' Baker says. ''So, with the high and low ends thriving, the middle is struggling. Retailers such as Gap in the United States, the Just Group in Australia and major department stores are no longer attractive to consumers with so many options."
Designers stocked by indie boutiques
Alexander Wang's Spring 2012 collection for New York Fashion Week.
For Tanya Stevanovic, who sells an eclectic mix of local and international high fashion brands at Newtown's Pretty Dog, recent challenges have meant re-evaluating her business plan and tweaking buying strategies.
"We planned for the GFC, we downsized and changed our buying habits and budgets,'' she says.
How are these niche store owners cutting through? From the outside it appears to be their unique mix of product (the homogenised department stores are fast losing appeal), their ''grounded in community'' philosophy and their considered location. From the inside, it's the unquantifiable store experience they offer - old-fashioned customer service that is right on-trend and the little extras the big chains can't can't afford to replicate.
Location is key for these owners who like to be outside the populated high streets or malls. When Stevanovic relocated her store four years ago, she consciously moved further away from busy King Street as a means to keep idle shoppers to a minimum and ensure the space was more available for her loyal clientele.
It's a strategy shared by Loren Abood, who opened her inner-city boutique, bloodorange, on a quiet and unassuming strip of Elizabeth Bay Road seven years ago.
"I wanted bloodorange to be a unique, Parisian-inspired boutique that was slightly off the beaten track and I wanted to be able to stock any brands I desired without interfering with other shops in the local area," she says.
Abood concedes that the retail landscape has changed considerably since she opened, but says that the two years following the GFC were some of her strongest yet.
"It was a combination of strong collections and a new audience of women that trickled down from the top end of the market,'' she says.
Taking risks on unknown designers with no media profile or fresh designers who are still finding their way with delivery dates, fit and quality control is a thing of the past. Buyers now tend to stick with brands that work for their clientele and, let's face it, sell quickly.
For Abood, this has meant steering clear of overtly trendy pieces and specialising in a classic labels such as A.P.C. and Alexander Wang, which she knows are rarely returned. "I'm not concerned about having a store full of really trendy pieces, I'm more concerned about having a business that's viable," she says.
There's been a similar transition at Pretty Dog, where the instinctive buying strategy is now more considered. "I think more about my customer and not just about what's 'in fashion','' Stevanovic says. ''Where I used to buy the whole collection of a brand, I had to downsize. I simply can't spend a huge chunk of my budget on a whole designer's collection."
Instead she focuses on the labels that fulfil her vision and satisfy her customers - Karen Walker, Romance Was Born and Gary Bigeni are all great sellers. For Stevanovic, filling the racks with a majority of home-grown brands is easy - "it's no burden to support local" - although she looks abroad for accessories such as shoes and bags.
The strong sense of community cultivated by many boutiques is both a cause and effect of their success. Stevanovic buys her sunglasses from the shop around the corner, the owner of which shops at Pretty Dog. Abood is planning an event with the menswear store next door. Both owners say the majority of their return customers are locals.
While no one is saying the past four years haven't been without their trials, many boutique owners agree that far worse for their industry than the GFC has been the rise and rise of online shopping.
For Abood, it's not the lack of foot traffic that is of most concern, but the information her customers are now exposed to, particularly when it comes to pricing. "I make sure our prices are the same, if not less than online sites,'' she says.
Stevanovic is more reflective and simply bemoans the fact that there is a whole generation of girls who will never experience boutique shopping.
Just what that experience is varies from store to store. At bloodorange, Abood and her staff will always put together styling suggestions for clients, while Stevanovic will do wardrobe consultations at home. She doesn't charge for the service, but it is reserved for her best customers.
Considering brand exclusivity is becoming harder to negotiate, a unique store experience has become paramount. For bloodorange, it's everything.
"There's candles and flowers, we merchandise the store beautifully - there's no pretension, it's friendly and warm," Abood says.