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Vintage News | The Rise and Fall of Charivari

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Charivari owner Selma Weiser, flanked by daughter Barbara and son Jon, New York City, 1983. (By Gene Kappock)

 

 

Fashion insiders sometimes use war metaphors to explain their world—they describe going to the collections in New York, Milan, and Paris as being in the trenches—and that can be a shocker. How, one may ask, can sitting at a fashion show watching done-up models strut up and down the runway, while showing off the latest trends in frocks, leggings, jackets, and jumpsuits to the beat of Lady Gaga, have anything to do with such a serious subject? Of course it doesn’t really, but without poetic license there would be no fashion. Besides, stick around and check out the battles between the powerful fashion houses, watch the way the big stores fight with each other for designer exclusives, witness the fierce rivalry among the editors, cry for the firing and cheer for the hiring of talent, don’t forget the burnouts and meltdowns, and you’ll get the point—there is plenty of blood to mop up at the end of each season.

One of the saddest fashion deaths in American retail history was the one that befell Charivari, an irrepressible mini fashion empire, created by the Weiser family, that had brought avant-garde clothes to the previously unfashionable Upper West Side of Manhattan and in the process had helped revolutionize retail and fashion itself. When they had to throw in the towel in the late 1990s by filing for bankruptcy, it was a stab in the heart of experimental fashion and a blow to their beloved New York neighborhood. To this day people who loved their constellation of one-of-a-kind boutiques—which started with a single small store in 1967—miss them and ask, “What happened?” 

When Charivari went belly-up, it was a brutal, final chapter to what had been a fantastic story, full of passion, vision, hilarity, discoveries, excitement, and an unforgettable family trio. The matriarch: Selma (born 1925); the daughter, Barbara (born 1950); the son, Jon (born 1952). They looked like their own little tribe, with Selma, a glamorous Gertrude Stein, carrot-colored hair, cut short and sharp, as the chief. All three had a penchant for wearing Yohji Yamamoto, and they’d each change it up with their own personal favorites. Together the Weisers could be credited as true fashion pioneers—one writer called Charivari “the Miracle on Broadway”—who, with a few others, had invented the idea of the curated fashion store and championed an international roster of designers, from Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto to Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Miuccia Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang, Katharine Hamnett, Perry Ellis, Marc Jacobs, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, and more. The Weisers’ was a very different fashion moment from the one we are living in now, the one with big global brands, high prices, and a deeply homogenized, even conservative landscape. If ever there was a perfect word for what they accomplished it is indeed charivari, which means “uproar” in medieval French.

The Weisers were not always big shots in the fashion world. But Selma, who grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on Staten Island, got the itch early. At eight she accompanied her mother into Manhattan, and when they arrived at Penn Station the young girl, already a live wire, was impressed by the bustling crowds. “Who are all these people?” she asked. “They’re buyers,” she was told. That was it; Selma wanted to be a buyer. She eventually landed as a junior-dress buyer for Chase, a department store in Newark, New Jersey—a position she really enjoyed, despite how conservative and unadventurous the place was. When Chase went out of business, in 1967, Selma was 42, and she had a tough time finding another position in fashion retail, which pushed her up against a wall. She needed work. After divorcing her husband of 17 years, Magnus Weiser, a fur manufacturer and importer, she took Barbara and Jon and walked out. Already die-hard Upper West Siders, they moved only a block away.

Barbara came home from college in Iowa (her father was paying the tuition) to find Selma uncharacteristically close to giving up, saying, “We are going to have to sell the apartment and move in with your Aunt Belle.” But then she had another thought, a second wind. “The only thing we can do is open a store,” she said. Eureka. What followed is pure Weiser ingenuity and chutzpah. Selma enlisted Barbara and Jon, and through a friend of a friend they found a tiny store, a defunct ladies’ dress shop, on Broadway and 85th Street. The rent was $300 a month, funds they did not have, a fact that they withheld from the landlord. So they told him they planned to open for business on April 15, 1967, but in fact opened on April 1, thus making enough money in time—more than $900—to cover the rent.

The family always laughed about the fact that they had opened on April Fools’ Day, because so many people said they were fools to pin their hopes on a neighborhood which was then a wasteland with a reputation for being dangerous, and was at least a decade away from its future as one of New York City’s first gentrified neighborhoods—a transition Charivari played a part in. Barbara says, “People have given us credit for doing all sorts of demographic studies. But we lived on the West Side. There was no question where we were going to open. It was our home, and we knew there were other people like us.”

“We had two weeks to get ready,” Barbara remembers. “We went in there like an Our Gang comedy on TV. We did everything ourselves. We painted the place black and white.” Trying to find a name for the store, Selma consulted a thesaurus. She had gotten as far as the c’s when she landed on charivari. “We liked charivari because nobody knew what it meant and it sounded vaguely Italian,” says Jon. “It was going to be that or the word ‘charisma.’ In 1967, Bobby Kennedy was still alive, and ‘charisma’ was a popular word. It was hip and cool and alluring at the time. Thank God we didn’t go with it, because we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The initial goal was simply to open a dress store, which, thanks to Selma’s terrific eye, would offer the area a neat place to shop. Because Selma was known and respected in the industry from her days as a buyer, the all-important vendors—such as David Schwartz, who owned Jonathan Logan and Youth Guild, where Liz Claiborne was the designer—let her take enough inventory on credit to get started. Schwartz had a large dress warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, and the night before the opening, Selma, Barbara, and Jon went out there, handpicked 250 dresses, and piled them into a station wagon. Jon remembers his mother slipping a guard $10 to let them pull from racks that had been set aside for established stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman.

On the big day it all came together. Jon had asked a talent agent who lived in the building to hook them up with an out-of-work actress to go-go dance in the new store’s window for the opening (she cost around $75). He had also brought along his home stereo, blasting the Mamas & the Papas and plenty of Motown out to the street. The crowds started blocking the sidewalk and spilling into the street until the police arrived to cool things off because the Weisers didn’t have a cabaret license. That just added to the action. The traffic kept stopping, and the sales kept climbing. They had calculated that if they sold 3 dresses a day they could stay alive, but at least 50 dresses flew out of the store on that first day. That night they all celebrated at a local Indian restaurant on Central Park West, which they called “Mr. Ulah’s,” in honor of the owner; it became the spot they would always go to for good luck.

The times were on the Weisers’ side; their forward-looking instincts were perfectly in tune with the Zeitgeist. The culture was in the midst of multiple revolutions—from the sexual revolution to the feminist revolution—all of which provoked a parallel fashion revolution. Women’s clothes got sexier and more daring, alternately futuristic and nostalgic; men ditched gray flannel suits for peacock colors. Selma, a character with a capital C and a die-hard New Yorker, was an unlikely but effective scout and messenger for the era. “She always had a passion for new things,” explains Barbara. “When I was younger, she was one of the first people to get contact lenses.

Charivari was in no way the first spot in Manhattan to zoom into the moment. Over on the East Side, Paraphernalia was becoming known as “the House of Mod.” It featured dresses by Betsey Johnson, Mary Quant, outfits to go clubbing in—”clothes you sprayed with Windex.” At the beginning, Charivari had none of this cachet. Selma always liked graphic knits, so there were plenty. Ruth Manchester (mother of singer Melissa), who was from the neighborhood, had designed an Empire dress with flowing sleeves, called “the Angel Dress,” which sold well at $16 a pop. Business was better than anyone had imagined—they couldn’t keep enough Edwardian blouses and suede miniskirts with gold chain belts in stock. Jon put a sign in the window—YES, WE HAVE HOT PANTS—and it worked. They made enough to pay the rent, pay the vendors, establish lines of credit, and eat out every night at Le Steak.

But in the very early days of Charivari the store was really Mama’s dream and show. Barbara and Jon were still students by day and had no intention of going into fashion retail with their mother. Jon would eventually enroll in the film program at New York University, and Barbara began a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia, but the call of Charivari was exciting and irresistible, so they did double duty. Almost immediately it was necessary for Charivari to expand—it took over an empty failed business next door—and by 1971 the family had added a second space a couple of blocks away, on West 83rd and Broadway. The thinking was a bit like one of those famous “Why Don’t You . . . ?” columns that Diana Vreeland had run in Harper’s Bazaar. Why not move the women’s shop into the new headquarters, where there would be enough room to feature changing styles in sportswear that Selma was excited about, and then open a men’s store, for Jon, still officially a film student, to run in the old spot? It wasn’t long before Jon decided that he could make a living in the fashion industry until his dream of making films came true. By 1975, Barbara was in deep, too, and had become the second-in-command for the women’s divisions of the company. “My mother was always head buyer,” she says loyally. Selma, the general, now had her lieutenants in place.

The scouting trips they had been making to Europe became vital. The prêt-à-porter in Paris back then was essentially a big trade show, a very different, more commercial affair compared with what collection season is today. Barbara says, “My mother had the most remarkable Geiger counter a person could have.” Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Dorothée Bis, and Kashiyama (designed by a then unknown Jean Paul Gaultier) were just a few of Selma and Barbara’s finds—and it wasn’t unusual for Jon to step in and ask if the designer could also make up some special men’s items to sell. (It would sometimes work the other way around, with Jon getting there first, and Barbara and Selma then swooping in for the women’s side.) “We were all influencing one another,” says Barbara.

Charivari’s growing reputation as a cutting-edge mecca was sealed with the move, in 1976, of the men’s store, right across the street. Alan Buchsbaum, a minimalist architect also known as “a father of high-tech” who was adept at maximizing space, would become the designer for most of Charivari’s expansions until he died in 1987 of complications from AIDS. Buchsbaum was savvy about the all-important retail goal: how to seduce customers in from the street. At that, the new space excelled. Buchsbaum had scoped the new multi-level retail spaces in Paris and brought some of that design intelligence to Charivari, adding warm touches of brass and wood at Jon’s request. The store was a place to buy tropical-colored suits, multicolored gabardine pants, turtleneck rib sweaters, and the latest men’s wear from Europe, by such designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, and Gianni Versace, but it was also a favorite spot to hang out Saturday afternoons. It cleverly rode the coattails of the new clubs, like Hurrah and Studio 54, and with the music amped up, the place often felt as much like a tea dance as it did a boutique. Like those clubs, the store attracted an unexpected mix of celebrities and regular customers—which made for a love affair with the press that went on for most of Charivari’s glory years. In 1976, Esquire magazine ran a story on the eight best stores in America—Charivari was chosen for New York.

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