February 2, 2022
PaperCity / Inside a Fashion Matrix — Brian Bolke Rethinks Retail in Dallas
The Conservatory on Two in Highland Park Village opens as a winter hothouse: profusions of flowers, DJ Lucy Wrubel setting the tone, tuna melt tartines passing by, and continuous refills of Cindy’s Margarita — named after Cindy Rachofsky of The Rachofksy House.
The boutique’s owner, Brian Bolke, describes this opening-night soirée to me three weeks before it actually happens, as we walk through what was then an empty construction site sandwiched between Chanel and the private social club Park House, on the second level of Highland Park Village. Imposing black large paned glass windows are the only clue that something beautiful is in the works. Like a meticulous set designer, he parses the imminent plans: terrazzo floors, ivory walls, black plaster columns, exposed ductwork. Apothecary and fragrances here, men’s and womenswear there, home design in between.
“This is the most personal thing I’ve ever done. I will own up to every detail of it,” he tells me. If the new space reminds visitors of one of his previous retail ventures — such as the original Forty Five Ten on McKinney Avenue — or feels to friends like an extension of the home he shares with husband Faisal Halum, that’s because it should. “These are reference points that are important to me,” he says.
Bolke, 53, has been rethinking retail in Dallas for nearly 30 years. Moving here in 1994 to work as a store designer at Neiman Marcus, he soon opened what was known as the first elevated flower boutique in Texas, Avant Garden. Later, he hit the national market when he launched the highly unexpected Forty Five Ten with partners Shelly Musselman and Bill Mackin — a fashion phenomenon that brought brands such as Alaïa, Marni, and Céline to the Dallas market and put Bolke in the international eye. He sold Forty Five Ten to Headington Companies in 2014 and shouldered the gargantuan task of building a 45,000-square-foot downtown Forty Five Ten store across from The Joule hotel, another Headington property.
It wasn’t until he left Forty Five Ten in 2017 that he was able to reflect and take stock. That’s when he came up with the concept for The Conservatory. During a break between Paris and New York fashion weeks, and no longer working in a store environment, he began online shopping.
“I would constantly have items shipped to me from different stores, and it was never what I thought it would be, so I’d send it back,” he says. “And because I was in the business, I knew what it took for that garment to get to me. And to just send it back … I mean, talk about a carbon-footprint waste.” He decided to open a store built on sustainability and client experience.
The first Conservatory (launched in 2019 in New York’s Hudson Yards) functioned as more of a showroom: Customers could try on, but they couldn’t take anything with them that day. Instead, Bolke would report back to the designers what item had sold and where to ship it.
Bolke has taken measured steps opening The Conservatory in Dallas. A small location opened on the ground floor of Highland Park Village in late 2019, where he shifted the business model to conventional retail, and then a small Conservatory on Two followed. The new Conservatory on Two dwarfs the original spots, with 9,000 square feet designed by architecture and design firm Droese Raney, which also designed Forty Five Ten downtown. It showcases men’s and women’s fashion, jewelry, apothecary, beauty, and home design, with names such as Jonathan Cohen, Eva Fehren, and Rosetta Getty.
Chicago designer Alessandra Branca has a pop-up shop with her exuberant Casa Branca home collection (through March 18), with many of her goods also sold at The Conservatory’s miniature, ground-floor offshoot called Bijoux — predominantly a mixture of gifts and apothecary.
Vestiges of the original showroom concept still drive the stores today: maintaining personal, transparent relationships with designers who push traceability. As Bolke points out, besides conservation, the word “conservatory” also signifies a place of study. Not unlike a traditional school, The Conservatory encourages learning, and this new store will provide more room for educational growth.
“For us, it’s not about selling stuff. Because for that, you should just buy it on Amazon,” he says. “We’re selling discovery through curation, storytelling, and service.” As long as you leave the store with a new appreciation for something (a cerulean wine glass from Alessandra Branca’s latest collection, a funky dog bowl from Mr. Dog, an embroidered sheer dress from Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst), he’s done his job.
“Yesterday, a sales associate told me that this amazing lady from Mexico City came in, fell in love with these extraordinary Ri Noor emerald earrings that I thought would never sell, and walked out wearing them,” he says. “I love that: connecting people to things they would have never seen that make them happy.”
Bolke credits serendipitous meetings like these to his in-store team. “Service is the most pivotal part,” he says. “It’s knowing which client to call to say, ‘Remember those earrings you loved? We just got them in blue.’”
At this new location, he wants to further elevate the shopping experience and hopes The Conservatory on Two becomes a site for exploration. That’s why he included a restaurant called Teak Tearoom (opening February 23) — a sort of ladies-who-lunch spot with a treetop view of Dallas Country Club. The menu at Teak, which is open from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday, includes dishes familiar to habitués of the former T Room at Forty Five Ten: the Brian Bowl chopped salad, lemon pistachio tarts, and chicken tortilla soup.
“This concept was a very beautiful part of luxury retail in the ’40s and ’50s, where you went to a store like Neiman’s to spend the day,” he says. “You went to eat popovers and have alterations done and to look at toys and work on your bridal registry. That’s what we’re reinventing here.”