Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
After clothing designer and boutique owner Kathleen Sommers died in October, her daughter and son-in-law sought a buyer for the store that had borne Sommers’ name since opening in 1979.
No deal could be reached, so the Monte Vista boutique will close permanently with a casual party on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friends and fans are invited to join in a final champagne toast to Sommers and the store wearing their favorite “Kathleen” garments.
This past Saturday, a group that trades clothing and gives the rest to charities met in an Alamo Heights cottage to remember Sommers, who used to take part in the swap. Most of the 25 women wore garments, scarves, or jewelry they had purchased at the boutique.
“I dreamed it up in Kathleen’s store after buying two identical black T-shirts, forgetting I’d already bought one,” said group founder Naomi Shihab Nye, an internationally known poet and author.
Before the clothes trading began, friends formed a circle to explain what they were wearing and its importance to them. Rhoda Hockett wore a Sommers-designed skirt she had acquired at an early trade party.
“I only have 27 hangers in my very tiny closet,” Hockett said. “Whenever I get something new, something else has to go away. But this skirt is still there. I think it’s the oldest piece I have, and it’s my favorite.”
Artist Jeannette MacDougall told stories behind her blouse, scarf, linen skirt, sweater, and hat. “I always feel like Kathleen’s hugging me in her garments,” she said.
Several guests laughed at their similarly designed jackets made of boiled wool. Patricia Pratchett wore hers, in orange, under an Indian poncho.
“Orange was Kathleen’s power color,” retired science teacher and artist Chanda Day said.
Nye said she was surprised that dealing with clothes day in and out, Sommers would want to join in a party involving used clothing.
“She had so much gusto about it,” Nye said. “She would come in and we would pounce on her bag because we knew it had great stuff in it.”
Gemma Kennedy, a neighbor of Sommers’ in the River Road neighborhood, turned to the boutique when she began her career as a researcher in cardiology just as the store opened. The corporate style for women in executive positions at the time resembled men’s suits, and Kennedy was having none of it.
“I was going to all these national meetings and I hated anything that was tight, so I bought all my clothes at Kathleen’s,” she said. “They weren’t that old-fashioned look – they were flowing, they were comfortable. I could get four or five pieces and make 10 outfits. From that time on I’ve bought most of my clothes there. Her clothing fit my personality, her store fit my personality, which is flowing and creative, a little adventuresome.”
Many at the swap remembered that Sommers often would assess how a garment looked on a friend, even a customer in the store, and say, “That would look really good … on someone else.”
As the store closes, store manager Blanquita Sullivan and sales associate Audrey Ballinger recreated their Day of the Dead window display that Sommers was able to see days before her death Oct. 20 from cancer. It features a giant heart-shaped milagro, a symbol of a prayed-for miracle in Mexican culture. The window itself bears subtly painted images that were important in Sommers’ spiritual life, with an homage to the store’s 40 years in business.
To Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art and one of the original clothing swap participants, the boutique’s window displays always expressed “exotic magnetism.”
“Like art,” she said, “the window was not easily overlooked because it was always visually compelling, and not just because of the fashion. They often told a little story, with wit, and put odd things together, avoiding somehow glitz and commercialism.”
A month before the closing, more than half the boutique was empty of clothes, but it was replenished when racks of Sommers’ garment samples turned up in a storage shed. After Sullivan and sales associate Marty Berry brought the samples into the store and hung them on racks last week, they noticed something odd.
“There was a bird in the store, and we didn’t see it come in,” Sullivan said. “We both said, ‘What a cute bird!’ Then the bird slowly moved around the store in a full circle.”
They talked about how to get it out, then opened the front door.
“It looked around and sort of took its time, then it flew right out the door. Marty and I looked at each other and said simultaneously, ‘Kathleen!’”
Since Sommers’ death, fans of the boutique have continued to visit to purchase a final souvenir or just to absorb its special aura.
“We’re doing our best to play happy music and keep it lighthearted,” Sullivan said. “Two women came in and were so depressed, I offered them wine and they took it. Everyone has a story about a dress for a wedding or graduation, or what the store meant to the neighborhood.”
Sullivan has worked in women’s fashion retail for 20-plus years and has never experienced such devotion, even when Betsey Johnson stores, featuring the designer’s whimsical clothing, closed its doors.
“That was different because it was a big chain and this is a single store,” she said. “Kathleen and the staff knew all the customers, and the customers seemed to know each other.”
That devotion bordered on the spiritual, with friends at the clothing trade telling stories in tones of reverence. Nye calls Kathleen Sommers’s store, only half joking, a sanctum sanctorum, or holy of holies.
“There was no one in my constellation of friends quite like her,” Nye said. “She was such an original.”