Wednesday, May 28, 2008

She saw me coming

I am pretty much immune to shopping in malls and department stores. I have a little bit of a weak spot for online sites like Zappos, but I've learned to temper myself.

But there's one particular kind of store that I am a total sucker for. I don't even know how to categorize it. It's the unique store, the one that's imprinted with the character of its owner. It's the store with the one-of-a-kind collection, and the proprietor that has a passion for her work. And sometimes it's a little goofy. A little strange. It's the odd-ball boutique. Those are the stores where I can't help myself.

There was that place in Edmonton, Alberta, the local designer's boutique, where I bought that "fun" cardigan with the knit checkered pattern and the green collar and cuffs.

Remember the sari shop in Artesia, California, where the proprietor told me she knew just the right salwar kameez for my coloring? She had her assistant measure me right there to sew elastic into the waist of the trousers. They told me to go windowshopping and come back in a half hour - and the alterations were done. They fit perfectly.

The French milliner's shop in pre-Katrina New Orleans, where I bought the most wonderful raincoat EVER. I wear it whenever it rains in L.A. - which is hardly ever. On a later visit, three exquisite blouses and a citron colored parrure (necklace and earrings).

The odd little store on West Broadway in SoHo, where the owner wore blue and white makeup on her face and talked me into buying a scarf and a crocheted cardigan, telling me that she'd sold one just like it this morning to Meryl Streep. I told my friend Marla about it, and she gasped and said she'd been conned into buying something there the same way! (note: we both LOVE what we bought)

I date this weakness of mine even back as far as the early '80's, when I put layaway down on an exquisite black wool jersey skirt and cardigan I saw at the original Opus 204 shop in Seattle - when it really was at 204 Broadway. It took three months to pay it off, but I still wear it. Since Opus has now closed I'll cherish these timeless fashions even more.

Well, today, at the end of my excursion exploring downtown LA and its odd mixture of cheap wholesale novelties, jewelers, electronic stores, and art galleries, I walked past the lot where I'd parked my car, thinking - "Let me just see what this next block is like," before heading back home.

It looked promising. There was a bar/cafe on the corner, and I thought for a brief moment of going in and having a glass of wine and a snack. But I walked on. A Vietnamese restaurant - oh, that looks like something worth going to another day. And walked on past the next storefront -

Hey! that's a pretty dress in the window!

Potted plants in the entry, and benches, and a cat curled up on a chair. When the cat saw me stop and look at the window display, it leapt off the chair and into the door, as if leading me onward.

And as soon as I stepped into the shop, I knew I was going to walk out of there lighter in the wallet.

Golden yellow painted walls. Shabby furniture. Paintings and framed mirrors on the wall. Dresses hung on racks made of copper plumbing pipes. The cat. Another cat. A chandelier. The ceiling dressed with white muslin, tucked and tied to look like clouds above.

I was greeted by the proprietor - Her name is Stella. She was tall, rawboned like a North Dakota farmwife, and wearing a flowing red silk dress. Her greying hair was braided with multicolored ribbons, and she had them tied up in a high, loose pony tail on top of her head. She asked if I was looking for something particular. She had an accent. I'm a sucker for eccentric ladies who wear their own design in clothes and speak in accents.

I said, no, I was just walking by and your shop caught my eye. I was trying to lay down a rhetorical line of escape. It didn't work.

Her clothes were exquisite. A lot of black clothes; dresses with lace insets, over-jackets; you could tell the quality of the fabric. A few colorful pieces; one rack of flowing, floral-patterned dresses in georgette, chiffon, crisp sateen cotton. Hats, in velvet, with veils and silk flowers.

There was another customer there, obviously a regular and a friend. The three of us chatted. Did I live downtown? No? Did I like it here? Did I visit often? Stella told me she made all the clothes herself, there in that shop. She made clothes for many regular customers. I knew I was doomed. I moved toward the rack of dresses, and picked out one that was a twin of the window display - "Can I try this one on?"
The dress did not fit me properly. It was too tight in the waist - I'm thick-waisted. But the fabric was silky to the touch; the skirt flowed gracefully and spun out if I twirled. Despite the fact that the buttons gaped down the front, the cut of the waist and the picture collar made my waist look nipped in far more than it really is.

I frowned at the mirror, and there was a silence. Then, Stella came toward me. "That color is no good for you. But what about this?" she draped a swath of fabric over my body.

She said, "I can take your measurements and make a dress for you with this."

Oh my.

We talked. Her friend gave me a little black velvet hat with a veil to try on (I'm not a hat person, but it looked...intriguing). Stella said she bought the rayon print she showed me down the street in the fashion district. There are so many fabric stores, but she has her regulars. This print just caught her eye a couple of days ago. Her friend was working with the L.A. Conservancy for a downtown event at the Million Dollar Theatre. We talked about their Last Remaining Seats series. Stella talked about living across the street in the old hotel. She said she used to be in New Orleans before coming to L.A. I told her about the French milliner's shop I knew - she knew them, too. She talked about designing costumes for a cabaret revue show. She showed me a dress she made for another customer, waiting for her to pick it up. She said, "When I buy fabric, I have a picture of her in my mind," touching her forehead. "I must have bought this fabric" - she held it up - "for you before I knew you."

As we talked, I walked about the store and looked at the other clothes, and felt the silky skirt flow and swirl around my legs. "So how much would I have to put down, and how long would it take for you to make me a dress?"

The dress will be ready in a week. I'll show you when it comes.


KathyR said...

I haven't had a dress made for me since my mother stopped sewing for me when I was in middle school.

Looking forward to seeing the final product!

JCK said...

What exciting adventures you have! See, if you hadn't taken that walk a little further past the car....

Can't wait to see the finished dress!

DaveyWaveyGoodAsGravy said...

"I'm a sucker for eccentric ladies who wear their own design in clothes and speak in accents." You and me both!