Rafael Gardeazabal, co-owner and manager of a leading 70-year-old menswear store in Bilbao, was elected as the new president of bilbaoDendak on April 29, this year. An expert in the retail sector, he belongs to the third generation of a family business to which he has devoted his entire career. He studied in the United States (Philadelphia) where he earned a degree in marketing. Since 1992, he and his two cousins have been running Derby Gardeazabal, the family shirt and tailoring business founded by his grandfather in 1948.
Rafael Gardeazabal is an ardent defender of specialist stores and personal customer service. They are a pillar of the local economy which, in his role as president of the Bilbao Dendak platform for promoting retail and tourism in Bilbao, Gardeazabal is working to revitalize, improve and grow. The Bilbao Dendak platform has over 2,000 members.
‘The standard of retailing in Bilbao is very high. The people of Bilbao have always had a reputation for being honest and straight-forward, and this is reflected in our stores. Globalization has changed things somewhat, but distinctive, quality retailers still exist in Bilbao,’ explains Rafael Gardeazabal.
‘In a megalopolis, if you look around, you can’t tell whether you are in London or Paris. Everything looks the same. But in Bilbao, you can still find pockets of authentic independent retailers, stores with a soul and personality of their own. There are lots of them in the Old Town, the city centre and in other areas around the city,’ adds the Bilbao Dendak president.
Shops with personality
‘It’s hard to find such a good range of shops in other big cities. It’s true. Take Cardinal for example. Cardinal is run by a team of professionals who put together their own collections every year. They venture off the beaten track in search of timeless, non-commercial garments that appeal to their sense of taste. And they are unique,’ says the member of three generations of tailors.
If he were visiting Bilbao, he knows exactly what he would buy as a souvenir. ‘One of our locally-produced Txakolis has just been voted the best white wine in the world, so I’d buy a bottle or two. Our canned fish and vegetables, and cheeses are also very good. I’d definitely buy clothes. Bilbao is one of the few places where you can find something other than mainstream fashion. There are some great, really distinctive, unusual shops. We need to keep it like this and protect them. It’s our unique selling point. And this applies to menswear too,’ he says with conviction.
Gardeazabal admits that he searches for unique items when he travels. ‘Two years ago I bought a suit in Stockholm. When I travel, I always check out the shopping district wherever I go. What I look for is streets of shops with authentic, local flavour. That way, you get to know the people, see how they dress and what they like.’
Bilbao needs more events
He explains that Bilbao is made up of very contrasting neighbourhoods. ‘You need to remember that, these stores originally opened to cater for the people who lived in the immediate area. That’s why they are so specialized. I buy what I need in my own neighbourhood. This kind of trade is a life source for the city. You won’t find the same merchandise in Matiko as in Deusto.’
He acknowledges that ‘Bilbao retailers may not yet have bought into the idea that there is more to tourism in Bilbao than visiting the Guggenheim and Old Town. There are some tourists who explore the whole city on foot and then head off further afield, to Getxo, Plentzia or somewhere else.’
Rafael Gardeazabal underlines the need for more events in Bilbao. ‘Last year we hosted a long list of events including, among others, the European rugby finals, the MTV awards ceremony, and the 50 Best Restaurants annual gala. We need more events for this year and next. Not only promotional events, we need more private ones too. Maybe the association should get involved in promoting events ourselves.’
Apart from calling for more events, the Bilbao retailers’ representative stresses the need for visitors to spend more time in the city. ‘The average stay per guest stands at 2.1 days at the moment. In two days, with all the other things to do and see in the city, it’s hard to find time to go shopping. If we could get them to stay a bit longer, it might be easier. Apart from visiting the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, the Guggenheim, Artxanda, and the Old Town, they’d have time to check out some of our very unique stores. For that to happen, our retailers need to keep them like that.’
One of the possibilities they are studying involves ‘designing shopping tours for tourists, similar to culinary tours. Although making shopping attractive is always a challenge, we need to come up with something.’