Leave it to Palm Beach to turn trash into chic

January 15, 1992|By Lore Croghan | Lore Croghan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PALM BEACH, Fla. There's trash for sale on Worth Avenue. And guess what? It's gorgeous.

At Naturalis the new kid on the block in South Florida's toniest retail district recycled flotsam is art. Discarded metal junk is made into splendid sculptures of birds and beasts. Fallen tree branches are built into one-of-a-kind coat racks. Scrap paper is transformed into featherweight jewelry.

These pieces are part of an elegant merchandise mix to help fashionable folks live well in the 1990s. The store's name, in Latin, means "the law of nature." Respect for nature is the key to this new lifestyle.

"The product must be made from or contain recycled elements, or be environmentally safe, or make a statement or be sympathetic toward the environment, ecology, the preservation of wildlife or the well-being of the world in general," says Gareth Whitehead, president and co-owner of the Palm Beach company along with his wife Hattie, the company vice president.

A mouthful, this mission statement, and one that encompasses a broad range of products: furniture, table settings, bed linens, toys, makeup, jewelry, clothing, objets d'art and cars.

Yes, cars. The Whiteheads wanted an electric or solar-powered car in their inventory, but found the idea impractical and opted for 1992 S-Class model Mercedes-Benzes. The cars are made mostly of recyclable parts, painted with water-soluble paint and equipped with air conditioners that don't use ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

They keep a Mercedes on display right inside the store.

There are thoughtful details in every corner. Biodegradable golf tees that disintegrate in 24 hours. Clothing made of cotton grown without insecticides. Hand-stitched horsehair mattresses that conform to body contours and make it easier to get a good night's sleep.

And a Parisian designer, Christophe Chanez, is on staff to go to customers' homes and show them how to fit Naturalis furnishings into their decorating schemes.

High style is what holds together the store, which is a reflection of the combined expertise of this husband-and-and-wife team: Ultra Chic meets Earth First.

Before they got together four years ago, Gareth Whitehead co-owned a pioneering newspaper-recycling business in London. Hattie Whitehead was a past president of Elizabeth Arden's retail division and owned high-fashion clothing boutiques in Palm Beach and elsewhere.

They financed the venture with their own money. "It would be ludicrous to go to a banker in the '90s and ask for him to finance a retail concept that's unknown," she says.

They spent a lot of time explaining their concept to potential landlords, who often misunderstood the merchandise and said, "Who is gonna pay money for a rock?"

Eventually, they want to expand. They say the West Coast and ecologically aware countries such as Germany, Sweden and Japan would be good places to go. The first priority, though, is to create a mail-order catalog.

They think that style, ultimately, is what will win the day for their store.

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