Growing up, Rob Trauber spent only a couple of years in Westport.
But the town made enough of an impression on him that — more than 40 years later — he decided to open a new store here.
That’s significant. Trauber is not some fledgling shopkeeper. He’s the CEO of Johnny Was.
This Friday (July 3), the 56th store in the women’s California-inspired, women’s clothing and accessories chain debuts at 81 Main Street. It’s the first Johnny Was in Connecticut.
And Trauber’s 1970s youth has a lot to do with this location.
The former Kings Highway Elementary School student has fond memories of the riding his bike around town, and taking the minnybus to Longshore and Compo. He bought candy at Carmine’s smoke shop. He remembers those Jimmy Carter-era days as if they were yesterday.
Sure, Trauber’s family moved from Westport long ago. But he has retained his ties. Eight years ago, he built a house on Sturges. His brother-in-law lives here now, as does one of his best friends.
Johnny Was’ collections — one-of-a-kind kimonos, swimwear, denim jackets, pants, blouses and pajamas, along with jewelry, shoes and handbags — are in upscale places like Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.
Trauber has wanted to open in Westport. Yet until recently, he says, “rents were out of whack compared to volumes.”
Then a great space opened up, just past Lululemon. “It’s the right street, and the right area of the street,” he says.
Trauber lives now in San Marino. “It’s the closest thing in Los Angeles to Westport,” he says. “The people remind me of Westport.” There are even “East Coast trees,” like 100-foot oaks.
Though the retail world has shifted dramatically in recent years, Trauber — who worked for J. Crew when the Westport location was one of its top 5 in the nation — believes firmly in downtown.
“The irrelevant retailers are gone,” he says. “There’s a place for aspirational, luxury brands that have the feel of boutiques. Customers love to touch and feel things, try them on.”
His neighbors — like one of Anthropologie’s biggest stores, and Serena & Lily — are the types of places Johnny Was enjoys being near.
On his most recent trip “home,” Trauber drove by his old home near Cranbury Road. He put his daughters on a bench overlooking the pond he often skated on. Everything felt right.
His California executives are not traveling now, due to COVID-19. So the Manhattan-based team (and Trauber’s brother-in-law) will represent him at the July 3 opening.
He’ll miss seeing the bright murals, tile floor, reclaimed wood tables and bronze hardware. But he promises to be here soon.
Until then, he’s doing one special thing for Westport.
When he rode his bike into town for candy, Trauber sometimes did not have enough money. Carmine let him buy it “on account,” or gave it to him free.
To pay homage, for a limited time Johnny Was will provide free vintage candy to customers.
The Westport location has not even opened. But already we’re way cooler than Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.
BONUS FACTOID: The name of the chain comes from an old Bob Marley song, “Johnny Was a Good Man.”