How do you keep yourself looking so fabulous? At age 73, Essence Magazine featured you in their annual issue of elderly beauties.
I only eat healthful foods, do Tai Chi, take colonics, and stay away from prescription drugs. Now, I’m into balancing a positive more holistic life. When I had my boutique I kept two personalities: one very upbeat for the store and the other very mellow at home.
Tell me about the boutique
“Studio 14A,”my boutique, which lasted 25 years, was born at my dining table when I was 42 years old. I was sitting and thinking about what I’d been doing all my life. I was not the corporate type although I’d been a forerunner in that, and although I had many interesting jobs I’d never really gotten into a career I enjoyed. Then I asked myself: “What have you been doing all your life that you really like? Fashion was the answer.
How did you begin?
The store was in the basement and later also included the first floor of our brownstone on St. James Place we had bought two years earlier. At that time, 1971, “boutique” was a new word. I don’t know of any other Black women ever having a boutique in New York before me. Of that era, the only other Black women doing what I was doing were Jackie Lewis, who opened “Grand Hotel” the first women’s boutique in SoHo, Black or white; and Alberta Wright, who had a vintage lace boutique on 72nd Street. Today, Jackie owns a spa and resort in Negril, Jamaica and Alberta has a successful restaurant in Manhattan called “Jezebel.” Both, by the way, were pushed out of their boutiques by rent hikes.
Did you have any experience running a business?
Well, when I started I had no clue. I had worked in Bloomingdales, B. Altman’s and places like that so I knew how to sell. But I didn’t know where to buy stuff. So, I went to A&S department store, bought what I liked, and added a dollar. No one would tell me how you get merchandise. Many who sold didn’t even know, I later learned.
How did you eventually “crack the code?”
It was incredible hard work. I walked the city of New York looking for merchandise and found the Gift Building. I went in there and they looked at me like I had two heads, the only Black person there. Was I there to sweep the floor or clean the toilets? Then I’d go to showrooms and they’d all look at me. “Where are you from?!” How’d you find out about us??! It was a big learning experience. I also didn’t know how to display merchandise. I didn’t know anything.
Did you study fashion or business in school?
I studied Bloomindales store windows and other places. Then I went to F.I.T. and Parsons School Of Design for courses on how to operate a store and mathematics. Years earlier, I received a B.A. in Art and Design from Queens College. But I learned mostly by doing.
Was Studio 14A successful?
It was. I had a steady and loyal clientele. We were selling African stuff when it was unheard of. When African consciousness came along, I was a forerunner. They came from all around: CT, NJ, and I don’t know where. But they came.
What kinds of marketing strategies did you employ?
People knew me. In December, I’d have big parties and sell merchandise. I’d do Kwanzaa (even before I knew what it was). I’d have a Yoruba priestess, sometimes I’d have a band, but I’d invite everybody and fill the place up. And it worked!
Were you always interested in fashion?
As a teenager, I was crocheting, knitting and designing. It wasn’t unusual. Everybody did that. But when I’d wear all this beautiful stuff I made people would just say plainly, “You sew.” That was the label I got. I didn’t realize I was into fashion. When I graduated from Samuel J. Tilden H.S., I said I’m going to be a dietician because at that time there were no jobs in fashion for anybody – not Black – unless you were just sewing. My mother told me, even at three years of age if she put a red sash and a pink bow on me, I’d say “My bows don’t match!” This is not working (laughing)
How would you encourage Black boutique owners emerging today?
The business is not easy. It’s not just buying and selling and you get money in your hand. My original aim was to get a new kitchen. It took me seven years to buy it, because I had to keep putting all the money back into the business. It takes five years to clear any kind of profit. I think the young people are better at it now from what I am seeing. They have more of a focus. I just didn’t know. I tried everything at the beginning. One minute I’m doing home furnishings, next minute whatever interested me at the time. Then one day, Jackie Lewis came by here and said “Every time I come by you have something else. . . You have no focus.” Because I always had fashion and I always had jewelry, I became a fashion shop. I was very successful at that. But I also worked incredibly hard. When I wasn’t working it I was thinking it.
Having your business has taught you many life lessons it seems?
When you are younger you are so busy living — you have no time to think about life. You think thinking about your life can wait until you are older, like in your seventies, as I am. But you don’t have to wait until you are in your last lap to begin