NEW YORK — A dress form displaying a tightly fitted red evening gown stands in the doorway of a third-floor suite at the Hotel Plaza Athénée marking the entrance to Yuta Powell’s genteel retail venture, a salon modeled after the French haute couture ateliers of the Fifties and Sixties.
Powell, who owned the Givenchy boutique on Madison Avenue and 75th Street, knows how to create a mise-en-scène. As a student in Paris in 1970, she worked as a salesgirl at the House of Givenchy. When the designer saw her walking down the stairs one day, he plucked her from the sales floor and promoted her to the atelier. She spent the next few years learning everything she could about the fashion house, from how hats and gloves were made to the way tiny flowers were ironed onto bustiers.
Powell got married a few years later and moved to New York with her husband, thinking she’d left the fashion world behind. In 1984, Givenchy opened a boutique on Madison Avenue and asked Powell to run it. Two years later, she purchased the rights to the store.
Powell operated the Givenchy shop for 14 years, until the designer’s retirement in 1995, when his business was sold to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
In 2000, Carolina Herrera bought the building and gave Powell the franchise to the store. “When I took on [Herrera] it was a house that needed direction and definition,” Powell said. “I saw it as a very special product.”
Powell left Herrera in 2005 and began formulating her current business.
Her suite at the Plaza Athénée is decorated with plump, gold- and brown-striped sofas and cream- and gold-striped drapes. A bottle of champagne is usually chilling in a bucket in the main room, and arrangements of fresh flowers can be found throughout the apartment — even in the two spacious bathrooms used for dressing rooms.
Powell, who was born in Sweden, has always emphasized service and quality over the size of a retail operation. “This is sort of a reaction to the mass ways of large retailers,” she said. “I’m sort of going for what I like best. I have the time to do it on terms that are more special.”
Since space is at a premium, only a handful of designers are carried, including Loulou de la Falaise, Tomasz Starzewski eveningwear, Bruce Oldenfield knitwear and, soon, Jean-Louis Scherrer. Powell said she expects to do $2 million in sales in the first year.
One reason clients keep returning is that they know Powell has pieces that can be found nowhere else. She asks designers to create special items for her, often describing or sketching what she wants. She was in the habit of doing this with Givenchy and tried to continue with the designer’s successors, but she didn’t find them very willing.
“Alexander McQueen was very talented, but so stubborn,” she said, adding that John Galliano didn’t take kindly to outside suggestions, either.
Luckily, the designers she works with now are more accommodating. A tweed de la Falaise jacket with bold yellow and orange flowers embroidered on felt hand-sewn appliqués, which retails for $2,600, is an example of Powell’s collaborative style.
“I asked Loulou to do something fun with a proper tweed jacket,” Powell said. “I mentioned Frida Kahlo, and off she went. It looks like Frida Kahlo-meets-Heidi. I don’t ask for things that make no sense or can’t be done.”
At Scherrer, a small equestrian-looking collection gave Powell an idea for a jacket with a long tail and two buttons in the front. “I was playing around with the design team,” she said. “I had them make it in leather.”
Powell’s clients are professional or socially active women, ranging in age from 30 to 60. “It’s someone who has a good body,” she said. “Someone who is confident and has her own style. I’m not inexpensive, but the quality is there. There is a serious following.”
Customers appreciate the civility of the shopping experience. There are never more than a few customers in the suite at any one time, and more often than not, appointments are private. “We do deliveries, and I stay open late,” said Powell. “You can shop in privacy and total comfort.”