Making Richmond a Richer Shopping Experience

LaDiff is a stunning 50,000-square-foot home décor and contemporary furniture store spread across three floors in a beautiful iconic building in downtown Richmond, Va. Defying all odds, its selection of modern and contemporary furniture has become a haven for those craving furniture with clean, unfussy lines.

LaDiff is a stunning 50,000-square-foot home décor and contemporary furniture store spread across three floors in a beautiful iconic building in downtown Richmond, Va. Defying all odds, its selection of modern and contemporary furniture has become a haven for those craving furniture with clean, unfussy lines.

LaDiff: The Name Sets the Mood

Andy Thornton, the store’s founder and president, named the store LaDifférence after working in Haiti, basing the moniker on a Haitian motto: “Haiti, Vive la Différence.” The French pronunciation created challenges and proved a bit tricky for some people over the years. Employees answering the phone had trouble with it, often resorting to the American pronunciation of “difference.” So they decided to make a change. “For years, when running into ‘regulars’ around town, they would proudly speak about their ‘LaDiff home.’ The nickname became almost more common than the original.” So, they officially changed the name to LaDiff in 2014. “Everyone called us that anyway,” said Sarah Paxton, the retailer’s co-owner and vice president of sales and marketing. “At last, the name will fit the mood of the store: fun and happy, while still having the spirit of being and feeling different.”

A Legend is Born

Richmand, Virginia Gift Shop: Vive LaDifference owner Andrew Thornton was an ambitious Englishman who had lived in London, Paris, New York, Rio, and California. He had travelled the world at age 25 and reportedly hitchhiked across the U.S. eight times (once with a golden retriever). He was about to leave a job in Haiti, where he had overseen the production of handcrafts and baskets for export to the U.S. Foreseeing the desire for such products in his adopted hometown of Charlottesville, Va., he decided to import a container of goods before he left.

As the order progressed, he realized that the business would need a storefront, so he set up shop in a 2,000-square-foot space in very traditional Charlottesville. LaDifférence, Inc. was born. Of course, there were naysayers who said that a store like this would never last in Charlottesville.

LaDiff originally got its start in 1980, when futons, flip chairs, and Danish lighting summed up the entire world of contemporary furniture. Since then, in a world where a gallon of gas and a cup of coffee cost about the same, we’ve seen shabby chic, retro modern, cottage transitional, European sleek, and ethnic eclectic all become accepted as contributing elements to modern design.

In 1982, in its second year, the store was doing well and doubled in size, growing from 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet. Modern furniture and housewares of the lifestyle variety (futons, flip chairs, and espresso machines) took over from baskets and Haitian handcrafts.

In 1987, as it outgrew the original space, the store moved to a 15,000 square foot space. Two floors allowed for more room for a full-fledged kitchen department, bed and bath section, lots of gifts, lighting, closet systems, and much more furniture.

In 1992, with a customer base building in the state capital of Richmond, LaDiff looked east for a second location, choosing Richmond because of its great history and because the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood had always been an epicenter of activity. Even before the arrival of Richmond’s early settlers, the area was a hub of Native American life. After a test sale event in the somewhat desolate, unpopulated area of Tobacco Row, LaDiff settled into a tiny storefront for its second location.

For several months, the store was staffed by Charlottesville employees who made the hour-long commute five days a week. LaDiff’s loyal Richmond customer base was pleased to have a small taste of LaDiff in their hometown. A year later, responding to their customers’ pleas, and taking a gamble, LaDiff moved into a larger 10,000-square-foot space in Tobacco Row.

When the lease in Charlottesville came up for renewal the following year, Thornton and Paxton saw it as an opportunity for reinvention. They made the difficult decision to close the Charlottesville store and operate solely in Richmond. Shortly after, they took over the second floor of the Phillip Morris building, where they had been located, renovating it themselves.

In 1998, the building they occupied was sold and they had just nine months to find a new home. After searching the area, they discovered a “for sale” sign on an old, dilapidated warehouse building. The warehouse, originally destroyed by fire in 1865, then rebuilt in 1895, became the home of the Davenport Tobacco Factory. In 1911, the building was purchased and refurbished into a hardware factory and was occupied until 1972.

After touring the building, which had been empty since 1972, and envisioning it filled with colorful furniture from around the world, the retailers were hooked. The building went from purchase to occupancy in just six months. At a special press event with dignitaries, media, and politicians, then mayor, now Senator Tim Kaine welcomed the newly renovated building with LaDifférence as the largest retailer to exist downtown since the migration and closure of two major department stores a few years earlier.

Overcoming Challenges

Some historical footnotes are carved into one of the building’s original pillars. Dated December 7, 1941, a worker carved “We are at war.” Many years later, on September 11, 2001, a LaDiff employee added, “We are under attack.”

The business faced some challenges in 2003. While Hurricane Isabel set her sights on Richmond, two outdoor malls were opening at opposite sides of the city in the same month. September brought power outages, hundreds of felled trees, high winds, and new competition, as national retailers Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and others discovered Richmond. Thankfully, LaDiff gracefully survived the onslaught of the national chains and even expanded again in 2009, with Vive, LaDiff’s alter ego, which features Old World charm with the LaDiff attitude. Vive’s opening was a huge success, and continues to bring a different kind of worldly flair to the growing showroom.

Another expansion came in 2011 with an additional 7,000-square-foot satellite location on the other end of Richmond. Meanwhile, the new Shockoe Design District was bringing growing enthusiasm to the downtown area as a center for innovation, design, and creativity. With this growth in mind, Thornton and Paxton made the decision to close the new LaDiff location to focus on their downtown flagship store.

A Many Storied Store

There’s no place co-owner Andy Thornton would rather be. He couldn’t imagine settling along a commercial highway where most furniture stores are located, but he’d also be the first to admit it’s not perfect. Multi-level furniture stores typically lose customers along the way up.

The first floor, dedicated mostly to living room furniture, rugs, gifts, entertainment systems, and a new elaborate outdoor area, sees the most action. The second floor, with lighting and dining room and bedroom furniture, gets a lot of traffic, too. But the third floor has its problems. Thornton created a LaDeals space on the third level, devoted to prices for starting level, creating vignettes that mimic studio apartments. They also created a few mini apartments in the LaDeals space to show patrons how it all comes together. That seems to have been key to appealing to younger consumers living in small downtown spaces.

Furniture, household accessories and gifts are the commodities they have chosen to sell. Fun, energy, and enthusiasm are what they call their “throw-ins.” It’s their vision that a visit to LaDiff be about the whole experience. Throughout the store, they use color, music, and a sense of humor to enhance the shopping experience.

Richmand, Virginia Gift Shop: Vive LaDifference Facts at a Glace:

Location: 125 South 14th Street, Richmond, VA 23219
Phone: 800-642-5074