L.A. Story

LOS ANGELES — Evelyn Ungvari has learned some pretty hard lessons during her decade in the footwear business.

Since first launching high-end boutique Diavolina in 1998, the retailer has closed two stores, opened a new one, ventured into the apparel business and overhauled her footwear strategy.

The past few years have been full of ups and downs for the 32-year-old. After establishing Diavolina as one of Los Angeles’ most well-known footwear retailers, Ungvari ran into financial difficulties in 2004 and was forced to shutter the business. “No one was shopping, but vendors and employees still had to get paid. It was a really tough time,” she recalled.

But less than a year later, her fortunes changed. A mutual friend in the fashion business introduced Ungvari to Mark Goldstein, who owns several stores under the Madison moniker. The two jointly resurrected the business, opening a new location on Los Angeles’ trendy Robertson Boulevard. “From the first time we spoke, it just worked,” she said. “Without Mark, I would have never had my store back.”

Goldstein, who is Diavolina’s majority owner, manages the finances and back-office operations, while Ungvari focuses on buying and merchandising the store. “Mark and I have a good dynamic,” Ungvari said. “I’m the one who’s obsessed with fashion; I live and breathe it. He’s more into the business, and [our relationship] works because of that.”

“It’s pretty much her ship,” added Goldstein. “I try not to cramp her style. [My job] is to give her budgets and let her know when things aren’t working.”

Staying on budget is a major challenge right now, thanks to the unfavorable U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate, which has made Italian product very expensive for the past several seasons. “The euro is killing us,” Ungvari said. “My dollars [disappear] a lot more quickly than they used to. Maybe I don’t need to buy 10 SKUs from a particular designer, but only five or six.”

Nevertheless, Ungvari continues to stay loyal to the luxe labels that sell, such as Pierre Hardy, Givenchy and Chloé. On the top of her wish list is Christian Louboutin, but Ungvari can’t stock the collection because the designer already has a shop in the neighborhood. “I’m obsessed with Christian. He makes the sexiest shoes,” said Ungvari.

On the other hand, the retailer chooses not to carry luxe heavyweights such as Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo. “They’re nice, but they’re not our customer,” she said.

So who is her customer? “She’s the girl who is really fashion forward. She has an edge to her,” Ungvari said. “She comes to Diavolina to find what’s not in department stores. I buy differently and take more risks.”

While she prides herself on making bold decisions, Ungvari — who does her buying in New York, Las Vegas, Milan and Paris — isn’t always willing to gamble on emerging talent.

“I’m young and I want to support young designers, but a lot of them start out really expensive. And they don’t have a name, so the customer doesn’t understand what they’re paying for. So right now, it’s a little too risky for me.”

Still, the footwear fanatic — she owns close to 500 pairs and has a separate room at home for her collection — is always on the hunt for the next big star. “Nicholas Kirkwood is one of my favorites. His shoes are brilliant; they’re art pieces,” she gushed.

But high fashion doesn’t necessarily mean high prices, according to Ungvari.

“With the euro the way that it is, we’re really trying to have a [selection] of shoes that aren’t so expensive,” she said. “When I started out in 1998, I would never dare put a made-in-China shoe in my store. Now, the quality has gotten so much better.”

Report Signature and Dolce Vita are two affordable, trend-right lines that are selling briskly at Diavolina, especially among younger consumers. “The younger girls who come to [Robertson], their parents won’t let them buy shoes that are $700,” she said. “But they can buy these lines.”

Ungvari is also finding that many of her upscale customers are snapping up the less-pricey collections. “For my girls who really are label whores, they’ll buy the Dolce Vita sandal as an add-on to the $700 Givenchy shoe.”

The retailer has also been beefing up her non-footwear assortment.

While shoes still get a prime spot in the front of the store, apparel and accessories also occupy a large part of the bright, elegant selling space, which evokes a living room-like feel with leopard-print carpeting and plush white couches.

Ungvari said her high-low formula works well with apparel, too. Trendy denim lines such as J Brand, Ksubi and Grey Ant are merchandised alongside dresses from Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang and Vivienne Westwood.

Though the retailer said she is finding success with her revamped product mix, she acknowledged that business is challenging due to the weak economy. “We have some really good days and some really bad days,” Ungvari said.

Competition from nearby department stores — which have been highly promotional this year — is also a worry for Ungvari. “We obviously don’t get the foot traffic they get, or the discounts they get from vendors,” she said. “It’s hard to compete with someone so big and so massive with such a large clientele.”

While Ungvari is clearly grappling with the challenges of being an independent in today’s climate, she remains upbeat about the future.

“With Bush getting out of office and hopefully the economy getting better, I’m hoping [things will improve],” she said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”


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