By  on May 7, 2007

NEW YORK — La Petite Coquette has gained a loyal clientele since Rebecca Apsan created a 160-square-foot jewel-box shop for lingerie in 1979.

In 1997, Apsan moved her oasis of seductive and classic undergarments to a more spacious 1,500-square-foot environment at 51 University Place, a trendy area of Greenwich Village where shoppers range from celebrities to soccer moms and New York University students. Autographed photos to Apsan from celebrities who have bought her lingerie include Salma Hayak, Natasha Richardson, Emma Thompson, Mariska Hargitay, Faith Hill, Britney Spears, Diane Sawyer and Cindy Crawford, as well as Keith Richards and Gene Hackman.

Apsan, an entrepreneur whose former businesses included shipping tropical fish from Miami to San Francisco and owning an eatery in Brooklyn called The Posh Bagel, said her lingerie brands, assortments, and ambience are as diverse as her location and customers. Murals of Vargas-inspired pinup girls decorate the walls, along with an early 20th-century nude portrait, and lots of reading material like "1,000 Nudes," a compilation of retro nude photos, and "The Lingerie Handbook," which has sold 24,000 copies since Apsan finished writing it in September 2006.

"University Place has always been known as a well-kept secret where writers, artists, photographers and fashion editors have long frequented the restaurants and shops," said Apsan, who said her boutique generates annual sales of $4 million. "One-by-one, famous people started coming to the store, and customers from other walks of life started coming because they liked the personalized service and selection. La Petite Coquette became a success by word of mouth."

She broke down best-selling bra, corsetry and daywear brands into two categories: "seductive, frilly, girly" numbers that have a European flair, and basic, smooth T-shirt bras that Apsan said are "preferred by American women."

The store's top-selling seductive brands include La Perla, Malitzia, Ritratti, Nina Ricci, Argentovivo, Christian Lacroix, Aubade, Lise Charmel, Lejaby, Princesse Tam Tam, Millesia, Leigh Bantivoglio, Cotton Club and Myla. Popular-selling basics include Wacoal, Chantelle, Prima Donna, Huit, Simone Pérèle, Donna Karan Intimates, Triumph, and a smattering of Cosabella.

"I literally leaped into the lingerie business after getting a divorce from my first husband,'' Apsan said. "I had always owned a business. But this time I didn't know what to do, and then I saw this little lingerie store with Parisian charm called Sympatique and worked there for a year in sales. That inspired me to open my own lingerie boutique and business has been great ever since."Apsan said an executive from a major lingerie specialty chain recently visited her shop and asked, 'How do you continue to exist with the Victoria's Secrets of the world?' I told her because I'm unique, my store and assortments are unique, and I run my business like a family, not a corporation."

Regarding the most extravagant purchase made by a consumer, Apsan said, "Keith Richards walked in on a Christmas Eve and said 'Let me have everything that's the best in stock for my wife.' We hand-wrapped each gift, which he said he would place on each step of a winding staircase. It was so romantic. He spent $20,000."

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