Stella Adena, shown with a mural by Sofia Enriquez, celebrates place with items for people and their homes.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUNE KIM
A neon yellow roadrunner illuminates the entryway at Rancho Relaxo in Rancho Mirage. Like a lot of the wares available at this eclectic boutique, the light fixture was fabricated by an artisan based in California. Storeowner Stella Adena custom-ordered it for the shop from Lisa Schulte of Nights of Neon to commemorate one year in business this past November. It wasn’t the year she expected, to be sure, but she made the most of it — aligning with area artists, promoting craftspeople with interesting stories, and cultivating community through the lockdown.
In a society where mass production rules, it can be easy to forget that somebody (or some entity) benefits every time we buy something. That could be a major corporation, or it could be an independent maker from your neighborhood. “I wanted to tell that story so the consumer can understand the value and really celebrate the craftsmanship,” Adena says. “The vendors and artisans I work with are not only creating big, beautiful things, but they’re doing it in a sustainable, culturally significant way.”
The Ohio native, who has lived in the Coachella Valley for a decade, cut her tastemaking teeth in Manhattan. However, her foray into merchandising was anything but ordinary. Adena studied economics and Japanese at Princeton University and worked in investment banking before moving to Silicon Valley in the early 2000s to become a senior analyst with LookSmart, a Google competitor.
“I left work one day, and I knew it wasn’t what I wanted,” she recalls. “I was wandering downtown San Francisco, and I saw a sign for Academy of Art. I went in.”
Despite a lifelong interest in fashion magazines, she acknowledges the retail industry was so far off her radar that she didn’t realize “buying” was a career. That changed when she stumbled into Academy of Art University and struck up a conversation with a woman who happened to be head of the fashion department. Adena enrolled and in 2004 earned a master’s degree in fashion at 28 years old.
New York beckoned. It was autumn, arguably the most magical time in the big city, and Adena felt reinvigorated. She wasted no time, bypassing coffee-slinging internships for a merchandising job in the accessories department at Liz Claiborne.
A series of serendipitous opportunities propelled Adena up in rank at Limited Brands, Henri Bendel, and Polo Ralph Lauren. Then, she landed in the desert at KSL Resorts.
As the private equity firm’s director of retail buying for almost nine years, Adena oversaw the buying, planning, and trend forecasting for 50 stores at destination resorts around the world, including La Quinta Resort & Club. In this position, she learned to source products that underscored the nuances of each locale. “All of the resorts really wanted to ensure that their sense of place was honored,” she says. “That means not buying for La Quinta the same way you would buy for Hotel del Coronado.”
Adena adopted the resort-retail mindset when she opened Rancho Relaxo in November 2019, selling leisure, celebrating place, and creating guests for life.
The cheery shop, located at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, took over 3,600 square feet previously occupied by Coachella Valley Repertory. “It was super dark because it was a theater,” Adena says. “But when you took off all the wall coverings, you realized it was surrounded by windows. It was pretty cool.”
Her team gutted the place. However, they left one area intact — the theater’s original dressing rooms now serve as a fitting area. A statement wall in this section features a mural by local artist Sofia Enriquez. Work from other Southern California artists, including Ryan Campbell of Cathedral City, is also on display.
Though she vends products from makers around the globe, Adena’s focus is expanding the store’s selection of homegrown goods. “It goes back to the humanizing of our industry, that there are actual people behind a product,” Adena says. “That’s where I doubled down on opening my doors to the local community.
“Working with local artisans has given me so much joy.”
I try to let people know that their dollars are staying here. Now, I have customers coming in, saying, ‘I decided I didn’t want to go to Target today. I wanted to shop local.’ It’s definitely a movement in its nascency.”
With everything from apparel and accessories to home goods and holistically minded gifts, there are plenty of treasures to be discovered. Rancho Relaxo logoed T-shirts are Adena’s bestsellers. She recently debuted a graphic tee designed in collaboration with Campbell. “This is the first of many local artist collaborations,” she shares. Other locally made items on offer include resin sculptures by Jennifer Pangacian-Lara of Club Time Warp, moon phase wall hangings by Angela Aviles of Cactus & Clay, and botanical skincare balm by Desert Supreme. In January, she also teamed up with a sourdough bagel vendor, The Bagel Drop, which uses Rancho Relaxo as a pickup location for online pre-orders.
More than commercial transactions, Adena hopes to create a community gathering space.
“When I first started, I was doing Third Thursday cocktail parties with a DJ and a bartender. We did Second Sunday sound baths.” Then, the world upheaved. Four months after the store’s opening, California entered into its first stay-at-home order, and Adena’s plans had to pivot. Through it all, she did not lose sight of the Rancho Relaxo mission. “I don’t want to be doom and gloom,” she says. “That’s not the story I’m telling. I’m selling a bit of a dream. I’m trying to sell hope. I’m trying to sell rainbows. I want to be picking people up.”
Gatherings may be paused for now, but Adena continues to cultivate unique and lasting experiences for each guest who visits the shop or connects through social media.
“Working with local artisans has given me so much joy,” she says. “Some of my artisans are more tenured, but many started creating and selling in the last year in response to all that has happened. And to see customers open their wallet and get behind these items is such an amazing vote of confidence from the universe.”