For Nina Garduno, FREECITY is more than just clothing—it’s about the whole neo-hippie experience.
The sparkly eyes. The perfectly messy hair. The sweet voice. The layered T-shirts worn with the artfully patched jeans. Surf sandals with tabi socks. They’re all part and parcel of Nina Garduno’s distinctly Los Angeles, and more specifically, latter-day Laurel Canyon, vibe.
Garduno got her start as a sales associate at L.A. institution Fred Segal/Ron Herman; She was VP of men’s before she opened her first FREECITY store in Malibu in 2005. During a trip to Christiania in Denmark, she was struck with the utopian ideal of living in a “Free City” and upon her return began printing T-shirts and sweatpants with the words that were emblematic of her new way of thinking. She expanded the idea of liberating casual wear into a must-have brand for the young Hollywood set.
She says, “We were lucky because we started selling FREECITY at Fred Segal, which was where everyone shopped. After a few paparazzi shots of stars and their kids grocery shopping or getting coffee while wearing FREECITY, we had established ourselves as what people in Los Angeles dress like in their daily lives.”
In 2010, the strip of Highland Avenue just north of Santa Monica Boulevard was essentially a retail wasteland. Garduno relocated FREECITY Supershop to its new, bigger home, and shortly thereafter, other high-end retailers (James Perse) and art galleries (Regen Projects) followed suit.
Upon entering the FREECITY Supershop, it’s hard to focus on just one thing. Each year, Garduno turns the entire store over in what might best be described as an art installation. There is always a theme with a quirky name—SUPERSHOP SUPERMAT BIKEFRIEND, FREECITY NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, INMUSICINLOVE VIBRATIONSANDCOLOR—and while you might not truly grasp the meaning of the words on the washed T-shirt you have to have, you certainly embrace the feeling behind it. And it reflects the atmosphere in the store during each iteration: FREECITY NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM was like a mini version of the New York City institution, complete with dioramas; SUPERSHOP SUPERMAT BIKEFRIEND featured explosively colorful bikes and took inspiration from a neighborhood laundromat. There are other stores that provide cohesive retail experiences—Colette in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Milan come to mind—but none that place the experience ahead of the merchandise so wholly that any purchase is just a small part of your takeaway.
Garduno explains her philosophy this way: “I don’t want to minimize the importance of the clothes, because the bar has been raised over and over with what you can do with T-shirts and sweatpants, but they’re very simple items. I start with the environment first—I want to give everyone who is walking through the door enough of a feeling that they want to leave with a souvenir of their time in the store. I really see the clothes as an accent for the environment.”
This season, the theme of the installation, FIELDTRIP GOLDENLIGHT GOLDENBOOM, was inspired by a trip Garduno took to India last year. The most striking feature is a forest composed of 31 handmade white plaster-and-mortar trees that range from 10 to 15 feet tall and are arranged in groups throughout the space. Depending on the time of day you visit, the colors of the skylights above stream across, turning the store into a rainbow-hued magical forest.
Despite the fact that she is always reimagining the store, when it comes to decorating her Hollywood Hills hideaway of 16 years, she is much more laid-back. “It’s really hard for me to put things in my house. I’d rather have an empty house. I don’t have anything in my closet. If I love something and can’t live without it, then it ends up in my house. And it never leaves. All of that other part of me is here,” and she gestures around the Workshop, where the staff is in the middle of taking inventory—counting stacks and stacks of the printed clothing that has built the brand into a cult favorite.
In addition to the sweatpants, sweatshirts, T-shirts and puffer jackets that have been the staples of the FREECITY look since its inception, Garduno is branching out into more tailored clothing with outerwear and jeans in basic work wear silhouettes. The store also features a unique assortment of products from artists, creators and designers—a custom fragrance from L’Oeil du Vert, jewelry from Scosha and Stuart England, ceramic beer tumblers and mugjugs from Matthias Merkel Hess, and honey from San Diego Bees—that enhance the experience and separate the store even further from what you would expect a retail environment to look, smell and taste like.
Garduno just might be the most interesting free spirit in retail, and FREECITY just might be the closest thing Los Angeles has to a crafts museum. Should you find yourself in Hollywood (and you should), open your mind with a visit to the Supershop.
By Cat Doran.
Photographed by Lisa Eisner.