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G-Sync: Punk Fashion Leader Is Pure (West) Michigan

When some people think of the word "fashion," they will naturally think of it purely as a noun. For me, the word fashion as applied by A K Rikk’s General Manager Jim Murray is truly a verb. On the eve of the grand reopening of A K Rikk’s brand new location at 6303 28th St. SE, I think what Murray has done and will continue to do for our local fashion scene involves action.
In reviewing the documentary The September Issue, Detroit News critic Tom Long referred to Anna Wintour of Vogue as a mesmerizing study of the tension between commerce and creativity. Thinking back on the past 18 months since Murray began the latest A K Rikk’s project, the same balancing act between these competing forces is clearly at work for his store and also for our community.
As I toured the lavish and inspired new A K Rikk’s retail home, I had to ask right away, “What is your budget?”
“All kidding aside, I do not know at this point,” said Murray, surveying the rooms at the entry where the staff hurriedly stocked the shelves with merchandise. “The people I answer to financially pulled me away from the spreadsheet a few weeks ago to place my gaze strictly on creating the best possible launch for our new store. What we are attempting to do here will change how we think of retail.”
That pulling of focus is fitting since, as many know, once commerce is allowed too much control, the creative choices often become cloudy or tainted or worse completely fall by the wayside. As I inspected every inch of this space -- looking in closets, past backroom doorways and even wandered the spacious park-like setting of their lot -- I was amazed at the attention to detail at every turn. Bravo! The powers that be appeared to understand the need to let a creative do what they do best. After my inspection tour, I can report that the space taking shape will be a marvel to behold once their doors open on Friday, August 24.
“But I can tell you that as a result of this project, a lot has changed in our region already,” said Murray, as he shared with me the long list of changes including the temporary help that became full-time employees in the process of this move, and even the way he has changed one interior designer business who had one foot in the Chicago market and the other in Grand Rapids.
“Before this project, I was familiar with Jeffery Roberts, principal of Jeffery Roberts Designs. And while I enjoyed his work, I did not think he was the right fit at the beginning,” said Murray. “But as we talked about the philosophy for our new space and how it relates to retail, I knew he was the one.”
As a result of Roberts’ influence on this project, the space has made many incredible shifts along the way as they worked to land Murray’s cosmopolitan feel, but with a distinct nod to West Michigan. Service is at every level of this massive space.
One of Robert’s gifts is to have had the time to procure unique pieces for A K Rikk’s with a vast amount of this store’s fixtures coming from estate sales or cultural places like the Chicago Historical Museum. There were even odd finds like a metal morgue table that will proudly display an old book press as a nod that print is not dead. This piece will be surrounded by an eclectic collection of art books for sale.
In keeping with the verb “to fashion” approach of the store, Murray has expanded the product lines he will carry to include not only art books, but a lovely and relaxing space for women’s wear as well as a stunning furniture showroom.
“With clothing, I need to carry a variety of sizes and sometimes even various colors, which is always a risk when trying to decipher the public’s taste,” said Murray.
As he reflected on his pop-up shop for Fashion’s Night Out debut in 2010, Murray said, “We learned at our temporary store that Grand Rapids was willing to buy furniture from a downtown retailer and maybe this is how we will finally arrive in downtown as a curator of fine furniture from our local partners, but also those unique designers of our region and world.”
While keeping an eye on the racks and racks of clothes that whiz by as they prep the store for their opening, it became crystal clear what he meant when he said, “If I have one chair I can sell it a 100 times ove, but with clothing, it is truly more an impulsive shopping act for many. We have to have it right away.”
In keeping with the philosophy of this highly curated space, with unique pieces at every turn, there is the addition of those smaller firms -- like Boombox of Brooklyn -- where the designers have retro-fitted old vintage suitcases into a new use for a new generation. This reworking of something that was into something else feels oddly green in many ways. This interesting refashioning of something vintage is not the only environmental changes at their store.
“Our store inside is devoted to texture in every inch of our space,” said Murray. He invited me to run my hand over surfaces made of recycled foam, glassbead wall coverings made to look like stingray leather, and even a men’s room with faux fur tilework. 
The new A K Rikk’s is a visual and tactile treat, just like the fashions on the mannequins from Italy and the video content being controlled locally by Conduit Studios, created by artisan brands like Etro.
“We re-purposed 28,000 square feet inside by reusing products that made sense, and made other leaps like adding geo-thermal heating and cooling in our retail space along with replacing all the old lighting with LED fixtures,” said Murray. “But, I charged my team that if we are to redevelop this 28,000-square-foot space inside that I wanted to look at ways we could match this number on the outside by creating more green space.”
The result is a newly reworked, spacious property where parking lots were downsized and some even replaced with parkland. There is so much green as you walk along the East side of the building to the spacious event space in the back that it is hard to imagine this was once an office building.
In fact, he has two fashion events already scheduled including Rag & Bone’s Marcus and David who will drop by for a special trunk show on Oct. 6. On Oct. 26, Hudson Jeans will come to the store to host a masquerade Halloween party where if you are wearing a mask that conceals your visage, you will be granted entry free of charge. Dare to not wear a mask or disguise your face, and you will be sent packing.
According to Women’s Wear Daily, the big box retrailers in the industry are seeing reduced to flat sales. The mom & pop independent fashion boutiques are actually growing.
Murray credits their growth to the staff’s highly personalized service, including Skype video conferencing and easy shipping. There is a kids' playroom where parents can monitor behavior via an iPad the store will hand the parent to use as they shop. A brand new tailoring computer app will be exported to the industry after its beta test. Then, there's the private shopping room which, with 24-hour notice, they can prep with clothing in your size so your time is cut down while given the store a chance to pamper you.
Need more? There is a his-and-hers (or his-and-his, or hers-and-hers) dressing room just off of the private shopping room, an industry first with Murray’s heavy focus on pampering and privacy. The two dressing rooms have adjoining interior doors to emphasize his commitment to protecting a couple’s privacy. (The women’s dressing room has a smaller private dressing room for women wishing to be private in their selection and fitting process.)
The real jewel is Murray’s effort to empower and nurture a next generation of talent, an unlikely focus for a retail giant in our region. 
As we walk from the showroom to the back room, Murray reminds me that this space is still under development and will not be fully functional until January 2013 when he hopes to welcome the first crop of creative-focused students to his education laboratory.
“I know it really might pain some people to hear this fact, but not every child is going to find what he or she needs in this region,” said Murray. “In fact, there have been interns of mine who I have made phone calls [for] to place them in the industry. But what I am attempting to do here will help create more opportunities, so I won’t have to call New York so often.”
Part of this plan is to begin portfolio reviews this September as they seek to provide studio space for talented folks who are looking to put to work their creativity. And while they will have a focus on applying their talents to some aspect of the fashion needs of the store, it is not a sweatshop for free labor.
In exchange for providing the students with opportunities to meet visiting designers, to create innovative works and launch campaigns, the store will assist the student upon completion of their residency work to help place them in area businesses.

Murray won't just be fulfilling his own needs. Murray also plans to place these students on projects in the retail sector of our region, should someone need assistance. He refuses to allow another business to close up shop locally just because they could not make a connection to what they need to help them on the service or creative side of their business. It is a tall order to fill, but with his village attitude, it is just possible.
Murray is not opposed to making those calls to people in town who have the power to hire or create a position where this talent can be directed. In fact, he believes this village approach to filling in the gap that often occurs between our higher education institutions and a student's first meaningful position is a vital way to ensure we continue not only to provide for the next generation the opportunities other cities are dangling, but keep our region rich with talent.
It is truly the most amazing part about a retail store that, in many ways, has changed just as we have over their long history in our region.
When Murray arrived on the scene in 2006, he was seen by so many as just a young punk fresh out of college who was trying to shake up the industry. Punk rock does shake up the status quo. Murray has boldy fashioned a brand new approach to retail where commerce, creativity and even environmental concerns can indeed thrive together to make something we can all be proud.
“It used to be in 2006 when I would go to New York for a noon meeting appointment with a fashion firm, I would finally be allowed to get in around two or three,” says Murray.
And with a glint of his devilish smile he adds, “Now when I arrive for my noon fashion meetings in New York, they are ready for me at 11:45 a.m. Oh, how things have changed because of what my staff and I have created here.”
Murray’s punk rock mentality is changing our city and the fashion industry. His focus on us will ultimately change a part of our community, too, as long as we are committed to the shock of the new. And that is to fashion a future…punk-style.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  RapidGSync@gmail.com
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