On paper Altai, a new interior design and men’s apparel and accessories shop that opened its doors here last week, sounds straight out of “Portlandia”: It’s a high-end boutique run by a combination midwife-interior designer-landscape architect from the U.K. who also happens to dabble in custom furniture and high-end luxury menswear while her boyfriend builds bespoke motorcycles from the ground up in the back room.
But luckily for the city’s fashion-forward men and design junkies of both genders there’s no punch line -- just a whole lot of cool new merchandise, some of which is in a stateside bricks-and-mortar store for the very first time.
The space, which consists of an uncluttered 2,500-square-foot boutique in the front and an equal-sized furniture design and prototyping space in the back -- is the brainchild of Amaryllis Knight, a 36-year-old U.K. transplant who has lived in Los Angeles since 1998.
Trained as a doula, Knight is also a designer of landscapes, interior spaces, custom furniture -- even wallpaper. And to hear her tell it, there’s nothing at all incongruous about her varied skill set.
“Landscape, interior design, delivering babies -- it’s all the same thing for me,” Knight said during a recent tour of the store. “Being born into a connected environment is just as important as living in one.”
Knight describes a career path shaped by “growing up around architects” (her mother, Sabiha Rumani Malik, is a former director at Foster and Partners; her father, Andrew S.B. Knight, is a former editor of the Economist).
“I grew up in these Victorian houses with double-pane glass, so this is heaven,” she says, throwing her arms wide toward the front windows filled with SoCal sunshine. “And I was so captivated by the possiblity -- the potential and the ability -- to spend so much time outside and with no real division between inside and outside.”
This particular outside is located on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of West 3rd Street between Formosa and Cochran (next door to the Wine Hotel).
The inside of Altai (the store is named after a mountain range Knight drove through during a 2007 road trip from London to Mongolia) is a relatively spare and uncluttered space. But at the same time it seems to hold the particular electric charge of an unopened birthday present.
A $600,000 vintage motorcycle is parked near the front door. Another -- this one bright red and sporting a sidecar -- sits in the front window.
A handful of hanging racks line the painted brick walls. Neatly folded sweaters and trousers fill two immense tables in the center of the room, each one sturdy enough to display a Smart Car.
Make that a torpedo, actually. Knight, who designed all of the furniture in the boutique, says that what are now tables began life as torpedo bases. “I welded wheels to them to soften the look,” she said.
The racks and tables are filled with luxury sportswear and accessories by Christophe Lemaire, Raf Simons and Tim Coppens (all L.A. exclusives, according to Knight). There are also boxers from Sunspel, bird-print sweatshirts from AMI by Alexandre Mattiussi, and a wall full of luxurious leather bags by Want.
A particularly noteworthy line, and worth a visit alone since Altai is the sole U.S. store to stock it, is a U.K. label called Casely-Hayford. The collection of luxe, super-soft sportswear pieces -- think shawl collar shirt jackets, linen-cotton blazers, drawstring trousers and bright fruit-salad-pattern shirts -- is from father and son duo Joe Casely-Hayford and his son Charlie.
“Joe was the stylist and suit maker for the Clash and Lou Reed,” explained Knight. "And since 2005 he’s been the creative director of the Savile Row house Gieves & Hawkes. His son Charlie styles the likes of Nas and the XX."
The cash wrap is a counter of glass and enameled metal that stocks an impressive array of smaller toys for boys -- lighters, wallets and a blown glass slingshot with leather strap. There are also a bewildering number of backgammon sets to choose from, (Knight confesses she has a weakness for the game).
In addition to her own Altai brand, Knight’s furniture, industrial design and housewares exclusives for the L.A. area include the Issey Miyake and Artemide lighting collaboration, Benjamin Hubert, and limited-edition pieces by Paulo Mendes da Rocha.
And, for anyone who might have entertained the idea of going glamping but just couldn’t find anything high-profile and full-color enough, ALtai is also the first store in the U.S. to stock Field Candy’s limited-edition U.K.-made two-person tents printed to look like watermelon slices, circuit boards, leopard skin and the like.
Given Knight’s back story, the interior and furniture design part of the business certainly makes sense, but why menswear?
“I really like men’s clothes,” she said. “And I like to wear them myself. And from a design perspective mens[wear]is really interesting because it’s gone past the avant-garde, shock-factor novelty thing. More men are genuinely interested in menswear.”
Knight said she took a survey of the L.A. retail landscape one day and realized there were some things seriously missing. “Why was no one carrying Raf Simons?” she remembers asking. (To help with the men’s fashion side of the business she hired a woman named Teena Sahebi, formerly of Opening Ceremony, to serve as her fashion director.)
Toiling away in the back is Knight’s fiance Ian Barry (they’re set to marry this summer), who has been painstakingly building a series of 10 one-off motorcycles called the Falcon Ten (and when we say “build” we mean designing and making all but the tires and engines -- from scratch).
What kind of demographic do they think the eclectic mix will appeal to? Sahebi said the sweet spot is the “20- to 30-year-old guy who isn’t interested in just ‘fashion by the numbers.’”
Knight’s newest endeavor may sound quirky, but there’s no denying that the doula-designer has delivered a must-visit addition to L.A.'s fashion and design scene.
And we think we’re going to love watching this baby grow up.
Altai at 5810 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.