Despite growing up in the retail business, Nancy Pearlstein never planned on making a career of it.
“My family owned [luxury clothing and shoe store] Louis Boston, so I guess you could say I went to fashion school my whole life. I liked the industry and was brought up in it, [but] I never intended to be in it,” said Pearlstein, who originally wanted to be a physical trainer until a short stint working at the family business changed everything. “I fell in love with fashion and just continued on that path.”
Pearlstein spent 15 years at Louis Boston, learning the ropes and honing her buying skills, before striking out on her own in 1996 with the opening of Relish, in Chevy Chase, Md. “I had an idea for a boutique and I knew what I wanted and how I wanted it merchandised, and I had the drive to do it,” she said.
The shop, which carries a mix of high-end women’s footwear and apparel, enjoyed steady growth over the years, prompting Pearlstein to eye expansion in 2004. Having heard about the commercial development of Cady’s Alley, a trendy design and shopping district in Washington’s historic Georgetown neighborhood, Pearlstein decided to open a second Relish location there. “We were really outgrowing the other space, and the move gave us an opportunity to expand and do what we wanted to do [with the business],” she said. Pearlstein ultimately closed the Chevy Chase store in 2005 to focus on the new location.
Nestled among a mix of high-end furniture stores, chic clothing and accessories boutiques and big-name chains such as J.Crew, Relish offers a well-edited footwear mix from designer brands including Dries Van Noten, Diana Broussard, Marni, Jil Sander and Junya Watanabe, as well as clothing by labels such as Yohji Yamamoto and Narciso Rodriguez. Prices range from $350 to $700, with some items — such as a pair of Sartore boots — retailing for more than $1,000.
“Dries Van Noten does very well here,” Pearlstein noted. “Our customer likes the fashion-but-sporty sensibility of Dries. And people have been loving Dusica Dusica’s satin ballerina [flats].”
Footwear is merchandised on the lower level of the two-story space. Bamboo blocks serve as display areas for different brands in a spacious layout that is constantly changing. “I could think of 12 different ways to do a shoe department,” Pearlstein said. “I change up [the space] all the time and move the shoes around during certain times of the year. It keeps the merchandise looking new and interesting.”
In a nod to the industrial history of Cady’s Alley, the store’s interior boasts simple concrete floors and rustic steel finishes accented by modern furniture and fabrics. “There’s a very peaceful feeling in here. It’s sparse, but very warm,” said Pearlstein of the shop.
To meet the needs of her customers, who range from lawyers and consultants to advertising professionals and interior designers, Pearlstein scours the New York, Milan and Paris trade shows in search of unique styles. “Our customers have a good sense of style because they work, travel the world and are exposed to different looks. They can relate to different types of fashion,” she said.
According to Pearlstein, having such a diverse, open-minded customer base gives her the freedom to be flexible and somewhat unconventional in her buying. “The merchandise I pick seems to be different from what other stores go with,” she explained. “My eye goes toward a different type of product. I don’t necessarily buy every trend.”
Still, she said Relish’s footwear assortment is based largely on the apparel the store carries. “The clothing dictates how I buy the shoes: The shoes are definitely the accessory to the clothing. This is a very different [buying] mentality than that of a shoes-only store.”
Relish’s vendors pointed to Pearlstein’s well-trained eye and intuitive understanding of her customers’ fashion tastes as key factors in the store’s success. “[Nancy] has a strong point of view in regard to her clientele,” said designer Diana Broussard. “This is key for any independent boutique to continue to stay exciting and consistent for its customers.”
Carol Freinberg, sales director for Spanish brand Pedro Garcia, which has been carried in the store for three years, agreed. “Nancy buys with a very independent spirit that makes [our] collection completely her own,” she said.
Looking ahead, Pearlstein plans to broaden her offering by introducing new product categories — in spite of the challenging business climate. “I’ve always had a desire to add home products, I just haven’t had the time. But I think that would be a nice extension,” she said.
And while economic woes, including the housing crisis and record-high gas prices, have some shoppers cutting back, Pearlstein said she will combat the slowdown by continuing to take risks with the product mix.
“Fall will be tougher because people are a little psyched out right now,” she said. “The prices [of goods] are a lot higher, so you have to buy things that are more exciting and that your customers don’t already have.”