In Denver, “Free Market” Is Trying to Reinvigorate Brick-and-Mortar Retail

By leveraging a street-front locale, chic design, and hip wares, this 11,000-square-foot venture is returning to retail's roots in bazaars and marketplaces.
Free Market denver design

Free Market is part of the Dairy Block “micro-district,” which was developed by Sage Hospitality, Grand American, Inc., and McWhinney. Courtesy Kylie Fitts Photography


Rather than bemoaning the scourge of empty storefronts and abandoned malls as the telltale demise of physical retail, the team behind Denver’s Free Market instead recognizes a different opportunity.

“I don’t think it’s dying, but I think it’s definitely being audited,” says Raan Parton, the co-founder of Apolis menswear and accessories company in Los Angeles that’s known for its social enterprise bent. Along with his wife, Lindsay Parton, the co-founder of Alchemy Works boutique in L.A. and Orange County, and business partner Paolo Carini, he assembled an intimate collection of ten retailers, community spaces, and buzzy culinary offerings under one roof in Lindsay’s hometown.

Free Market occupies 11,000 square feet of the Dairy Block, a new development in the city’s Lower Downtown (or “LoDo”) neighborhood. (This puts it within walking distance of Union Station and Coors Field.) The Dairy Block already includes the Maven Hotel, the Milk Market food hall, offices, and CTRL Collective co-working space. James Beard Award–nominated chefs Kelly Whitaker and Jeb Breakell’s casual cafe BØH and Brutø, a restaurant nestled within Free Market focusing on whole grain ingredients and a Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven, have set expectations high.

Free Market denver design

Courtesy Kylie Fitts Photography

At Free Market, a select group of sellers cover various product and service genres—the opposite of the traditional department store template. “I think we’re revisiting some of the fundamentals of what made commerce, merchants, and the synergy of them all together, successful—going back to the original bazaar, in a way,” says Raan. The physical shops and businesses themselves are relatively small and therefore amenable to customization. (This approach reflects the influence of the seminal L.A. multi-brand boutique Fred Segal.) In addition, Free Market eschews the traditional landlord arrangement in favor of collecting a percentage of sales. Overall, it’s designed to be a supportive experimental incubator; tenants are free to leave whenever they like.

With the appealingly eclectic nature of a food hall in mind—minus the high construction expense of building multiple small kitchens—the Partons and Carini wanted to “put energy into softening the space, create a high level of hospitality, and a destination food and beverage,” explains Raan. Harnessing their collective expertise in real estate and retail, the trio was in a unique position to leverage their relationships with entrepreneurs and creatives, including Jenni Kayne, Aesop, Westerlind, and Beautycounter (its first location outside of Manhattan).

Free Market denver design

Courtesy Kylie Fitts Photography

“Real estate is a cheaper way to acquire customers,” Carini posits. Moreover, the greater Denver area, with its population of approximately three million, is an underserved market, “full of very creative people” whose shopping and experiential interests haven’t been adequately met. In a bid to strengthen local ties, Free Market established a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver to host a rotating installation related to current programming.

Inside Free Market, each business can articulate its own identity without disrupting the cohesive whole. That’s thanks to the modular environmental design, by Denver architect Kevin Nguyen and the multidisciplinary L.A.-based Klein Agency. It was Klein Agency which engineered and fabricated the steel-and-glass partition system in Los Angeles and installed it on-site at Free Market. Sections of the system are engineered to integrate into display shelving as well. “Raan is an unbelievable connector of brands and ideas,” says Klein Agency co-founder Maša Kleinhample. “It’s been a fun exercise, because a lot of retail is plug and play and no one wants to think very hard about how they can make spaces feel more real and bespoke.” Among the various pieces Klein Agency devised are three long tables that convert into benches and can provide additional seating as needed for special events or during busy times at Brutø, for which Michael Towey of the California Workshop also designed custom stool seating.

The Partons already have a chance to further test and adapt the Free Market model in another place, since the market’s second iteration is in the works in L.A.’s Playa Vista area, in collaboration with Design, Bitches. “Since we wove this together with all the brands and the food and beverage to be complementary, it feels like there’s a through line and focus to it,” Raan notes.

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Categories: Hospitality Interiors