A Look Back: ByGeorge at 40
Austin’s fashion institution celebrates four decades
By Sarah Kitchel Kirkgard
Photographs courtesy of ByGeorge
As I browse a case of watches and rings and a wall of men’s shoes, I see Brittani Lepley, ByGeorge’s marketing director, walking toward me. She leads me through the brilliantly lit store — ample overhead lighting mixing with sunlight pouring through the windows makes the colors of handbags, dresses and sweaters pop against neutral walls and floors — and introduces me to Molly Nutter, ByGeorge’s new president. We take a seat facing the women’s shoe display.
Katy Culmo, then Katy Wagster, bought ByGeorge from its original owner and namesake, local businessman George Humphrey, in 1979, when the store was located in Dobie Mall near the University of Texas campus. Although Katy and her husband, Matt, sold the store to McGuire Moorman Hospitality in 2014, for many, ByGeorge will always be linked with the Culmos for what they created.
“Forty years is huge for the store,” Katy says. “To me, that’s success — being in it for the long haul.”
ByGeorge is not fast fashion; quite the opposite. The store has flourished not because of its ability to adapt to trends but because it provides quality pieces that customers will keep in their closets forever. Nutter stresses that ByGeorge doesn’t follow a formula to stay on the cutting edge. “We’re always being self-critical, thinking about how to be better and staying curious,” she says. “Our edit should be the best of the best.”
ByGeorge is, and always has been, built on relationships with designers and customers, not products. Nutter counts one of her favorite things about ByGeorge as meeting and getting to know customers, then seeing them return to the store to search for their next purchase. Lepley, who interviews designers and is involved with photoshoots, loves when people feel honored to be a part of the ByGeorge family.
That family gained an important member in 2014, when McGuire Moorman, known for managing and developing Austin restaurants and hotels, stepped in. McGuire Moorman CEO Larry McGuire describes the ownership transition as a friendly handoff, but not without a learning curve, as retail was a new venture for the company.
But ByGeorge was a natural fit for McGuire, an Austin native with a passion to preserve iconic local businesses. McGuire Moorman works to maintain the relationships the Culmos built with designers, cultivate an in-store experience in a world of online shopping and remain practical for customers by offering meaningful clothing people can wear for life.
McGuire says ByGeorge is one of just a few stores like it left in the country, an exciting niche and a challenging environment. “We want to feel mom-and-pop, but compete at a world-class level. There aren’t many places doing fashion that way,” McGuire says, nodding to the best-of-the-best edit that Nutter describes.
For her part, Katy can hardly believe it was 40 years ago that she bought ByGeorge from Humphrey. With no background in fashion or retail, Katy found an interest in the artistry of fashion and the opportunity to be creative. “I’m an editor of other people’s art,” she says. “Designers are the innovators, and we choose from what they create.”
Katy scoured the market at trade shows for pieces other stores didn’t have, bought directly from designers and cultivated relationships that would last years. Her creativity allowed ByGeorge’s customers to be creative, buying one-of-a-kind products and making them personal. “Fashion used to be less homogenous,” Katy says, almost wistfully.
Matt came on board in the ’80s and helped propel ByGeorge to where it is today by starting the men’s shop, opening new stores off-campus and placing the focus on designers while maintaining the store’s accessibility. Katy easily rattles off memorable stories collected over her time with the store: watching Anna Wintour step out of an elevator while visiting a showroom in New York City, going to showrooms in Paris for the first time, seeing Diane Keaton and other celebrities shop at ByGeorge, a 2008 New York Times piece about the store and an epic party to celebrate 25 years in business.
By 2014, Katy was feeling ready to retire, and McGuire Moorman came along at the perfect time. “It just worked out, and not a minute too soon,” she says of the transition.
Both Katy and McGuire express excitement about having Nutter on board. With nearly 20 years at Barneys under her belt, as well as time at Celine, she brings deep retail experience, knowledge and perspective that will ensure ByGeorge continues to provide the best pieces and take care of its loyal customers.
“Maintaining the quality of the brand is pushing forward,” McGuire says. Keeping what makes ByGeorge ByGeorge — relationships with designers and customers and the impeccable quality of the products on the shelves — is an innovation in itself. Here’s to the next 40.