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Charivari Founder Selma Weiser Dies at 84

Retail pioneer Selma Weiser gave many designers their start.

Selma Weiser, the charismatic retailer of avant-garde fashion who founded Charivari and in many ways kick-started global fashion in the U.S., died late Friday at her home on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said her son, Jon Weiser. She was 84.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Along with her son and daughter Barbara, Selma Weiser was credited with discovering such talents as Marc Jacobs, Yohji Yamamoto, Anne Demeulemeester and Veronique Branquinho, and creating a hip, edgy atmosphere and merchandise mix. The Weisers were among the first in the U.S. to sell Giorgio Armani and the sporting British designer Katharine Hamnett, as well as Issey Miyake, Dolce & Gabbana, Marithé + François Girbaud and the way-out clothes of the British design firm Culture Shock.

“She had a terrible stroke in 1990 and was physically paralyzed on one side of her body. But she never complained and always wanted to go out. She was so courageous. On Friday, she told her aide, ‘Let’s go to P.J. Clarke’s for burgers.’ And then she died that evening,” said Jon Weiser.

Marc Jacobs remembered, “All the Weisers — Selma, Barbara and Jon — were so important to me from the age of 15 when I begged them for a job. They gave me my first job in fashion at Charivari at 72nd Street. Selma was, I think, the first to bring in Montana, Mugler — all these great European designers.

“Selma was really, really ahead of her time,” he continued, “looking at people who were really different. She was a risk taker, in a way, especially being on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood not known for its designer presence. Working there as a kid I got to meet so many people in the industry, people I know to this day and some no longer with us. Everybody came into Charivari to see what was new.”

Anna Wintour, editor in chief of U.S. Vogue, said, “She very much came out of the same world as Geraldine Stutz. She was a true fashion original, a true fashion independent. She was really the first to discover the Japanese designers, and she had an incredible nose for talent. She never cared about a commercial world or money, but she cared about supporting new designers and talent.”

Weiser, a dynamic merchant with carrot-colored hair and a keen eye for the next big trend, began her love affair with retailing in the early Fifties, surveying the market as a department store notions buyer, checking out bobby pins, hangers and bathing caps. In 1959 she became a dress buyer for a chain of specialty shops owned by Lane Bryant. By the mid-Sixties, she was disenchanted by the department store pace, and headed out on her own with two teenagers to support.

With her daughter in tow, she began trudging around Manhattan looking at empty storefronts. She found one on Lexington Avenue in the Eighties. Too disorderly. Then she found one, at Broadway and 85th Street, that was available for three months. “Empty stores talk to me. The one on Lexington Avenue said, ‘Move on, Selma,’” Weiser told The New York Times in an interview in 1992.

With a live go-go girl as window dressing, she opened a new boutique on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That was on April Fools’ Day of 1967. But Weiser wasn’t fooling when she christened her new store Charivari — French for “uproar.” That first boutique at 85th and Broadway pioneered a trend of chic, high-end boutiques on the Upper West Side. Weiser was convinced that the professional women who were moving to the neighborhood would shop locally if the clothes were interesting and fresh.

“She helped in the revival of neighborhoods on the Upper West Side,” said Jon Weiser, who started up Charivari’s men’s business in 1971. Barbara Weiser entered Charivari full-time in 1975, splitting buying for the women’s division and covering the international markets more than three months a year.

The Weisers’ impact on the fashionable isle of Manhattan had not gone unnoticed within the industry. In 1983 they became the second retailers to win a Coty Award for  innovative merchandising. At the time, Charivari counted a number of celebrity clients including Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Nastassja Kinski and Mariel Hemingway.

Designer Cathy Hardwick remembered Weiser as “full of life, always laughing and making everybody laugh. I met her in 1968 in Copenhagen during fashion week. She was my first New York friend and the only person I knew in New York when I moved there in 1969. She was lots of fun. After she had her stroke, I would go to her penthouse every Wednesday and cook. She would say, ‘Oh, good, I’m having 18 friends over for dinner.’ She carried my clothes from the beginning in ’69 to the very end.”

Elyse Kroll, founder and chairwoman of ENK International, noted, “She was quite a star, a very strong personality. She was wheelchair bound, but she still had a very active mind. And she loved to hang around a lot with her kids.”

In the Eighties, Charivari was on a growth track. The business peaked at six New York stores with a volume of $20 million, had two licensed stores in Japan and was contemplating moves into new markets, such as California. But expansion proved problematic and the company closed units at 79th and Amsterdam Avenue, Columbus Avenue and 81st Street, Broadway and 84th Street and its unit at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. The two Japan stores closed in 1993.

Charivari even sought more fertile ground on the East Side, but its Madison and 78th Street shop also closed in 1997, after just three years in business. The family-owned business filed for Chapter 11 in September 1997 and its crown jewel, the 8,000-square-foot flagship at 16 West 57th Street, closed in 1998. Reportedly, the unit carried the business for several years, generating enough healthy cash flow to support the other fledgling stores. The store reportedly posted about $6 million in sales. 

Charivari was forced to liquidate after a search for an investor came up short. The flagship store had been in a downward spiral for three years and was a victim of overexpansion and increased competition from department stores and large specialty chains. By then, many big stores were aggressively pursuing the up-and-coming designers, effectively diluting Charivari’s impact, resulting in sales erosion and, eventually, late payments.

Funeral services will be held Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. at The Riverside Chapel. A video which commemorated Charivari’s 20th anniversary in 1987 will be shown at the service. “It’s really the story of her life,” said Jon Weiser.

In addition to Jon and Barbara Weiser, she is survived by a sister, Lori Gordon.