Diabolical Anthropologic Duo

On a recent midday visit to Anthropologie on lower Fifth Avenue, women were wandering through the store with identical glazed looks—moving as if entranced, fingering the hem of a silky indigo-colored dress, say, before drifting over to the bath-accessories section to sniff Verbena soaps wrapped in toile-printed paper. Though the women were all physically different, ranging in attractiveness, size and age from early 20’s to late 40’s, a common aesthetic soon emerged. They all looked girlish and freshly scrubbed, with clean hair—any one of them seemed like she might smell good, perhaps of citrus or floral. They all seemed smart and well-read. Each had a thing to set them apart from the pack: a studded leather purple purse, a pair of delicately embroidered ballet slippers, a leather wallet in dark chocolate that looked like it was embossed in some far-flung exotic place by impoverished children.

“Whenever my boyfriend and I walk past the store, he loops his arm through mine and literally drags me away,” said Lara Morgenson, a sprightly blond writer for E! Online who declined to give her age (“I’m from L.A.—we don’t talk about our age!”). “He knows if we go in there that it will be at least an hour. I love to look at the housewares, the sleepwear …. Even if I don’t buy anything, I have to try something on.”

Another regular visitor is Michelle Mahoney, a supervising producer for VH1 in her early 30’s. “I’d say that people who love it are very faithful to the store,” Ms. Mahoney said. “I drop by there every few weeks, because it’s one of the few places that the home goods are as cute as the clothes. It’s those little added extra details and bits of international flavor that true New York girls can’t get enough of. You feel like you’re getting something unique without being overly trendy, and it’s a much better price than all the designer things that I love.”

Beyond ‘Missy’

The brains behind this exquisitely feminine operation belong to two 50-year-old fellows from Brookfield, Long Island: president Glen Senk and his antiques buyer, gallery director and life partner of 33 years, Keith Johnson.

The other day at Anthropologie’s gleaming 50 Rockefeller Center location, which opened in May, Mr. Senk, a champion amateur equestrian who strongly resembles Matt Lauer, was wearing a green-and-white polka-dot Marni shirt and cream Etro jacket, while Mr. Johnson was quietly distinguished in a blue-and-white-striped shirt and peppered gray hair.

The duo met at age 9, after Mr. Senk’s family moved next-door to the Johnsons. “I started school and on the first or second day, I don’t know why, we were having a religious discussion,” Mr. Senk said. “And I, the new kid in class, said I didn’t believe in God because I didn’t have any evidence.”

“And then you said you thought hemlines were going to be coming up this year,” Mr. Johnson said with a laugh.

“I went out for recess and I got attacked,” Mr. Senk continued. “And I didn’t even say there wasn’t a God—I just said that I wanted proof. Keith came to my rescue.”

“I was basically the same size when I was 9 that I am now,” Mr. Johnson said. “Today it’s not all that big, but when I was 9, I was a big kid and I could come to his rescue.”

“I fell in love with him the first time I saw him,” said Mr. Senk with a smile. “I really did. It took him a bit longer.”

“Definitely by the seventh grade,” they said, giggling.

“Look at that face!” Mr. Senk said. “How can you not love that face?”

When Mr. Senk first took over the brand in 1994, Anthropologie was a lone store in Wayne, Penn., a woebegone little daughter of parent company Urban Outfitters (already dressing college kids and putting chili lights in dorm rooms across the country). “The apparel was shockingly ‘missy,’” he said, referring to the outdated and slightly dowdy retail category. “You could wear the clothes at 150 pounds and wear it at 450 pounds. It was a lot of linen and comfortable clothing.”

After researching the market, Mr. Senk realized that there was a shopper whose psyche—and bank account—had not yet been fully plumbed. “There’s the junior market, like Wet Seal—teenybopper stuff,” he said. “Then there’s the contemporary market—very fashion-forward, and if you’re bigger than a size six you can’t wear it. There’s designer, there’s missy … but there wasn’t really any people designing clothes for the 28-to-40-year-old, fashionable, fit woman.”

These days, Anthropologie carries small upscale brands like Orla Kiely and Velvet, as well as designs from Tracey Reese, Anna Sui and the Upper East Side socialite Tory Burch (though, as Ms. Morgenson put it, “the girls who shop here don’t have that polished Upper East Side look”). Anthropologie’s design director, a Finnish woman named Johanna Uurasjarvi, oversees the in-house assortment. “The Urban Outfitters customer we lovingly refer to as the ‘upscale homeless,’” said Mr. Senk. “The Anthropologie customer is in a different stage in her life.”

Success didn’t happen overnight. “I’d say in the last five or six years, we really found our voice and matured,” Mr. Senk said. There are currently 84 branches worldwide, with plans to open 15 more (the company says it will not exceed 250); in 2006, net sales reached $400 million.

An attempt at selling menswear did not go over well. “Guys want to be safe,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Straight men!” Mr. Senk said. “We can differentiate.”

Filling the Gap

Unlike, say, the Gap, Anthropologie is filled with sensory details alongside its heathered oatmeal wool funnelneck turtleneck cardigans ($198 apiece). Every available nook and cranny is filled with impossible-to-resist little touches of cute.

The other day, antique light bulbs were piled attractively on an old wooden table with sturdy blue legs. A giant wooden sphere, gleaming and beautiful with no discernable purpose, sat in the home section with a fat “sold” ticket on it. A giant antique canopy bed was nestled into a corner. “I thought Helena Christensen wanted that one,” said Mr. Senk, referring to the former supermodel (actresses Ashley Judd and Susan Sarandon are also fans of the store). French chalk in vintage red boxes was piled in a bookcase below books with handsome cracked bindings; when the French factory that produced it was closing, Mr. Johnson ordered 15,000 boxes. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Mr. Johnson, the visionary of the company’s “look,” who travels the world for inspiration. “There are certain things that shouldn’t be reproduced, you know?”

In the early days of Anthropologie, customers were distressed to find out that some of these staging props weren’t for sale. “They were literally pulling things out of the wall,” Mr. Senk said. “They were trying to chisel stuff out of the plaster!” Now, according to House & Garden, Anthropologie is the No. 1 purveyor of decorative antiques in the country. “You know when the store manager starts crying—it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I just sold a $70,000 cabinet, but I don’t know whether to be happy or start crying because I have to take everything out of it and start a new one,” Mr. Senk said.

Originally built for the Associated Press in the late 1930’s, and formerly the Guild Theater, the Rockefeller Center Anthropologie flagship contains 12,000 square feet of shopping space, with semi-exposed steel beams, 19-foot ceilings, hand-laid stone steps and brass chandeliers. There are currently 120 employees (with plans to have 80 more by Christmas), including five “visual managers.” One of them, a model-beautiful blonde named Jenny, was wearing a strapless plaid woolen dress featured in the store’s window, paired with an old leather belt and shiny high black heels. “She puts on anything in the store and it’s gone,” Mr. Senk said later, sighing happily. “We should put her in the window.”

Most of the women working at Anthropologie tend to embody the house aesthetic; one had Audrey Hepburn eyes and a simple A-line gray dress; another, working in the prop department making felt mushrooms for a future display, even managed to wear last year’s newsboy caps with aplomb.

Of course, some believe that mass-marketing all these eclectic little items has a homogenizing effect. “In that store, they don’t leave you to your imagination,” said Claudia Trezza, 26, a stylish Italian transplant about to start graduate school at N.Y.U. “They don’t let you play around—they do it for you. You see the T-shirts and the dresses and it’s cool. But then you see a girl with the same T-shirt the same way … from the pearls down to the shoes. It’s the same like a mannequin.”

One devotee, Margaret Brown, 28, a freelance associate producer, admitted that “one of the downfalls of shopping at Anthropologie is that every girl in New York shops there. So you have to be careful and not buy the most obviously beautiful skirt, dress or shirt, because you run the risk of being dressed like your officemate.”

Mr. Senk, who hates hearing Anthropologie described as a “chain” (“We prefer to think of it as a ‘multi-local’”), bristles at such criticism. “We don’t dictate a style,” he said. “I think our customer is probably someone who does not want to be dictated to. She is a confident person, she’s probably an artistic person, and she may need help, but she ultimately wants to do it her way and wear it her way.” Each store in the Anthropologie family receives about 50 to 70 percent of the same merchandise, Mr. Senk said, but the remainder is specific to each branch.

“Our designers are our customers,” he said. “We ask everyone in the room to ask themselves, ‘Would we wear that?’ Because, generally speaking, if 20 people in the room love it, it’s going to be a big seller. If the fashion-forward people like it, it will go to certain stores; if the moms like it, to others.”

Mr. Senk said that he tries to think like a woman when thinking about the store. “I always know the clothes are really good when I wish I was a woman so I could wear it,” he said. “I look at something, and if I’m sorry I’m a man, I know we have a winner on our hands.”

He went through the displays of fall clothes, picking out a mustard-yellow sweater that managed to look cozy and cutting-edge at the same time. “I love this,” he said sincerely—as he would many more times walking through the aisles, before moving on to the cavernous dressing rooms—while girls in their floaty summer dresses drifted by.

“We always say it’s the girl we want to have over for dinner,” Mr. Senk said, considering the Anthropologie customer. “She’s someone you like, someone who is interesting. She wants to look pretty, she wants to look feminine …. She wants to look like an individual.” Diabolical Anthropologic Duo