After nearly a decade and more than $600 million, River Oaks District is finally open for business. But will the Houston elite buy what the state’s most exclusive shopping “environment” is selling?
On a still-sultry fall night in Houston, just as the sun was going down and the congestion was easing a bit on Westheimer, the owners of Bentleys, Land Rovers, Mercedes, and the like started pulling into a place built just for their pleasure. The occasion was the opening of the first Chopard jewelry store in Texas, which was part of a more extended opening, that of a new luxury development called River Oaks District. One turn off Westheimer into this landscaped, five-block, understatedly chic venue—you wouldn’t really call it a shopping center as much as a shopping environment—and the world became more calm and orderly. Traffic signs were black-and-white instead of harsh reds and yellows. The streets themselves were skating-rink-smooth and pothole-free and so clean they would put Singapore’s to shame. Sidewalks—sidewalks!—were wide enough to walk two abreast, and the greenery, which included just-planted thirty-foot oak trees, gave the place an atmosphere that was both casual and, in combination with all those limestone and glass storefronts, special.
If you were of a certain economic and social stratum from anywhere around the world, you would feel at ease in River Oaks District, especially with all its familiar shops: Tom Ford, Dior, Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier, and, of course, the 155-year-old Swiss watch and jewelry company Chopard. This place was designed to be Houston’s mini-version of Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, or, maybe, Dallas’s Highland Park Village. At least it would be when it was finished (it’s currently at 85 percent leased). Like so many projects in Houston, this was still a work in progress, with some of the empty storefronts sheathed with “Coming Soon” barricades (prettied-up with brightly painted murals) and the adjacent luxury apartments in mid-Tyvek stage. The iPic movie theater and the half a dozen or so yet-to-open buzzy restaurants—Le Colonial (fancy Vietnamese), Thirteen Pies (wood-fired pizza)—would, ostensibly, create more street life than was currently in evidence.
But still. Near the Chopard entrance, a man performed for a small, eager crowd by pouring Taittinger champagne into a pyramid of glasses about three feet high. As he filled the top glass, the champagne overflowed and cascaded into those below. Delighted guests began taking selfies before the bubbly Niagara. There was a red carpet, albeit a small one, and on it that mixed array of socially prominent Houstonians that so often includes not just the wives of wealthy men but those wives’ attendants—hairdressers, caterers, and realtors, who, even in subordinate roles, have become financially comfortable themselves. Then there were the women who weren’t as well-known but who were part of Houston’s burgeoning population of globally rich, well-tended women from Asia and the Middle East and Europe and Mexico and South America. Just about everyone had practiced smiles for the photographers representing the social publications that chronicle these sorts of events: PaperCity, CultureMap, and the evening’s sponsor, Modern Luxury Houston.
Cocktail attire—silks and sequins—was accessorized with the kind of locked-down S&M-style stilettos that could be converted into weapons should the need arise. And, yes, good jewelry, some of it Chopard, twinkled prominently on the guests. A small crowd ebbed and flowed around Phoebe Tudor, the tall, soft-spoken, sable-haired wife of a supremely successful energy investment banker. Tudor had her own bona fides as a best-dressed contender and tireless philanthropist (“She seems genuinely interested in what she’s doing,” one social observer noted). She had appeared that night in her role as president of the Houston Ballet Foundation’s board, the ballet being the evening’s beneficiary. She wore the same Chopard diamond earrings that had been Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s loaners at the Emmy Awards last year. They were the size of jumbo shrimps.
By eight-thirty or so, the store was packed with shoppers sipping champagne and snatching canapés off silver trays. The tiny space was as bright as a Swiss skin-care clinic but was softened by pale wood paneling, parquet floors, and velvet drapes. The interior of this particular store had been designed to “have you feeling at home,” according to the District’s website, which would feel true as long as your home was stocked with rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces in nearly infinite combinations of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, gold, and platinum. The guests certainly looked comfortable as they leaned appraisingly into the counters and pressed their noses to the glass-covered display cases set into the walls.
A few female voices reached the higher octaves when Tudor announced that 10 percent of all sales through the end of the year would go to the Houston Ballet. (Now, there’s a reason to buy!) Their heels rat-ta-tat-tatted on the parquet when they lined up to enter the raffle that featured a “Happy Texas” watch designed expressly for the opening: a stainless-steel number with a red alligator band and sapphires and rubies and one tiny star floating inside the face. It retailed for $9,100.
This kind of scene had been repeated with some variation for the past couple of weeks, as River Oaks District introduced itself to its target customer base, the one-percenters of Houston. The rollout had begun back on October 1, with an ebullient Lynn Wyatt welcoming the crowd on opening day. This was a little like having James Harden signing basketballs at the opening of a new Houston sporting goods store, only better. Wyatt, known for her cigarettes-and-whiskey laugh and her friendships with the likes of Elton John and the late Princess Grace, has been a Houston icon for decades while also being an unparalleled consumer of haute couture. That she was bestowing her imprimatur on opening day accounted for the ebullience of Dene Oliver, the CEO of OliverMcMillan, the developer of River Oaks District.
Wyatt also made an appearance at the lavish opening of the Cartier store, the first of sixty luxury emporiums to debut. That party had a red carpet too, and had on hand the director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Gary Tinterow. Neither his nor Wyatt’s appearance could be considered a total coincidence. Tinterow gratefully reminded the assembled that Cartier was one of the MFAH’s most generous supporters. And OliverMcMillan was one of two lead underwriters of the MFAH Grand Gala Ball the following evening, on October 2. Chairperson and honoree Lynn Wyatt was, with her husband, Oscar, the other.
This is the way OliverMcMillan has gone about introducing itself to a rarefied segment of Houston—like a high schooler cultivating popularity by befriending only the right kind of people (Lynn Wyatt, Phoebe Tudor) and racking up the right kind of clubs, er, cultural institutions (the MFAH, the Rothko Chapel, the Houston Ballet). It didn’t hurt that virtually every store opening was breathlessly covered in the local social press, which also carried River Oaks District ads of glamorous models in unforgiving but indisputably up-to-the-minute gowns available for purchase at . . . River Oaks District.
The idea of creating a shopping mecca for the mega-rich could seem antithetical to egalitarian Houston. For many years, even the fanciest parties included the occasional artist or musician or Rice professor or middle-class in-law; the mix was part of the city’s entrepreneurial, expansive character. You didn’t have to be rich to scale the social ladder—okay, it helped—you just had to be accomplished in some way.
But in the past few decades, the rich here became, like rich people everywhere, even more different, because they had even more money. Instead of being gleeful, entertaining show-offs—“Silver Dollar Jim” West throwing coins from one of his 41 Cadillacs or Joanne Herring arming the mujahideen come to mind—the wealthy began keeping to themselves more and, as is only human, started making ever narrower distinctions among themselves. Spots at the top of the food chain went to those who obtained the most-exotic experiences—truffle-hunting in Italy, tiger-spotting in India, golf with a current or past POTUS—and who owned the most elusive, most exclusive things. Who wants a Warhol when you can have a Cézanne?
Then, too, Houston’s reputation as the nation’s most diverse city has of late been colored by another statistic: it is also one of the most economically segregated. Locked gates went up at some of the prettiest old neighborhoods, like Shadyside and Courtlandt Place. Economically mixed inner-city spots like the Heights and Montrose stopped being so, as $70,000 bungalows morphed into million-dollar McMansions. The prosperous, like the prosperous in many places, abandoned the public schools. In other words, by 2006, the time was right for someone to build a shopping area that catered to Houston’s one tenth of the one percent.
Enter Dene Oliver, of OliverMcMillan, one of the most successful developers of luxury mixed-use projects in the U.S. As the company literature puts it, “Our mission is making special places happen.” The 64-year-old Oliver is widely known as the idea guy behind the operation. He hails from San Diego, was educated at UC Berkeley (with a bachelor of science in real estate and urban land economics), and has a law degree from USC. He exudes a California ease; he surfs, he is blond, he is very tall, fit, and tan. He also has a Manhattan luster; Oliver dresses fastidiously, often in head-to-toe Tom Ford or Brunello Cucinelli, because “it’s easier to wear one designer when you travel as much as I do.” The day we met, his cashmere-and-linen straw-colored jacket complemented his puce-and-white-checked shirt, which set off his puce-and-white polka-dot pocket square. Oliver has been friends with Ford since the designer revitalized the Gucci brand, in the nineties. (“No one has done more to create luxury style from top to bottom in America,” Oliver stressed.) Finally, thanks maybe to his Houston-born wife, Elizabeth Hamman Oliver—they met spa-ing at the Golden Door, in 1992—Oliver also has that Never Met a Stranger thing down. All of these characteristics make him a spectacular salesman. “Ice to Eskimos” was the way one awestruck commercial real estate broker described him. That plus the fact that Oliver lives and breathes the high-end life, and unapologetically loves every minute of it, made him the perfect person to show that rarefied stratum of Houston what it didn’t know it wanted.
On a Houston visit in 2006 Oliver discovered a fifteen-acre tract on Westheimer between the Galleria and the Highland Village shopping center, the nexus of Houston high-end shopping. He had already invested in a small project farther west of this plot, but now, with so much contiguous land available, he saw the opportunity to do something bigger and more unique in this “amazing, world-class city.” Not only did Houston lack for certain luxury retailers, Oliver felt, but the city lacked a place where its citizens could shop and stroll the way people do in the great European cities. He envisioned a mixed-use development, one designed to appeal not just to shoppers but to those who supposedly prefer denser living arrangements—apartments or condos above street-level retail and restaurants, with things like private gyms, swimming pools, and meeting rooms in between. Such projects are considered prime millennial and retiree territory, though OliverMcMillan’s price tags—Houston condos range anywhere from $800,000 to around $2 million—would probably preclude most people with man buns or walkers. A number of luxury high-rises were also going up or planned for nearby, both on Post Oak, outside the loop, and on San Felipe, inside the loop, which meant still more potential customers for a high-end shopping venue. Even better, the only thing sitting on those fifteen acres was one slightly shabby, space-wasting garden apartment complex. “We can do this,” Oliver told his business partner, Jim McMillan.
But it would take more than faith. Houston is littered with semi-successful shopping centers, multimillion-dollar investments that announced themselves as Galleria clones but soon had to scale back to the Gap/Anthropologie zone. Sure, OliverMcMillan had done high-end, mixed-use projects before, blending sleek architecture with the kind of exalted fashion that shows up every month in Vogue. But its projects had been in Nashville, Phoenix, Honolulu, Atlanta, Reno, Tempe, and San Diego—smaller, economically healthy cities that could benefit from, well, a cosmopolitan gloss. Building such a development in the nation’s fourth-largest city, where luxury retail is already entrenched, requires cojones.
True to Houston’s never-totally-stable economy, Oliver’s progress was impeded by issues near and far: An oil bustlette, along with the Wall Street banking crisis of 2008, made lenders anxious. Mayor Bill White wasn’t into giving big tax breaks to developers. A luxury hotel and one office building that were to be part of the project had to be shelved.
It took Oliver until 2013 to really get started on construction. By then the economy had bounced back, Mayor Annise Parker had come up with as much as $19 million in incentives—including a whole new street for the District’s back entrance—and the apartment complex tenants had been resettled with the help of OliverMcMillan’s “move-out concierges.” Oliver started writing checks that would eventually amount to close to $1 billion—$600 million for Phase I and $350 million for Phase II, which would make that luxury hotel and the office building a reality. Six million dollars would go to landscaping alone. The space once occupied by the ho-hum Westcreek at River Oaks garden apartments was finally reborn as the glitzy River Oaks District, even though it wasn’t technically in River Oaks.
Oliver fervently believes that the mall is all but dead, a sad vestige of suburban baby-boomer culture. Hence his five-block district, which offers fresh air and shelter from the elements in the form of metal awnings and ceiling fans, along with outdoor seating for coffee-sipping and people-gawking. “People would rather go to a real place than a mall,” he likes to say. “We’re not in the business of leasing space. We’re in the business of curating an experience.”
These kinds of proclamations have not endeared Oliver to the competition. The sprawling, teeming Galleria, located just outside Loop 610 on the west side of town, is one of the most successful shopping malls on the planet, with annual retail sales of over $1 billion. “All I know is, we have stores and not barricades,” said David J. Contis, the president of Simon’s mall division, which owns the much-revered temple of consumerism. “The Galleria serves everybody, including but not limited to the top one tenth of one percent of Houston.” But the Galleria’s Chili’s-to-Chanel strengths could also be seen as weaknesses. There is all that traffic, and it is so big and so crowded and so . . . democratic, what with all those high school kids from Sugar Land and Missouri City. Not taking any chances, the Galleria just happens to be undergoing a $250 million makeover, which will include a new, improved Saks Fifth Avenue and new-to-Houston upscale boutiques, like Céline and Tod’s. “Any one of our department stores is going to do more business than the entire River Oaks District,” Contis said, adding, “Houston is hot and humid, and occasionally it rains.”
“Where else in Houston can you find this?!” Oliver crowed the day we toured his District, confiding that he’s received beaucoup gratitude from local shoppers, who can now spend what it would cost to fly to New York on a bauble at River Oaks District. “Women have told me, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ ”
A small entourage of PR and managerial people accompanied us, sometimes taking two steps to Oliver’s one. River Oaks District proper is small, shaped like a U, and currently covering a little more land mass than an extremely well-funded public high school. It was a humid, overcast day, and Oliver questioned why all the fans weren’t running under the awnings; he has a deep faith that shade and moving air will convince Houstonians to shop outdoors, even in the summer heat. “Texans can live with seasons,” said the man from California.
Getting the world’s most expensive brands to commit to the District was the kind of sales job Oliver relishes. It works a little like telling Prince Charles that Scarlett Johansson is coming to your dinner party; then, when Prince Charles RSVPs with a yes, you call Scarlett and tell her that Prince Charles has asked especially to meet her. In his company’s Manhattan leasing office, a Midtown town house, Oliver sold representatives of some of the most expensive fashion and jewelry purveyors on the planet—Hermès (a.k.a. Prince Charles), Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as his pal Tom Ford—on Houston as an international retail destination. There were some scarily expensive—at least to local competitors—agreements on build-outs, because luxury brands require certain perks to make their customers feel at ease. (Guesstimates run as high as $1,000 a square foot.) Dior, for instance, which once had a tiny, Arctic-bright boutique in the Galleria, now has a zillion-square-foot store in the District. It’s designed to resemble an apartment in Paris’s posh 16th arrondissement, complete with a marble fireplace and a VIP room furnished, carpeted, and wall-covered in various shades of silver. Mirrored closet doors can be opened to reveal the outfit tableaux put together by eager salespeople. The Hermès store has a separate VIP entrance for people like Beyoncé and, it’s assumed, anyone else willing to spend the equivalent of Malaysia’s GNP on scarves.
Over at Dolce & Gabbana the walls are upholstered in a flocked scarlet pattern, evocative of the early-twentieth-century Venice-based luxury textile designer Fortuny. The plush carpets are a deep red, and the ceiling is black, and there is some matching tufted-velvet furniture scattered about, enhancing the designers’ bordello-meets-la-dolce-vita look. Cartier’s color scheme, in contrast, includes hushed, velvety browns and beiges along with virginal whites. A contemporary, spiral-shaped crystal chandelier—the size of a small parachute—unspools from the ceiling.
You had to hand it to Oliver and his retailers. They understood Houston’s passion for luxury and its ambivalence toward understatement, a quality that local spendthrifts share with their disposable-income-laden cohort south of the border. Hence, there were a lot of sequins, lace, and fur (with denim) at Tom Ford, which elsewhere is known for austere black-on-black-on-black ensembles. The Roberto Cavalli store was awash in the kinds of animal prints and body-hugging shapes that never go out of style in Texas or Mexico City. The $795 red patent Giuseppe Zanotti high-top sneakers will sing a siren song to Houston’s hip-hop community. For the party poopers who prefer some degree of quiet in their clothing, there was the raccoon-collared cashmere available at Brunello Cucinelli.
Equally important are the services designed to shield shoppers from the teensiest inconvenience, otherwise known as what normal people put up with every day. Valet parking allows customers to drop off at one location and pick up at another just a few blocks away. The parking garage has flat floors instead of angled ramps, so that women tottering in stilettos won’t risk losing their balance while looking for the cars they should have left with the valet. Every store seems larded with a Tower of Babel staff of salespeople. Always-at-the-ready concierges, uniformed in white shirts and navy slacks, can be identified by their brightly hued, custom-designed (for the District) Hermès scarves and pocket squares.(They get to keep them after six months of service.) Runners will fetch craft beer and Angus sliders at the iPic theater, where intimate “pods” mimic first-class airplane seating. And, of course, there will be butler service at the soon-to-be-opened condos, so that you can send someone else out for your triple latte at Taverna or toilet paper at the Target just beyond the District’s border.
In fact, assuming oil prices bounce back, a grateful city may come to appreciate River Oaks District for training an entirely new high-end servant class. Employers can brag on their graduates of OliverMcMillan’s “Learning Days,” who have been trained not just in how to pronounce Brunello Cucinelli, Giuseppe Zanotti, and Roberto Cavalli but also in how to differentiate between each one.
On another sultry night, later in October, about a dozen black-clad human candlesticks lined the entrance to the assiduously solemn Menil Collection. They stood stock-still, holding silver trays containing burning votives that lit the way toward the dinner that followed the cocktail party opening of the Tom Ford store in River Oaks District. There had been some difficulty rounding up guests for the $1,000-a-plate event benefiting the Menil. Some of the people who might have shown were at the pricey members-only Music With Friends concert downtown, where Boz Scaggs was playing. Mr. Ford himself sent his regrets—he was busy working on a film in London—and, in his place, his international chairman, Domenico De Sole. “Tom is a native of Texas,” De Sole told CultureMap, “so he promised me that he will be in Houston sometime soon.”
Still, the hostess for the evening, Becca Cason Thrash, had managed to convince 130 people to show up in borderline black tie, and a few of them had even changed into the new outfits they’d bought at the Tom Ford store opening. Thrash herself, a life-of-the-party type who sacrificed running her own PR firm for the international socializing that comes with marrying an energy magnate, wore a floor-length, intermittently beaded black column that clung savagely to her tiny frame. “Tom sent me this,” she allowed, as she wafted by to see to her guests.
The hallway between the main galleries had been turned into a dining hall, with one long, narrow table alight with an abundance of minimalist candles, cutlery, and stemware. It looked as if Tom Ford himself had set a table for, say, dinner at Downton Abbey. In the old days an event like this would have been rare at the Menil because the founders, rich though they were, were not routinely given to this sort of mixing of commerce and art, preferring a more egalitarian sheen to their elitism. But Oliver—who was there, again, in Tom Ford—is like so many tastemakers of this era: of the opinion that high fashion is high art. Or, as one of the guests said approvingly of the Menil party, “It’s very on brand.”
Whether River Oaks District will succeed will depend on the usual Houston unknowables—mainly, how low oil will go before it shifts upward again. You wonder too just how far Houstonians will go when it comes to adapting the class distinctions favored by the incomprehensibly rich elsewhere. River Oaks District is indisputably pretty and tasteful, but how many people will actually come to buy, and how many will turn away, tired of pressing their noses to the glass? “The real story will be three years from now,” one longtime society chronicler whispered at the Chopard party.
In a rare moment of caution—perhaps one in tune with the gloomy price of oil—Oliver seemed willing to consider a more inclusive future for his River Oaks District. “It’s not all luxury,” he said just a little defensively, as we were nearing the end of our tour. He had noted the L’Occitane store, a mall mainstay, and the COS store, a high-style, reasonably priced cousin of the high-style, low-priced retailer H&M. “It’s great for the fashionista who likes to buy high-low,” Oliver continued enthusiastically. “The mix of high and low is very on trend.”
Houston used to be on trend with that too.