Fashionista works it on Church

Standing on Church Street below the enticing facade of Fashionista, I felt how Rapunzel’s prince must have felt — glancing upward with longing at the ivory tower, wondering how I would ever find my way to that second story. Luckily, like the prince, I discovered the solution. It manifested itself in a hidden stairwell to the left of Kaye’s Art Shop: pink-walled stairs under a red awning, with a sign on the door that read “Fashionista Vintage and Variety.” Narrow walls were covered with calendar cutouts of girls from the ’50s. The store smelled like an antique shop — always a good sign for any vintage boutique.

The store is more like a vintage department store than a shop. With almost 2,000 square feet of space to work with, the store’s owners — Connecticut natives Todd Lyons and Nancy Shea — have transformed the once-derelict space into a haven for vintage shoppers. Racks abound with fur coats, old hats, quirky jewelry and sunglasses, dresses, menswear, cowboy boots and bags. Many items are acquired through estate sales and individual buyers.

As I fought the urge to drop my pad and pen and just shop, Lyons, a bohemian type clad in flowing black and red plastic earrings, introduced herself and immediately launched into the history of the store. Like the clothing on its racks, Fashionista has a rich story. Lyons and Shea came up with the original concept almost three and a half years ago in the form of a tag sale. In an attempt to thin out the immense collection of vintage clothing they had amassed over the years, they decided to put together a tag sale in Shea’s living room.

“The joke was to have a ‘fashionista’ tag sale,” Lyons explained. “The title combined two of the most opposite things you can imagine.”

The tag sale was such a success that the two decided to make it regular and hold it one weekend a month. “The whole thing kind of grew up around us,” Shea said. She recalled, as a native of Mystic, Conn., driving into New Haven as a teenager to shop at the Ritz, a vintage store on Broadway, and laments that it has been so long since there was a vintage store in New Haven.

Interest in the two ladies’ collections became so immense that holding tag sales out of Shea’s State Street apartment became impossible. They realized they either needed to liquidate their assets or open a real store. The two finally settled on the current Church Street location above Kaye’s Art Shop. Even the location, it seems, has a history, and Lyons happily delved into the past lives of their new space.

“This place used to be Congress Pants,” she explained, “and then it was a hair salon, and then it was the frame shop attached to Kaye’s Art Shop.”

When they acquired it, Lyons said, the space was “completely derelict, there were wires hanging from the ceiling, and no floor or walls.” In fact, renovations were so extensive that the store, which was set to open Dec. 1 , was nowhere near completion, and they instead set up shop with their entire collection on Court Street — in a span of three days — for a month. Now, it is hard to imagine that the shop has ever been anything other than a very hip vintage store.

Fashionista is like a museum covering every decade since the 1940s, with crinolines and wedding dresses, French berets, Japanese fans and other jewelry acquired from a friend’s Lower East Side shop, vintage plastic sunglasses and bloomers. It reflects the quirkiness of the owners, whose personal presence lends just as much appeal to the store as the actual items do. In an attempt to cut down on the florescence of the overhead lighting — because, according to Lyons, “nobody likes florescent lighting” — there are gummy worms in the lights and vintage record covers woven into the bland ceiling panels. Swing music blares from the sound system as Lyons describes her days performing in a swing band, Eight to the Bar, for six years. The group has 10 CDs and still tours the country as one of the most successful working-women band ever.

Lyons said she now works as a restaurant reviewer for the New Haven Register, patting her thighs affectionately, and explained that she never has to step foot in the office. As Lyons takes me on a tour around the space, pieces from the band’s collection feature prominently among the pieces in the racks. Holding up a red zippered jacket, she explains how she wore the piece in the pilot episode of the “Joy Beyhar Show” when her band was the house band. She then reaches for a navy blue men’s jacket, explaining how it once belonged to a friend who was the bass player for the Saturday Night Live house band. Winking at me, she pulls from the pocket a backstage ticket from his performances. Among the collection is a pair of Vietnam combat boots, with the name of the female soldier written on the inside, and a collection of unwrapped shirts that Lyons finds particularly amusing because of the Christmas tags still on them. She has crafted an entire story about the identity of the man who threw them into the back of his closet.

As fascinating as Lyons is, she also does not hesitate to proudly describe the creative achievements of her business partner. Shea, an environmental planner for the city of Waterbury, runs Idiot Village, an alternative arts festival that occurs every June in New Haven. The festival has held events ranging from a public pie fight to a citywide scavenger hunt and runs concurrent with Arts and Ideas New Haven. The idea came out of Shea’s and her cofounder’s belief that there should be a venue to showcase local talent. It began as a three-day festival centered on the equinox, but, like Fashionista, Idiot Village has grown. It now spans two weeks and this year will include American Idiot, an American Idol-type contest to be aired on CTV.

Given Shea’s and Lyons’s creativity, they would never be happy owning a mere clothing store. The shop doubles as a party space and, come nightfall, the racks can be pushed away, candles lit and champagne served for private parties. Lyons describes how, during birthday parties, guests play a number of games invented by Lyons and Shea — including the “Sonny and Cher Game.” In this charade, two players pick the name of a famous couple out of a hat and have 15 minutes to use the clothing in the shop to dress up like them, after which the rest of the group has to guess who they are. There is also “Truth or Consequence,” where the loser of the game has to dress from “The Rack” — a collection of the most hideous ensembles in the shop — and perform a task out on the street below, usually filled with club-goers on a Saturday night.

The two women marvel at how quickly people have found out about their shop.

“It truly is a word-of-mouth kind of outfit,” Shea explained. “There is not a lot of foot traffic on Church Street, so Fashionista is really a destination location.”

Judging by the myriad of shoppers who still return to the store wearing the items they purchased years ago from the tag-sale days, Shea and Lyons have the ability to keep their customers satisfied and coming again and again.

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