A name synonymous with California lifestyle, Fred Segal has made an indelible mark on Los Angeles fashion since the 1960s, styling music’s most recognizable icons through the years and building a retail concept that has withstood the test of time. While the Fred Segal name has undergone a major expansion with a licensing deal back in 2012 – birthing a multitude of storefronts worldwide – the original shops on Melrose Avenue and in Santa Monica remain some of the most influential the city has to offer; and are still independently owned.
Finding talent in the unlikeliest of places has allowed this legendary namesake to live on, even with the man himself being hands-off from the retail business for the past couple of decades. Amongst all the graduates from this long-standing apparel umbrella, is Joey Gonzalez, who grew up in the ’90s underground, selling concert tickets to a who’s who of the celebrity world’s finest, including Fred Segal himself. Taking him under his wing, Fred introduced Joey to the world of retail, which eventually opened a new door to a then-East LA kid who had no experience whatsoever, but made the best of his opportunities. Through long hours, which turned into days and eventually years, Gonzalez taught himself the ins and outs of running a business, while also giving new talent a chance to develop their own skills and eventually launch their own shops – a model spearheaded by Fred himself all those years ago.
Taking ownership of Fred Segal Man in 1999, Joey followed the success of his first store 5 years later when he opened Conveyor by Fred Segal, a footwear and contemporary street boutique, balancing the best of both worlds. Rarely speaking about the past 14 years that have shaped his life, Joey was gracious enough to speak openly with me about his career, on helping cultivate young talent, and how his passion for music has shaped a majority of his thought process towards fashion and life.
Fred Segal Man CEO Joey Gonzalez
LUIS RUANO: Hustling tickets is a cyber game at this point, but it seemed like the right gig at the right time back then.
JOEY GONZALEZ: When I met Fred [Segal], I was a musician, it was a whole different era, it was the early ‘90s and LA was awesome at that point. It was before or right when hip-hop was hitting – it was just a whole different scene and I was playing music at the time. I was also hustling tickets on the side, I had to make a dollar, so tickets to anything that needed tickets. Music, boarding, anything. It put me in an odd place of meeting tons of people with a lot of expendable cash, including Fred, and just a crazy A-list of clientele, from Brad Pitt to anyone you could think of in Hollywood. The funny part was that I was raised, basically, in East LA, and I was so naïve at that point, I literally didn’t know half of the people I was dealing with, which was great – it was perfect for the gig. Nothing mattered.
And you did that for some time?
Literally early ‘90s until I started here in ’99. Fred was a good customer of mine. He was also friends with the guy who owned the business [that I worked for] – they both went to Fairfax High School together. They’re in their seventies now – but one day he said, “Kid, you don’t belong here, you don’t belong doing what you’re doing, you’re going to run one of my stores.” I was completely taken back like, “What’re you talking about?”
He had already talked to the owner [of the business I worked for], his good buddy, he was like, “I’m going to take Joey.” I didn’t know shit about fashion, literally. I was a kid running around in the music scene.
Fred was a fixture in LA.
The store’s been around since the ‘60s. Fred’s been doing his thing since then, and Fred is a character. He came from nothing, had a little store in the ‘60s across the street from whatever the cool kid club was of that era, and basically started styling everybody. He styled Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison – just all the way across the music scene.
At a certain point, he did really well for himself and started investing and buying property in Malibu. He built his little empire. At that point he was running everything himself for 20 years until he basically gave all his managers an opportunity. Everybody had a chance to use him as the landlord, like, “You’ve been running my men’s department for me forever so why don’t you just buy it from me?” “You’ve been running my women’s department,” et cetera – he gave so many people a chance that literally didn’t have a penny and had just been working retail. He saw something in them, and he was really good – awesome. He is a really good human being. Crazy, like everybody else is. Super intense, a driven guy.
So at this point you’re learning the ropes of how to run a retail operation. How’d that go?
[Laughs] The first few years, it was literally me and a partner and one other employee and we were grinding. I literally taught myself accounting and did all the books; we did everything. We were up at 5 in the morning and we’d get home at 9 at night. It was just the grind, you have that excitement, you have something that’s yours for the first time and you start to carve out a point of view and it’s super fun.
But I literally started from scratch. It was like, “How do you do this?” And for me there was so much happening in the LA area that was really easy to take cues on what was happening at that time and push in that direction. From there, travel started, I began going to Tokyo a lot, then Berlin and New York, and just started to bring in little pieces of where I was traveling to back to LA. We were just lucky that this customer was so influential, the person that was walking in on a day-to-day basis was that taste maker. I honestly don’t even know how I did it in the beginning. Whole different era. I started here in ’99. I had a little stint working here first [before owning] to make sure I wasn’t going to sink, and then in 2000, I took over the store. So it’s been a long ride, it’s been 14 years now.
Did music tend to dictate fashion a good bit?
Music has always dictated for sure, probably more so than anything else. I’ve primarily only ever done men’s, so you see the military trend over and over and over again. I don’t know what’s in us as guys that’s so deeply rooted, but that has been around – kind of backed off here and there – but always kind of stayed around. Nice Collective, way back in the day, was huge for us.
Urban apparel didn’t make its way in here – in the very beginning of the late ‘90s or 2000s we started to see a lot of the East Coast penetrate into LA. Hip-hop was already here at that point, heavily, but not until that late ‘90s, then you start to see a lot of the brands from New York start to pop up. And they weren’t necessarily that easy to find out here, so it did completely change the way everybody looked at everything. And then the Internet. And then the merge.
There was such a merge that happened. Everything used to be so – you’ve heard this and read this so many different ways – but everyone was classified by whatever they were [and wore]. And now everything is so intertwined, which is kind of awesome.
Were you into any of this before you started?
I wasn’t into any of it. I came from a point of view where I didn’t know. I was living it, it was lifestyle-driven like all fashion is lifestyle driven, so I was already living in the lifestyle but I didn’t have any portion of the fashion down. We were thrift store shopping, we were just scrounging to get by.
It’s funny, this industry was so parallel with the music industry, there was so much travel, so much going on, so much excitement. Before the recession hit, it was a whole different era of how people did business together and even how people spent money. Since then, it’s been crazy because it’s been such a struggle. Even though we have a big name, we’re still basically a mom and pop, independent type of business. That’s always been my fear and caution, “What’s left for the independent business?”
There are so many people that have that angst in them to do something, so many people that have that in them, but damn, it’s a totally different world for independents these days. Think about how many friends you’ve had that had stores, people you knew, and where they’re at now.
A look inside Fred Segal Man
How can adversity become a positive thing?
What it does is it pushes you to refine your customer experience. Because at this point, there’s very little that’s really exclusive. Most of the upper stores carry a lot of the same stuff. They might have a little bit different point of view on how to present it, but it’s the customer experience; that is the difference now. That’s what separates everything.
I can go online and still probably find most things now, but it’s the experience. The experience of having these kids that work day-to-day here that are super into it and spend all their time online reading, catching, wanting to know who’s who, what’s what, and you come in and it’s a wealth of information just presented to you. It’s at your fingertips all the time, but to interact with that, it’s a whole different experience. That’s the last thing for the independent that is really strong that’ll save the experience.
Is that what you enjoy the most?
People. People, people. It’s the interaction with people, it’s the experience. Every customer comes in with a story; every customer is interested in your story. Yes, retail is about the fashion portion, but it’s really about the customer experience and that never gets old.
It’s a different person every day, sometimes it’s the same person that you grew up with over 10 or 15 years, you build relationships, it’s really the best part about the gig. You get to learn what somebody’s into. Robin Williams used to come in all the time and he used to put on shows for us. It didn’t matter who it was, but it was the experience.
Conveyor at Fred Segal stocks the finest from the world of footwear and contemporary street
With e-commerce becoming so important, how do you translate that experience to the web?
At this point it’d be silly to ignore the cyber world, so I think that finding a way for me to be equally as excited about the online store or working within the virtual world, I think, is what I’m trying to tackle next. I can’t ignore it, I’m very interested, there’s a lot of great aspects to it. How do I morph and shape my customer experience in that virtual world is really the key to me – which I don’t know yet. That or just quit and go surf and play music. [Laughs]
It seems like music has been a heavy driving force for you.
There’s something inside each person that drives them and we don’t know what the hell it is sometimes, but music is one of those things. Music is a driving force with not a clear end path to it, it’s an experience and you just know you have to have the experience. I think that that is what’s helped me, even with the fashion side of it. Exercising that muscle, just knowing it’s about the experience, it’s about taking the trip without necessarily knowing where you’re going to end up.
I have no idea why I play music, I just know that I can’t not play music. I’m a bass player. Upright bass, electric bass, anything, I just love it. Jazz, funk, blues, dub, afro beat, anything. It’s so exciting. My life has been kind of transformed by crazy dreams that I’ve had. Like literal, spiritual – crazy-man dreams. They’ve all taken me to that experience, that one-on-one experience of just being open with someone else and really being open to yourself. So taking that in to anything else is what’s made it all worthwhile for me.
What do you want to do next?
I think that the type-A personality is always setting goals and always – you want to see some sort of completion of something. So I did men’s fashion, I was curious about footwear so I started Conveyer five years after I started in apparel. I’ve done 10 years now in footwear. Now I’m curious about the virtual world, how am I going to attack that? What’s it going to be? So hopefully five years from now I’m having a conversation about, “Oh, this is how we jumpstarted that.” So I think the nature of how we operate is we do have to see down the path a bit and be willing to be flexible. It doesn’t always come out the way that we want to.
As far as where I want to be, that is going to be on the beach somewhere being very comfortable in the fact that I did everything that I wanted to do and feeling okay to let it all go. Having that feeling – we were talking about it, again, not listening to yourself, or listening to yourself, the difference and what it does to somebody. I know that I’ve listened, I know that I feel good at the end of the day. I didn’t ignore myself, I didn’t try to talk myself into some other shit.
So you’re close then?
I’m close, I already feel at the point where I’m pretty friggin’ content. It’s getting there.
Stocked brands include Robert Geller, Our Legacy, and BEAMS Japan, amongst others
What’s the best characteristic you’ve inherited from Fred Segal?
There’s been a lot written about Fred, the man, but above everything else, he’s touched so many different people’s lives in a positive way. He’s crazy, and crazy in the best way. But I guess when you ask me what my goal is, it’s to have that ability to give people an opportunity. How much better does it get than that? He got to do what he wanted to do, he listened to himself, and then he gave so many people, that he saw whatever in them, a chance, and they ran with it.
He was the basis of this whole place, he had a very specific customer experience behind it. He would come in here, he would literally destroy it in a whirlwind of energy and be like, “What’re you guys doing? This is wrong, this is right.” He saw so many things all at the same time and he lived and lives his life at a higher pace than anybody else. You see those people, you run across them, they never really stop. You’re running alongside them, talking to them, having a conversation – he was that guy.
If I learned anything, for me, its about not settling – it’s not settling on anything. Down to the silliest things, down to seeing a dust bunny in the corner of your store, down to an item across the way that’s not folded right to somebody that wasn’t greeted at all. It’s not settling, you’ve got to do it right every time.
Fred Segal Man
Santa Monica, CA
Santa Monica, CA