Under the sunlight coming in through her display window, Christina Strawbridge, owner of Christina S, and her assistant Sandy stand holding the legs of her mannequin, Barbie. This is the day Barbie gets her wardrobe changed, and she is toppled, inverted, and nude. In keeping with her wooden nature and aloof expression, Barbie stridently resists her keepers attempt to slide a pair of yellow and black harlequin- print leggings onto her slim stone-colored legs. But the ladies are clearly enjoying themselves far too much to be outdone by the inanimate. “This is my favorite part of the job,” quips Strawbridge, “dressing the mannequin. Today, we’re going to do homage to the 60’s and we’re going to make her look like Twiggy.”
But turning Barbie into Twiggy requires grunt work and, for poor Barbie, temporary amputation: Sandy twists her legs off from a screw at her thighs. But eventually, and elegantly, the leggings crawl their way onto Barbie, leaving the two real ladies ready to begin their display magic.
This ritual before the window display is a part of the job both women clearly love. It gives them a chance to see their own personalities and tastes become the face and fiber of their business, and every detail provides a chance for self expression. For example, when Twiggy/Barbie finally gets suited up, she’ll stand beside a tie-dyed poster for a Beatles concert in Indianapolis that Strawbridge herself attended.
“I love doing the theater of the windows,” she says. “That’s really exciting to me, merchandizing the store, and making things we’ve maybe had a while look fresh.”
Lucky for our town, the last five years have seen the arrival of a strong number of other independently-owned boutiques, each one with a staff eager to see their creativity and classiness framed behind a street-side panel of glass. Together, the stores have been able to withstand the recession and to positively alter the face of downtown, the lifestyle of Benicia, and the reputation of our community as tourist destination.
Jack Wolf, owner of Wolf Communications, agrees. His firm, which has worked to help promote the cities of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Calistoga, has been contracted by the city of Benicia to do their tourism and marketing effort, and they are focusing on fashion as an integral component of Benicia’s appeal.
“The things that we always talk about in our marketing effort are our beautiful waterfront, the shopping options, the art and the history,” says Wolf.
“If more people find out how great the shopping options are here it will become even more of a draw for visitors,” says Wolf. “Studies have shown that shopping is one of the more popular activities for people traveling, whether they’re traveling on just a daytrip or overnight.”
Part of our strength is our location. It may be out of the way for a couple from Fairfax, but it is conveniently reachable for, say, a woman from Napa meeting a friend from Walnut Creek.
Strawbridge agrees that the locale is a part of the draw. “Women are using Benicia as a meeting point /girlfriend destination. It’s centrally located, safe, beautiful, and it’s easy to navigate First Street,” she says.
This sounds like a recipe for competition, but Strawbridge sees it differently: she feels a sense of solidarity with her style-minded neighbors, almost as if they belonged to their own fabulously attired little guild.
“We’re all totally different, we’ll have overlap in our customers…so somebody who shops here might shop at Miguelena (owned by Yvonne Armas) or one of the other stores, which is great, and we all refer each other…we work together as a partnership. It’s only going to benefit me to keep customers here, because we can’t be everything to everybody and it’s great to have that networking and cross promotion.”
This strategy has paid off among locals and visitors as well. Strawbridge believes about 40% of her business to be from out of town, and she believes the number is growing steadily. Claudia Mahrt, at Be Chic, also notes a strong out-of-town presence: she’s been at her current location for three years, and in that time she’s been able to magnetize repeat customers from all over the Bay Area: San Francisco and Oakland, Tiburon and Sausalito, even San Jose and Sacramento. She previously worked as a buyer for duty-free shops, and she’s used her distinct knowledge of top European brands to build her business here (it’s worth noting that she currently commands the downtown monopoly of high quality, non-costume menswear).
Laurie Key is another bright star in the constellation of Benicia fashion. She’s found a fine balance between supplying local needs and building up out-of-town enthusiasm for her store. But Key feels that it’s more than just the diverse array of shops that keep the scene so lively, and acknowledges that Benicia also benefits from what we lack: a chain department store.
“I think that even though we’re a small community people are fashion conscious here,” says Key. It’s nice because we’re not close to any of the chain stores, because we don’t have to compete with them. Whereas a lot of the boutiques in Walnut Creek have gone out of business because they are right next to Nordstrom’s and Macy’s, we are able to bring the same sense of urban style to a small town.”
And if there’s any fear here, it’s that one. The more these boutiques build up Benicia’s reputation as a fashion hotspot, the closer they come to a large, consolidated department store.
But I wouldn’t count on it, and neither would Studio 41’s Leah Perry-Shelhorn. Perry-Shelhorn and her store have been downtown standards for almost two decades. She sells handcrafted items made in America – everything from fine jewelry to the most morbidly hilarious assortment of greeting cards I’ve ever encountered. She thinks our independent streak is what makes the town successful.
“All us independents are still down here,” says Perry-Shelhorn. People from Lafayette come here to shop and they want something that their friend isn’t going to have. It’s all about looking like an individual. That’s what I’m all about—I don’t buy anything at a big store.” Regardless of where Benicia fashion goes from here, we’ve already arrived at something special.