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Retail by MONA’s Brandon Singer on the Luxury-Led Resurgence in Storefronts

What was that about a retail apocalypse? Let Brandon Singer explain why posh brands are bucking the trends

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It appears the comeback in retail, especially in New York City, is coming in luxury first.

The timeless appeal of stores with doors seems to be starting with luxury buyers, that is, with high-end goods merchants seeing their paths to sustainable profits being tied to certain parts of town and parts of streets known for supporting the very best — things that people want to taste, touch and experience before they buy. There is no online or e-commerce substitute for this. Think places like upper Fifth Avenue, the Meatpacking District or Madison Avenue in the 60s.

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It is occurring to purveyors of top-end items that associations with these posh places and spaces is essential. Which is why LVMH, the maker of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic medals, for example, reportedly has a lease out at 550 Madison Avenue. Or why Prada bought, rather than leased, its space at 724 and 720 Fifth Avenue.

It is still not clear if this is a beginning to a wider comeback in commercial real estate. The value of place has always been a part of why certain areas and neighborhoods have become known for a certain kind of company. It’s also why you will never see a company that thinks a lot of itself leasing so-called commodity space, which tends to be cheaper, older and in a not so prime location.

“It’s a core driver of the retail recovery in Manhattan,” said Keith DeCoster, director of market data at the Real Estate Board of New York, which publishes a twice-a-year survey of retail spaces in the city. “And, in Brooklyn, if you look at Williamsburg, the rebound is much needed. There’s a need to lease or purchase on prime corridors.”

A key driver is New York’s global position as a place where the ultra-rich and ultra-hip (the two are not interchangeable) go to shop, and they might fly in from other continents, he said. “People from all over the world come to New York City,” DeCoster said. “Areas of Beverly Hills and Dallas have seen this as well.”

One of the people who hopes to take advantage of Manhattan’s special place in the retail world is Brandon Singer. He is the founder and CEO of Retail by MONA, one of the newer brokerages hoping to ride this interest in luxury retail placemaking. His firm this spring found a long-term lease for Maison Goyard, a famous French leather goods maker, at 699 Madison Avenue, right around the corner from its current space at 20 East 63rd Street.

The 9,000-square-foot space will house both Maison Goyard’s selling space and corporate offices and will feature greater frontage and visibility than its old location. 

Other luxury deals in the last couple of years that Retail by MONA helped broker include Gucci at 45 Ninth Avenue in SoHo, fashion retailer LuisaViaRoma at 1 Bond Street in NoHo, watchmaker Breitling at 875 Washington Street in the Meatpacking District, and clothier Tanya Taylor at 980 Madison Avenue. 

In a mid-May call with Commercial Observer, Singer talked about the Goyard deal, including placing it in a wider context, and about Retail by MONA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Brandon Singer
Brandon Singer. PHOTO: Evelyn Freja/for Commercial Observer

Commercial Observer: Start by explaining some of the background on Retail by MONA, and why you see this as the “makings of a new age,” which is apparently what MONA stands for.
Brandon Singer: I don’t know how much you know about me, but I was at Cushman & Wakefield for a very long time. I’m 38 years old and I started MONA almost four years ago. While I was at Cushman & Wakefield, as you will recall, there was COVID and the retail apocalypse, and all the issues that retail was having with the Internet and e-commerce and social media. So what we did when we launched was take the ways of old and merged them with the ways of new.

We launched September of 2020, smack in the middle of the pandemic.

The way we marketed space, and our understanding of direct-to-consumer brands and how they grow and how they work, and the key elements of their expansion strategy, and when they were looking to get into brick and mortar — we were spot-on correct.

Retail is as hot as ever, and especially in New York. It’s been great. We’re about 30 people now.

So you know who Faith Hope Consolo was, and who Robert Futterman is — both once major forces in retail leasing.
Rest in peace for Faith. I know Robert’s trying to get back in the business, and I have a lot of respect for him. I had a lot of respect for Faith. But the business has changed. A lot of the brands that are massive and relevant, a lot of them are new. That’s our whole thesis.

So with the double whammy of the pandemic and e-commerce, retail was foundering. Maybe not as bad as office, but it had its problems. What did that period teach you?
It had its problems because it was archaic. It didn’t make sense. Now, with technology, you go into a store, and if they don’t have your size they go to another outlet that does have your size, and it shows up at your door several hours later or one day later.

That enabled retailers to make smarter and better real estate decisions. Smaller footprints, a better understanding of who their customer is, where deliveries are, things of that nature. The whole business changed with utilizing technology, utilizing direct-to-consumer, omnichannel strategy.

What the pandemic taught me — I’m a New Yorker. I believe that what you are seeing in the office world is exactly what has happened in the retail world: That retail was dead, it was never coming back; technology disrupted the way people in an entire industry, retail, thought.

I’m just one guy, but I think you will see office come back. It’s obviously going through a tough time right now.

The pandemic taught me to never bet against New York ever. For New Yorkers, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. One neighborhood gets soft, another gets very strong. Midtown gets slow because people weren’t going to work, but in places where people live — such as the Upper West Side or Upper East Side, the West Village, Tribeca — those are strong. It’s still the center of the world. What is it? Some 70 million visitors are coming to New York this year. Is that the projection

And, because of that, retail will continue to be on its trajectory of strength.

What do you guys bring to the table that the Faiths and Futtermans were not doing?
First and foremost, we have the relationships. We’re a New Age-focused brand. We have brokers who have 30-plus years in the industry. We also have brokers who are somewhat newer in their careers.

We know the real estate executives, but also the landlord side. You look at the signs that go to a phone that never rings. There’s five names on there, all forms of email. With us, it goes to the right person. We have the relationships, we have the know-how, we have the data.

One thing we can’t help but notice is that the luxury buyer seems to be leading what is happening, that they have not been content with just sitting on their couch and ordering things on their tablet, but want to actually go out and frequent stores. Why do you think that is?
For sure. I will tell you the luxury players have been on an absolute tear. It’s really cool to be a part of. We’ve done quite a few of the luxury transactions in New York.

People are going shopping for luxury goods. They want to be in the stores, they want to try things on. They want the experience. It’s to the credit of a lot of these brands. They’ve made the experience really enjoyable, with a café, food and beverage. You go in there and you have an interesting experience, other than just going shopping.

So talk to me a bit about this Maison Goyard deal. What does it say about the New York market and the need for physical stores?
I think it shows that the luxury brands are super-bullish on Madison Avenue and the neighborhood down the block and on the side street. With the help of Eric Le Goff, my partner, they were able to get this location, totally off-market, and they were able to make a deal to really secure it and lock it up. They are one of the hottest brands there are.

It’s just one of those deals — every year you are hoping you will get one or two of them. It’s kind of a special one that has bigger implications than just normal leases. It helps the city evolve in a way that speaks volumes about what is going on in New York with big brands betting on the city for a long time. They want to be here, they want to be on Madison Avenue.

We had the ability to offer them nine years, and they will be on Madison for a long time to come.

Why do you think luxury is hot right now? Why do you think luxury has disproportionately been out there making deals and shaking up the market?
What a lot of the luxury players as a whole have been really good at is seeing the trends with regard to the economy, or looking at equities or vehicles or watches or jewelry right now — you name it, things are through the roof. I’m looking at the stock market right now, and every day it seems like it’s going up and up and up. 

The luxury brands look at that, and they see the rich got richer, and, during the pandemic, instead of taking that trip, they bought a new watch or a new car. Since then, it’s kept on going.

It seems to be part and parcel to what we are seeing on the office side, this flight to quality. On Park and Sixth avenues, the office markets are as hot as they have ever been. But, in other places, they’re looking to convert to residential. So I was wondering if you are seeing a market tilted toward the 1 percent?
That’s a broader conversation. I do believe you’re seeing the affluent getting more affluent. That’s really the trend.

Luxury is not the only category that’s doing well. Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue — they’re the center of the retail world. But there are other streets that are strong. SoHo doesn’t have that luxury component, but it’s quite hot. 

Below Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue to 42nd Street, you’ve seen leasing velocity, and that’s not for the ultra-rich. That is a more premium type of retail — national retail, international retail, the Uniqlos of the world. They have a brand called Gu that’s hit the market. Miniso, they’re in the market. So there’s a lot of action there. That’s still Fifth Avenue, of course, but it’s not what we call the Gold Coast. 

What sort of lessons can be taken from New York, if you were trying to repopulate a Rodeo Drive or a Magnificent Mile, or some other high-end street elsewhere?
Cities are different. There are different micro-factors that affect these cities. But I do think that luxury retail is an outlier, no matter where you are.

You said your company is profitable, but I am curious how profitable it is? Do you see yourself staying profitable? And do you see MONA doing an IPO at some point?
Maybe one day we will IPO. We’re growing and growing in a measured way that really benefits our clients. That’s our strategy right now.

You can say we’ve done some $1 billion of transactions. Hopefully, we will beat that in the coming year.

Do you see MONA offices in every luxury market, or is New York enough?
It’s a great question. The world changes so quickly, so many things change at such a rapid clip, we need to be nimble and reactive in a way that makes the most sense for clients, because that’s really the most important part.

My ideas three and a half years ago when we started this company were great ideas, and I had a lot of them, but when I look back and see where we’re at, I say to myself, “Wow, that’s so much different than what I would have thought it would be.”

We will grow in a measured and responsible way to help our clients, whether that means being in every city in America and around the world, whether that means getting into different verticals, not just retail, or finding ways for customers to buy online. We’re thinking creatively.