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Voices

Fashion's final frontier

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / December 18, 2008
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There were certain truths in life I could always depend on: Jason Mraz will never record an album that I'll like, brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts are a near-perfect breakfast, and Newbury Street is the epicenter of all Boston shopping. While my steadfast commitment to Pop-Tarts will not be shaken - stop trying to tempt me Toaster Strudel, it's not working - my myopic view of Boston shopping is eroding.

Earlier this week I was sitting in Aimee Lombardi's store, called French + Italian, in Marblehead. It's the kind of boutique that you might stumble across if you got lost on a side street in the Marais district of Paris. The shop is tiny, well-edited, and Lombardi is so happy in her store that she's practically beaming. In a past life, the 34-year-old Lombardi sold medical devices to spinal surgeons. Now she's traveling to France and Italy twice a year to hunt down cute skirts, coats, and lovely cotton blouses from designers that no one else is selling in Massachusetts.

"Newbury Street really feels like it's all chain stores now, and it's losing all of those quaint little boutiques," she says as 1960s French pop idol Johnny Hallyday croons softly from her iPod. "Don't get me wrong. There are still a lot of really great stores there, but I think it's changed a lot in the past eight years. It's too bad, because chain stores are fine for the mall, but I'd rather not see them on Newbury."

French + Italian carries designers such as Anne Willi, Yoshi Kondo, and Noro. I realize that a large percentage of you have never heard of these names, but let me put it this way: When the designers at H&M are creating cheap knockoffs of cute dresses, they're inspired by the work of designers such as Anne Willi. The originals are better made, and while they cost more, they're not the kind of ensembles that require a second mortgage and a strict diet of Ramen noodles until the credit card bill is paid.

As Lombardi and I are chatting, a striking woman strolls in and starts flipping through the clothes. It turns out that she is Katherine Hunt, an actress with a small part on "Ugly Betty" (she plays one of Betty's Mode coworkers). She buys a tube scarf and informs us that if "Ugly Betty" costume designer Patricia Field gives her OK, we'll see the tube scarf in episode 14 of the show in January. Did I mention that I'm at a store in Marblehead?

On the other end of the sartorial spectrum from Lombardi's subtle, sweet clothing collection is Gia Ventola, a Peabody store that opened this fall with an entirely different aesthetic, but a very similar mission: Ventola wants to introduce Boston, well, the Boston area, to new designers. The store shares its name with owner Gia Ventola, who's best known for designing stage ensembles for Britney Spears and Beyoncé, plus creating her own line of denim that is sold in Japan, and now in Peabody.

"I'm trying to bring in a lot of underground designers that you wouldn't necessarily find on Newbury Street," she says. "I'd say 60 percent of my customers are international, so the fashion that I'm carrying is also international. I have lines from Belgium, Sweden, England, and I'm bringing in a great basics line from Germany."

Her goal is to build the store into a mini-department store, a sort-of Barneys New York Coop of the North Shore. Step inside the chic store, with its black walls and oversize chandeliers, and it's easy to forget that it is located next to a Sylvan Learning center in a Peabody strip mall. Whereas the clothes that Lombardi sells at French + Italian are more subdued, Ventola's flashy sportswear, evening wear, and clubwear for men and women looks like a twister came along, picked up the store in Los Angeles, and dropped it on the North Shore.

"I think people realize that they can find fashion outside of Newbury Street," Ventola says, shooting me a glance that clearly means she can see my doubts. Or maybe I still had Pop-Tart crumbs at the corner of my mouth. "It's not like it used to be. I go to Fashion Week, and people say 'Boston is so conservative.' It's really not. People here are adventurous. They'll travel for fashion. They'll even travel to Peabody."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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