The Garden Room - Celebrating 40 Years in Austin
When The Garden Room first opened, in 1979, Austin’s population was just over 340,000 – a college town with a political scene and a handful of technology companies. “This area was old Austin and everybody knew everybody,” Patty Hoffpauir says. The store’s original Jefferson Square location, a stone’s throw from where it is now, was largely a gift shop, with a brass restoration workshop, until Hoffpauir introduced a few lines of clothing. “We were only 900 square feet; people would use my office as a dressing room,” Hoffpauir says.
At the time there wasn’t much of anything comprising an Austin fashion scene. “I don’t know how to nicely say this, but it was just cookie cutter clothes – there was no creativity in them,” Hoffpauir says. She bought The Garden Room outright from her partners, introduced a line of hand-dyed silk, and a line of knits from Russ Berens, and expanded into a larger space. “I met and brought a new designer into the store, a man by the name of David Dart. He was doing real loose-fitting, he called them ‘field dresses.’ It was oversized, it was long skirts and tops that weren’t waisted,” Hoffpauir says. Stores like Neiman Marcus soon followed her lead.
Hoffpauir was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in Dallas, her mother the owner of a children’s shop in Irving, and her grandparents proprietors of a woman’s shop and furniture stores. “I kind of grew up in retailing,” Hoffpauir says. After Louisiana State University she made her way through Sanger-Harris’s Federated Executive Training Program in Dallas. “I was trained in clothing,” Hoffpauir says, “I liked the turnover, I liked the pressure of clothing and the seasons.”
Hoffpauir’s instincts for buying and her love of working with clients helped establish The Garden Room as a go-to shopping destination. While the 1980s saw other fashion outposts like San Antonio’s Frost Bros. and Laredo’s Joe Brand come and go from Austin, The Garden Room continued to grow and Hoffpauir added their iconic awning to emphasize a core philosophy. “We put a striped awning on the outside of the store to kind of casual it up because people had a misconception of the store. They’ve always thought of it as very expensive, and it doesn’t need to be expensive to be a good value,” Hoffpauir says.
She shopped the markets in New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles, searching for new concepts to bring to the Austin customer. “Nothing was happening in fashion here. I would go to market and half the people on the east coast, when I’d go to New York, didn’t know where Austin was. They’d never heard of it. They thought you were saying ‘Boston,’” Hoffpauir says, “But slowly, the independent spirit of Austin became well-known. I had a designer tell me, we all watch to see what you’re buying because Austin is such a special place and we can’t figure it out, but we know we’re going in that direction.”
The Garden Room started to make a mark on the Austin fashion scene, and the city’s population continued to grow. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s everything was changing,” Hoffpauir says, “It was like everybody was walking around in little pleated skirts and sweaters… and because Austin was so small, a lot of people didn’t get out of their little box. As more people came in from California, the east coast, west coast, you’re exposed to a lot more, and you travel more and those people bring in ideas. They want more, they’ve been places.”
“I think what makes Patty an excellent merchant is her curiosity, her keen eye, and her ability to connect with people,” says Suzanne Collier, founder of S. Collier Showroom in Dallas. “She loves shopping the markets, staying current and bringing in fresh new product.” Nina Means, Director of the Austin Community College Fashion Incubator, agrees. “Patty is truly a visionary. She is constantly innovating and staying on the edge in the latest trends,” Means says. “The Garden Room has been a mainstay in the Austin boutique scene — foundational, really. It has stood the test of time through very tumultuous times in retail and brick-and-mortar.”
Some of those tumultuous times came in the early 1990s, as the US economy fell into recession. “It was difficult,” Hoffpauir says, “Thank goodness we had people at banks that believed in us.” Loyal customers, too, believed in them, helping bolster the store. “The ‘80s you couldn’t buy enough, but then this recession hit, and people were just buying what they needed,” Hoffpauir says, “So you start thinking what is it that you’re going to need, and what will you be coming to me for? And that dictates what you buy.”
Hoffpauir’s keen buying has long been part of what sets The Garden Room apart. “Her knowledge of this crazy business we are in is outstanding,” says Amy Harper, VP of Retail Development, Apparel & International at Dallas Market Center. “She knows what will work, what won’t and is always ready to try something new.” Lori Marchand of LA’s Impulse Moda Showroom echoes that, “What I really admire about Patty is that she’s never afraid of color and being creative with the layering of colors.”
Hoffpauir’s read on color proved especially useful during a notable visit by Texas Governor Ann Richards in the 1980s. “It was late afternoon and we had this bell on the door that would make a noise,” Hoffpauir says, “That door opened and this woman was right in front of me. As she was walking, she said, ‘I want that pant and blouse, but don’t give me any of those pond scum colors!’ Pond scum was that green that was so popular, but Ann Richards only wore red, cobalt blue, white, very seldom black, she wore only bright colors. So every time I look at that color, I think of her saying that. She had such authority in her voice. I was just standing there thinking, oh my god, what am I going to show her?”
Today, as the city of Austin’s population edges toward a million, The Garden Room remains a beacon of good fashion. “The Garden Room and Patty impact so many people’s lives because she knows fashion; she knows how to dress you,” Marchand says. Means concurs, “She understands her customers very well. She walked me around her store and showed me what she filled her store with and why she made those choices.”
After 40 years in the industry, Hoffpauir has honed her expertise. “Suddenly you wake up one morning, and you realize you’ve been doing this for a long time, and people look at you like you’re an authority of this,” Hoffpauir says. And she is — serving on advisory councils for UT Austin’s School of Human Ecology, the Dallas Market Center, and the Austin Community College Fashion Incubator and in 2012 winning the Austin Fashion Award’s Trailblazer Award. “It’s a wake-up call that I do have a lot of knowledge that I do need to share,” Hoffpauir says.
Of course she’s happy to share it, along with her fashion philosophies, emphasizing classic style with a twist. “I’ve always kind of had the philosophy that a woman doesn’t need to spend a lot of money on something to look good,” Hoffpauir says, “And she doesn’t have to have someone else’s initials on a bag, she doesn’t have to have logos all over her clothes. That’s always been my customer. She’s highly independent.”
And Hoffpauir’s longtime customers know they’re in good hands. “Patty is amazing,” Susie Dudley says. “She has been dressing me for 40 years and without the Garden Room and the Garden Room girls I would not have any clothes. I have things, particularly purses, I have had for well over 10 years and still love them.”
It’s this sentiment that fuels Hoffpauir to continually seek out new concepts and pieces that will long feel classic – perhaps even after a few more decades. “I’ve had people say, oh, I have something in my closet I bought from you 30 years ago. I love to hear that,” Hoffpauir says, “Or they say, I cleaned out my closet and I looked at the clothes I kept, and they were all from your store. To me, that’s the biggest compliment anybody can give me. That tells me that we bought good quality, that we weren’t too trendy, and that she loved it when she bought it and she still loves it today.”
Written by Nicole Beckley