Graduating to Style
I’ve heard that the average woman is a size 14. And that’s me, average. Normally, I shop at department stores like Neiman Marcus and have no trouble. But when I went looking for an outfit for my graduation banquet — and customer service at some of Atlanta’s top boutiques — I didn’t find many that carried my size. My first stop was Potpourri, a Buckhead boutique on Andrews Drive. I was immediately approached by a small, 40-ish woman, who greeted me and asked if she could help. Her response, when I told her I was looking for something to wear to my graduation banquet, was to take a look at my body and ask, in a doubtful tone, “What size?”
As we walked, my attention was drawn by a casual linen pants outfit from David Dart, that, luckily for me, had elastic in the waist. However, my sales associate hastened to inform me that the outfit was not appropriate for a graduation banquet. Even though my thoughts weren’t on graduation at that moment, she made no effort to encourage me to try it on.
Next, she showed me a beautiful selection of short skirts — some red, some white. But when I asked her who the skirts were made by, she curtly responded, “Why?” They didn’t have my size anyway, and her tone of voice and constant attendance had begun to annoy me. I said my goodbys and headed for Ibis in the Northpoint Mall.
Ibis is a free-spirited store with loose, flowing clothes and a hippie-era feeling. It looked like the perfect place to find my outfit.
I was immediately approached by both of the sales associates, who said their “hellos” very sincerely. The one named Lynn showed me a long, off-white lacy dress with a Peter Pan collar. It was unique, and a reasonable $127, but I passed, realizing it was not for me.
Next, Lynn took me up front, where we looked at pants outfits by A.K.A. and more dresses by Wee Boop, Wearable Integrity and others, but nothing excited me.
Finally, we headed to the back of the store to the cluttered rounder of sales items filled with casual clothes. Lynn pulled out a sheer lime green dress by U.R.U. with a maroon and green print pattern. At first, I thought “not right for a banquet,” but I forgot about that goal when I saw the $29 sale price.
Unfortunately, I was completely unsatisfied with the way I looked in it. “No, it doesn’t fit,” said Lynn. Even though I didn’t end up buying anything at Ibis, I appreciated Lynn’s integrity.
While I was still in the North Point Mall, I decided to venture into a trendy new store called Moon Doggie.
I began to browse and immediately noticed the names of some of my favorite designers, like Susie Tompkins and Bettina Reidel, along with less familiar names like Duo e Duo, No Saint, N.I.C. New York, Equator and Yakko.
After about two minutes of browsing, the salesgirl approached and asked, “Is there anything I could help you with?”
I told her the same thing I told everyone else. She took a glance at my body and asked what size I wore, then took me around the store and showed me some very nice outfits.
I ended up trying on lime green accordian-pleated palazzos with a matching mandarin jacket. But although the bottoms fit pretty well, I had no luck with the jacket. That was enough shopping for one frustrating day.
In the end, I ordered a graduation outfit from a catalog — a green jacquard suit with a mandarin jacket and palazzo pants from Horchow Studio.
In Search of Summer
I’m a huge fan of small, boutique-like stores. Luckily for me, such shops are scattered throughout Atlanta’s yuppie Buckhead area.
The first stop on my mission to check out customer service — and, if possible, buy a sundress — was The Bilthouse.
Amidst the traffic of East Paces Ferry Road stands a little, yellow house. From the outside, it looks adorable. Although mom always taught me never to judge a book by its cover, the inside was just as cute. Each clothing rack was neatly arranged, the dominantly neutral-colored linen clothes hanging perfectly. The whole style of the store and its stock was casual, comfortable, laid back.
So was the salesperson behind the counter.
The second I walked in, she greeted me with a wide smile. “Hi,” she said. “How are you? Is this your first time here?”
I told her I was a Bilthouse virgin and she gave me the run-down. “Just take a look around and give me a holler if you need anything,” she said. “And don’t miss the back-room clearance. It’s almost free.”
I told her I was on a quest for a sundress and that “it has to be short. I’m barely five feet tall and look lost in long.”
Browsing through the Ecote dresses, she pulled out two, about $100 each. No luck; they were unflattering.
“I’m sorry, most of our dresses are long, but there are a few more over here,” she said, leading me toward another rack which held labels like A.K.A., A La Mode, Avalon, Confetti and Action Wear. Unfortunately, nothing grabbed me.
The racks were crowded with samples, last year’s leftovers and other odds and ends. There were sweaters, T-shirts, dresses, shorts and pants. Starting at about $5, the prices soared up to $25.
After a few more minutes of secret shopping, I left. The saleswoman thanked me and said, “Try again. Maybe you’ll find something next time.” I walked across the street and stepped inside a similar-looking house called Natalie B’s. A store within a store, it occupies a small, open space in the midst of Baby Boomers, a cute clothing and toy store for toddlers. A tiny girl with wild blond hair gave me a big hello when I walked in. “You’re stuff is in the back,” she cried, “I know. Big kids come in all of the day.”
A cute young woman ran over to help me. “Sorry about that,” she said. “She’s four going on 20. So, what can I help you with?”
I told her I needed a short sundress, and we walked into the sanctuary of the oversized, everything’s-for-sale closet, with contemporary brands like French Connection.
The salesgirl was off, rummaging through the racks, trying to find me that sundress. “I know we have one in here somewhere. I saw it the other day. It’s so cute, if I could just find it. Hold on,” she said, “let me go look around upstairs.” While she was gone, I checked out the rest of the merchandise. There were a lot of great things — everything from everyday short sets and wide pants to form-fitting tops and long dresses for Saturday nights out.
After a few minutes, the eager-to-please saleswoman flew down the steps and let me know that the dress had been sold. “But we’re getting in a new shipment on Monday, so definitely come back, and if there’s a cute dress, I’ll put it on hold for you until Tuesday. Cool?”
“Cool,” I said. Although I never made it back to Natalie B’s for that dress, I’d go back in a second.
Next stop: Phipps Plaza’s Bonnie White, a store famous for its upscale clothing and ready-to-charge clients. I noticed the store’s high-society Southern ambience and that the well-dressed, fortysomething customers and sales staff were on the matronly side. (Note: I’m 22, and I was sporting leggings, a bodysuit and a denim shirt around my waist.)
I flipped through the clothes, waiting for someone to approach me. Hangers were filled with Emanuel suits, Equipment blouses, mixed A.B.S. pieces, Belford silk sweaters and separates from Mevisto. Prices were steep — a suit could run up a bill to thousands of dollars — but there were one or two articles in the lower hundreds.
As I continued, I felt more and more out of place. Icy stares pierced me as I pulled out a very classy, conservative tan suit by Emanuel. Finally, someone came to my aid. “What can I help you with, miss,” said the saleswoman, checking me out from combat boot to beret.
“Well, I’m in the market for summer suits,” I said, “I’m starting my first job, and it’s time for a new and improved look.”
“Yes, I can see you need that,” she said. “Shall I get you a dressing room?”
I nodded and made another round through the store. With each step, I grew more annoyed. I decided to keep my mouth shut and leave, but not before I made plans to give the store a second chance. I plotted an image change and a return trip for the weekend.
That Sunday, I made sure my outfit was right, a cream and brown pinstriped linen suit — very professional.
When I walked in, there was a different saleswoman behind the counter. “Yes, can I help you?” she said immediately.
I told her I was in need of summer suits for my new job. I asked her what lines they carried, and she looked at me and replied, “May I ask why you’re asking?”
I explained I was just curious and not on a tight budget, hoping she’d step off her pedestal and help me pick out some clothes.
Nothing happened. I went straight for the Emanuel rack and pulled out that eye-catching suit. She didn’t say a word. I brought it into the dressing room, tried it on, put it on hold and left. That’s probably the last time I go into Bonnie White.