Industry Interview: Miguel Lopez

L-R: Gabriel Yanez and Miguel Lopez, owners of Sui Generis {Ille} and {Illa}. Photo Courtesy of Russell Yip/The Chronicle.

For our latest Industry Interview, we sat down with Miguel Lopez, who owns, Sui Generis – a high-end consignment boutique, with his partner Gabriel Yanez. Brought together by their love of fashion, Miguel and Gabriel moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 2000, and tirelessly worked to turn their dream of owning a store into a reality. They now own two stores, Sui Generis {Ille} and Sui Generis {Illa}, for men and women respectively, and just opened their online shop. You can find amazing designer pieces from seasons past, those items you regret not buying the second they hit shop floors – and at a fraction of the cost. These gems, located in the Castro, are not to be missed!

What was your work experience prior to opening Sui Generis?

I moved to San Francisco in 2000, and at the time my first job was hosting at a restaurant in downtown. While I was working at the restaurant I walked by Max Mara, and there was a sign that said they were looking for a back-stock person. So I applied and got the job, and then started doing back-stock there. I worked my way up, six or eight months later I was working on the floor as an assistant to the manager. And then in less than a year I was selling on the floor, and I became one of the top sellers there.

I was then recruited by Ralph Lauren’s West Coast director to work in their store. I felt like it was a great opportunity to learn even more so I moved there, and became a senior seller within the first year and worked there for seven years. But the whole time I knew that eventually I wanted to have my own store in San Francisco, even before I moved here. It was all leading up to that, just trying to learn as much as I could.

And so during my last two years working at Ralph Lauren, my partner and I opened our first small store on Church Street.

Why did you and Gabriel decide to open a designer consignment and vintage store, as opposed to selling new merchandise?

One of the reasons was capital. While I was at Ralph Lauren, my partner Gabriel was working as a buyer, selling to a lot of the re-sale shops like Crossroads and Wasteland on upper Haight, and he was able to make his living from that. So he started learning a lot about vintage pieces and was finding some really great stuff that he kept and started collecting. So when we decided to open the store, he already had 500 pieces and that is what we opened the shop with, and it didn’t take a lot of investment.

When we first started out, it was more about finding the great pieces and bringing them to the city to have all in one place. And since then we have just grown and gone where the business has taken us.

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Where do you find the best pieces?

Right now, the majority of what we have is from local sellers. Maybe 10-15% of our consigners are from other places. We have some from Los Angeles, New York, a few from Chicago – but with them we know the individuals and their style, so we know that we’ll be getting good stuff. We don’t want people to just send us pieces that we have to send back, it would be a lot of unnecessary costs.

And the other 90% local – there are so many people in San Francisco who have such a love of fashion and they realize that we really have a love for it too and appreciate high quality. And when they bring their things here they know it’s going to a buyer who feels the same way.

Is there a memorable piece, or pieces, that when you found and just couldn’t believe?

Oh yes – and it’s hard to let them go! We have been really lucky and found some amazing pieces. Like the East West Musical Instruments Co., who made custom leather jackets for all of the rock stars in the ’70s – they say you are lucky if you come across one of their jackets in your life, and we have had three or four since we’ve been in business. We actually have one right now that we haven’t even put out yet. Two of those jackets went to buyers in Japan, clients who are collectors. They are gorgeous jackets.

And we have had so many beautiful Tom Ford for Gucci pieces from his first few collections that are to-die-for. And also some amazing Thierry Mugler pieces.

And in the women’s store there are some beautiful Oscar de la Renta runway pieces. It is so hard to keep track because we have so much that comes through the store, which is why I’m really excited that we started the online store because it will be great record of our most amazing pieces.

One of the hardest things is that we have to balance these amazing pieces with what will sell, because we have to stay in business and be able to make money. Sometimes there are pieces that we absolutely love but we have to think about if we’ll be able to sell them. But luckily we have a great clientele, people who really appreciate fashion.

You’ve been able to continually grow your business during trying economic times, what do you think has contributed to your success?

Part of it is our business just happened to be something that has actually been very good in the recession – consignment is the perfect middle. There are people who need money so they sell their clothes, and people who want quality clothes at a lower price. So we are able to satisfy both clients and consigners.

And I think that challenges can actually be really good, you really have to work hard but it can lead to something that is great. And I think, personally, I take more pride in accomplishing something that is maybe more difficult.

As you mentioned, you recently started selling pieces online, why did you decide to do that?

One of the reasons is that, as the company is growing, we are getting more and more really special pieces. As long as we’ve been in business, now almost six years, people are starting to know us more and they feel comfortable bringing their best pieces. So we wanted to find another outlet to sell more than we can in the store.

And the online store is a great way to really go through all of the items – because on a rack, it might just look like a row of black jackets. But online, you look at each piece individually, so they really stand out.

And it is also a great way to show people what we have, and get them to come into the store. And as it grows, hopefully we can have enough business so that we can have one person dedicated to that and expand it even more.

How else do you hope to grow the business in the future?

We’ve been working with more and more stylists who have a lot of local, private clients. Clients who they not only dress and style for events, but also help them clean out their closets. And a lot of times these people have items that they’ve bought and never even worn, so it’s a great way to find pieces in really good condition.

What advice would you give to students just starting out on their own?

When you have a passion for what you do, and you do what you like, that is always the best. And if you can make a living from it – that is even better! But I think you have to be patient, because it takes time to start your own business. You just have to keep going, and you will get there.

Thank you so much to Miguel and Gabriel for your time!

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