By Karen Billing
After 30 successful years in the menswear boutique business, one of the most common question Yvonne DiChiara fields is “Why did you pick men’s?”
The easy answer, the owner of Durante’s Menswear on Camino Del Mar in the village says, is: She didn’t, really. It kind of picked her.
When DiChiara started Durante’s in 1983, she was one of the only retail games in town. There were only two other retail shops — one bikini shop and one other clothing shop — and the Del Mar Plaza didn’t exist yet. While riding her bike through the village one day she stopped into one of the local retail shops and expressed how much she’d love to have a spot like theirs.
The shop owner pointed her toward a vacant storefront and suggested menswear because the men’s department of his store had fared so well.
“It was successful immediately,” DiChiara said.
At first, she admits, she didn’t really know what men wanted to wear. A surfer since age 12, the sporty DiChiara had always gotten along great with guys and found that by having an easy rapport with men, finding out what they liked helped dictate what she carried in the store. Over the years she’s developed somewhat of a “clothing psychology”— that and a devotion to high-quality customer service has allowed her store to continue being the “Del Mar tradition” that it is.
“I’ve never had a time where I hated it. Sometimes it’s frustrating but in general I like what I do,” said DiChiara of her 30 years in the village. “ I think it’s a fun store, I love working with men, I think they’re fun and they appreciate the help and it makes it worth it.”
Very little about the actual store has changed since the 1980s, although the entrance used to be on the side, accessed through an alley shared with a neighboring jewelry shop. A nearby restaurant fire six months after she opened resulted in heavy smoke damage and prompted the landlord to remodel.
An architect came into Durante’s, leaving the one brick exposed wall that had always been there but adding the wood beam details, switching the entrance to the front, adding the glass tiles and putting in the wood-framed windows on the side. The look is distinctly Del Mar.
“All of the décor, the way it looks, has been the same since it opened 30 years ago. It was the same philosophy my dad had,” DiChiara said, referencing the candy factory her father owned for 40 years in South Jersey. “It’s been a timeless design.”
The secret to Durante’s longevity is rooted in “extra mile” customer service.
“Anyone who comes in here comes back, it’s a good experience for them and they remember that,” DiChiara said.
Men buy basic things and they repeat what they buy, she said. They’re simple — they want to look different but they don’t want to look stupid and, most importantly, they want to be comfortable.
“Men are loyal customers,” DiChiara said. “They don’t like to shop, they like to know they can come get something and go. They’ve kept supporting me for many years, they trust me.”
As there’s not a lot of men’s stores anymore, she tries to be a little different in what she offers. Because of that trust established with her customers, she said they tend to listen to her better than they might a wife or girlfriend. She said she really does more consulting than selling and she won’t sell anything to them if she knows they’re not going to love it.
“She’s one of the best merchants ever,” said loyal customer and longtime Del Mar resident Gary Cantor. “I’ve been a customer here forever, she’s the best. For guys that like casual wear at a fair price, it’s the only place to shop.”
Cantor said DiChiara has found the perfect niche — her clothes are not too much on the dressy side and not too “beachy,” just a happy balance somewhere in the middle.
“The brands she carries are unique and not the same old stuff you’d see in any store,” Cantor said.
DiChiara said she isn’t sure she would be able to survive long if she just opened the store today. She said she has history and loyalty on her side that have helped her thrive.
She has the experience behind her to offer opinions on how to make a better business community for Del Mar and she has applied to be on the city’s new advisory committee to generate ideas on how to make the village more business-friendly.
“It’s unfortunate that the train station is not here anymore, we should’ve never changed that stop, it was a way to bring people to town,” DiChiara said. “... It’s hard to run a business in a town when nobody comes.”
DiChiara said she hopes she will be selected for the committee so she can help the village thrive. She said she would love to see more people in the village and be able to toast more businesses’ 10th, 20th, or, with hope, 30th anniversaries.’
Durante’s is located at 1412 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, 92014; (858) 755-0116.