Newbury Street: Then and Now
BY ALYSSA GIACOBBE AND JESSICA LANIEWSKI
With the announcement of Chanel’s latest investment in Boston—a two-story, 10,000- square-foot flagship boutique designed by architect Peter Marino—a buzz could be felt all along Newbury Street, reverberating through the Back Bay. Some see it as a sign that high fashion is back. But perhaps what’s back is Boston itself, as a welcoming, profitable place for fashion designers, and especially international brands that seek to invest outside an economically troubled Europe. Chanel’s investment in Boston shows interest from the retail side, and Bostonians’ interest in fashion is evidenced by the continuing evolution and expansion of Boston Fashion Week, where front-row patron seat packages for three days of shows have been made available for those who want to support local talents.
Back Bay shoppers tend to be big spenders. Case in point, in 2011, Italian brand Loro Piana’s Newbury Street store was ranked the third most expensive fashion boutique in the United States, with each customer spending an average of $2,818 during every visit. But the French and Italian fashion houses aren’t the only internationals with long-term interest in Newbury Street: British labels Ted Baker, AllSaints Spitalfields, and Ben Sherman have opened in recent years to much acclaim, and Fred Perry took up residency in a brownstone this past summer. “We chose Boston as our first US retail location... outside of New York because we found great synergy here and felt we could align our brand’s rich heritage with that of the city,” says Richard Martin, Fred Perry’s head of global marketing. That rich heritage gives the city a familiar European character rare in the US that appeals to foreign fashion executives, and it is home to a student population with buying power, as well as a clientele who deeply appreciates the value of quality and detail top designers offer over disposable trends.
And, within Boston, Newbury Street offers something that few malls can compete with: A vibrant experience that includes outdoor cafés, interesting people-watching, and top-notch spas, salons, and art galleries. As such, it has become a barometer for the times—measuring not just what we spend our money on, but how we spend it, too.
A Man-Made Luxury Shopping District
Newbury Street was a place of transformation from the very beginning. For starters, it’s not even natural land: Over a period of 25 years beginning in 1857, the city created the section of town now known as the Back Bay by filling in part of Boston Harbor. Initially, the street was primarily residential, but Boston’s original Ritz-Carlton hotel (overlooking the Public Garden) opened on May 19, 1927, joining a few furriers and bespoke designers on the block, and officially marked Newbury as the upscale commercial district. Puritan heritage impacted the local style—a tough-to-shake ethos that once prompted designer Bill Blass to proclaim that Boston girls had “other, higher things” on their minds than fashion.
Post World War II prosperity saw the rise of the retail giants—Boston’s Jordan Marsh pioneered the department store concept back in the mid 1800s, forever changing how we shopped. Multiple mom-and-pop stores gave way to the all-under-one-roof department store. With the growing popularity of these stores nationally and locally in the 1940s, it’s no surprise that the first designer fashion outpost to land on Newbury Street was upscale department store Bonwit Teller. The Manhattan-based store, renowned for its modern sensibility and promoting a young Christian Dior, opened at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury (later the longtime site of Louis) in 1947. Beacon Hill resident and former Newbury Street boutique owner Marilyn Riseman, now 85, was 20 years old when Bonwit Teller opened. “They came in with this shoe department like you never saw before,” she recalls. “You were getting things no one else had. For the first time, if you wanted to live in Boston and not run to New York to shop, you could.” Small retail shops had anchored the block on Newbury Street between Arlington and Berkeley for the first half of the 20th century, but Bonwit’s made one-stop couture shopping possible.
Local Designers Pick up Their Shears
With two retail giants—Filene’s and Jordan Marsh—headquartered in Boston, local designers had direct access to in-market buyers (New Yorkbased Bonwit Teller had its buyers in that city). One such designer was Shirley Willett, who was instrumental in helping to establish Boston as a viable center for clothing design in the late 1950s—as a place that wasn’t New York and didn’t try to be. A Greater Boston native and 1955 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, Willett had gone to New York for a few years at the start of her career but quickly returned home. “The ’50s and ’60s in Boston were a great time for style and design,” says Willett, now 79, who designed carefully constructed coats and dresses with an eye on Courrèges and Balenciaga. Her early pieces were very shaped and in stark contrast to the longer and standardized shirtmaker dresses that many Bostonians were still clinging to. Fashion trends took Willett’s work from the fitted waists of the 1950s to a looser dress style to 1960s and ’70s plaid bell-bottoms; a 1957 bow-backed chemise from her line that was hugely popular in Boston became the year’s second best-selling dress throughout the US.
Willet was joined in the first wave of influential local designers by East Boston-born Alfred Fiandaca, who dressed socialites, politicians, and movie stars out of his shop at 35 Newbury Street in the early 1960s. Fiandaca remembers Newbury Street then as a place where women would “leave their cars with Jimmy at The Ritz and spend the day getting their hair done and shopping.” Newbury Street, he says, was the only place to be for a designer who catered to a certain type of woman: namely, one with time to wile away with an open wallet. One of his biggest breaks came in 1960, when the wife of newly elected Massachusetts Governor John Volpe commissioned a suit and gown for the inauguration. Soon after, his edgy, architectural skirts, suits, and ball gowns became favorites of clients such as Boston-born socialite Babe Paley, Audrey Hepburn, and more than a few first ladies. Fiandaca’s success showed that Bostonians were looking for finely-made, eye-catching clothing, and fashion-minded locals such as Riseman seized the opportunity to open their own boutiques on Newbury Street as fashion moved through the quickly changing 1960s.
The Rise of Independent Boutiques
“The architectural shapes of the clothing coming out of Paris in the ’60s were revolutionary,” remembers Willett. “Fashion went from a looser chemise style in the late ’50s to shorter dress lengths and mini skirts in the ’60s.” At the same time, Jackie Kennedy was garnering additional attention for her carefully chosen wardrobe of Oleg Cassini, Chanel, and Givenchy, as well as a diplomatic mix of American designers, including Connecticut-born Donald Brooks. Customers wanted to emulate Kennedy’s clean silhouettes and A-line dresses, and designers, such as Willett and Fiandaca, reflected this in their clothing with matching skirt suits and dresses that had an easy movement to them.
Riseman seized on this exciting time in fashion and opened Apogee in 1966 at 112 Newbury, ushering in a new era for the street as she sought out designers that hadn’t yet appeared in Boston. At that time, few boutiques existed beyond the first block, which then contained three furriers, a few hair salons, and a few stores such as the women’s clothier Charles Sumner, where for years Riseman had worked as a buyer. “Opening Apogee was a real risk since it was one of the first boutiques beyond Berkeley Street,” says Riseman, who opened the store at her husband’s urging after years of working for other people. Customers were drawn to Apogee for its mix of high-end, cutting-edge styles from designers such as Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood, and Kenzo, and superb customer service. Parking was a challenge even then; Apogee sales staff would regularly drive customers’ cars around the block so they could shop in peace. When business was slow, the store teamed up with local makeup artists and hairdressers to host special events—de rigueur now, but a novelty then.
The 1970s was a time of change for women, as they entered the workforce in large numbers and found work-appropriate clothing in ladies versions of the blazers and matching suits that men wore, with skirts replacing pants. Talbots (founded in Hingham), which opened in the 1940s, and Ann Taylor in the 1950s, supplied women with basic office wear outside the city. Fashionable women flocked to local Newbury Street boutiques such as Martini Carl for trendy “off-duty” pieces made by local and international designers, while others held firm to the styles of Jackie Kennedy.
Riccardi, a boutique for men’s and women’s clothing, was opened in 1978 at 116 Newbury by a 30-year-old Florentine immigrant, Riccardo Dallai. He offered customers cutting-edge designers such as Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Thierry Mugler. “Anything made in Italy did really well in Boston in the ’70s,” remembers Dallai, who also courageously brought Italian denim into the States. “It was insane to bring European denim here at that time because America was known for its denim. But I sold Diesel jeans when the store opened, and they did well.”
Bespoke clothing didn’t disappear, however, and the rise of these small, supportive boutiques helped pave the way for ’80s-era designers like Newtonbased Geoffrey B. Small, who delivered avant-garde, hand-sewn creations to celebrities like Bonnie Raitt and New Kids on the Block. The Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel’s current designer-in-residence Denise Hajjar also came onto the scene during this time, and went on to dress actors, politicians, musicians, and “pretty much all” the Boston news anchors. Locally-owned boutiques continued to blossom with Serenella and Alan Bilzerian claiming bustling spots on Newbury Street and being the first to introduce new designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Moschino in the early 1980s. With the flood of good-time spending that characterized the 1980s and late ’90s, international brands such as Chanel, Burberry, and Giorgio Armani opened their doors on Newbury, even as national powerhouse brands like Guess and Victoria’s Secret took up residence. The international brands drew even more independent and local designers, as well as boutiques, to Newbury as the street continued to grow and attract well-heeled customers.
Designer Jackie Fraser-Swan, who sells her high-end, contemporary womenswear label Emerson Collection out of her showroom on Newbury Street, is one of the latest internationally lauded designers who has no current plans for relocating to New York, though she shows her collections on the runway during New York’s Fashion Week. “I feel pretty grounded where I am,” says the South Shore native, who started sketching clothing at the age of 8, and opened her showroom in July 2010. “I just want to make something special, and I don’t need to be in New York to do that.” After a semester at the School of Fashion Design on Newbury Street in 2009, she launched Emerson Collection, named after ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson, at 8 Newbury. Her asymmetrical, punk/artistic pieces have already appeared in spreads in top fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Just a few blocks away, one of Fraser-Swan’s contemporaries, Daniela Corte, agrees with this Boston-centric perspective. “Boston is an attainable, cozy, and fun city. I design for that,” says the Argentina-born designer, who first came to Boston for school and stayed after she met her husband. Following years of custom work for local clients—she launched her business by making pants for friends—Corte opened a studio on Newbury Street to sell colorful fitted dresses, structured coats, and swimwear that regularly graces the pages of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. Though her custom line is favored by women who want clothes that show off their feminine curves, her new retail space has allowed her to expand her offerings beyond her own ready-to-wear pieces. Among local designers, Corte has perhaps the best understanding of what makes Newbury shopping unique: the experience. Her gallery-like boutique space complements the plush modern atelier above, where clients go for custom fittings.
Crafting a Memorable Experience
Boston saw the global economic downturn shutter stores in the recent years, but not just small retailers; Pottery Barn and Borders closed their doors on Newbury Street in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps it was Newbury Street correcting itself. Gone are many of the shops we can find in malls across the nation. Instead, Newbury Street is returning to its roots as a designer shopping destination with unique stores. Sixty-five years after Bonwit Teller brought domestic and international fashion designers to Boston, Newbury Street remains a destination of high style and singular experience—though it may be harder today to find a sales assistant willing to drive your car around the block while you shop.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC LEVIN (FRASER-SWAN); RANDY BROOKE (RUNWAY, EMERSON); ron ranere (willett); antoine de Parseval (chanel,); jamie emmerman (ted baker); courtesy of the marilyn riseman archive (apogee); chrissy bulakites for elevin studios (corte); jamie emmerman (Allsaiints spitalfields, chanel, ben sherman); courtesy of denise hajjar (model); courtesy of boston public library (newbury)