Free Market's Raan Parton
Our series CULTURED features tastemakers who are shaping the cultural and social landscape of the city. In this issue, Culture & Style Editor ANNIE BLOJ interviews Retail & Fashion Entrepreneur Raan Parton, creator of Free Market in downtown Denver.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ESTHER LEE LEACH // LOCATION: FREE MARKET
Annie Bloj: Raan, I hope I live up to the nickname you gave me, the “Fashion Nancy Drew”. Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up in Southern California, and from the research that I’ve done, it seems that travel has been a very important aspect of your childhood as well as how you parent today. What were some of your favorite places to travel as a kid, and how did that affect the way you saw your place in the world?
Raan Parton: My parents took us all over the world at a very young age and this was formidable to our perspective on life and other people beyond our narrow life of Southern California. It spurred the idea of creating a business based on the skills of people we met but combining it with the outreach and access we have here - hence Apolis was formed. Some of my favorite places back then were India and Indonesia (we also found surf in these places so not all strictly business.
AB: After graduating with a BA in Business Communication, you jumped right into starting your fashion brand, Apolis, in 2005 with your brother Shea. You started this company before you graduated. Have you always been interested in fashion and style?
RP: I worked in the action sports world doing graphic design for a lot of companies like Nike and Hurley so I would say the design and production of a garment were always more interesting to me than the “fashion” or wearable side of it.
AB: What prompted you to create Apolis and how did you go about starting a fashion company? Did you have experience in fashion and retail?
RP: We had no experience but we saw that there were very talented artisans and craftsmen all over the world and we had the connections to take the products to a bigger marketplace. Combining the two hadn't been done at the time. We wanted to co-design products with people globally, in a socially conscious way. But the design has to stand alone whether the customer knows the back story or not. That part is crucial for the business to be truly sustainable. We had more of a fashion company in the past with hundreds of wholesale accounts and a seasonal apparel line carried in large department and specialty stores but that world has changed significantly. Now we focus on direct to consumer with the best, longest-lasting products we can make and some of the retail partners come as a result but this is not the main driver.
AB: After creating a recognized and trusted brand that is one of the few in retail to receive B-Corp status, you and your wife Lindsay opened Alchemy Works, a brick and mortar lifestyle boutique. Then, along with your business partner Paolo Carini, you began working on the concept that would turn into Free Market. What prompted this business concept and how did you get started?
RP: Alchemy Works was started from all of the furniture in our living room. Seven years ago, we had a desire to fill a retail space in the burgeoning area where our Apolis flagship was located; this was in the Arts District of Los Angeles. We knew we wanted the focus to be women's and home, combined with a cafe and the service-based business of Warby Parker located inside. This energy not only helped our Apolis store but we found a true community of people wanting an authentic space where we could highlight brands in a gallery format. The vintage car in the middle helped draw people in too and now we are 30 plus cars later, still switching them out every eight weeks.
This later led to Free Market, as we saw this idea of combining retail, services and food/beverage that was complementary to each other, reinventing our version of the lost department store or a local bazaar. Our first iteration opened in Denver this past spring and is still finding its full personality but it's been refreshing to see how bringing people under one roof adds to each other's momentum and can be a success!
AB: Since I am in the business of tracking events in and around Denver for my namesake site, the amount of Pop-Ups and events that you host at Free Market is remarkable. In fact, I’ve taken to calling Free Market my second home! What do you look for in brands, individuals and creatives that want to be included in your take of the modern bazaar?
RP: We want a brand that has a strong internal message with its customers while also expanding the selection to compliment the customers already coming into the space. I think it's important to find brands that are new to an area or new to physical retail as an interesting residency as well.
AB: Your wife and business partner, Lindsay, grew up in Denver. Was that one of the reasons you decided to open Free Market here?
RP: It was part of it, as she knew the market but it is such a changed place to when she grew up here over 20 ago that it was like learning a whole new city. Another factor for us was the partnership with the developers and the McWhinney team. They are so well respected here so that was encouraging to us when they saw value in the brands we were bringing to Denver.
AB: You currently have so many projects going on and you both have a baby girl on the way; she’ll probably have arrived as this article goes is published! Has being a dad to your toddler son, and soon a second baby changed the way you see your future?
RP: Yes. I think it has made me more aware that I only have a short window of time to get things done and to do them well so priorities have shifted. We do as much as we can, including international travel, with the toddler and expected baby girl in our family business
AB: I have to imagine that you are already four steps ahead of what everyone is expecting. What is exciting to you now and where do you hope to be in five years?
RP: Stay tuned! I think more from Apolis for sure as that business is growing a lot for us and there seems to be more we want to do with it. More Free Market locations; two are planned for LA in 2020 and I am sure a few other surprises along the way!