The multi-faceted Patricia Grace Stevens (above, left) studied at Indiana University where she majored in nursing, but found time to take jewelry design. She became a cardio-vascular surgical nurse, then returned to school majoring in journalism. Combining her two areas of knowledge, Patricia then worked as a medical writer and editor. Her husband’s avid interest in horse racing lead her to the track whereupon she became a syndicated newspaper columnist covering thoroughbred racing. As if that weren’t sufficient juggling, she imported and sold a line of Chinese made silk jackets with racing motifs…on the side.
Patricia also owned and ran a clothing store in Champaign, Illinois. Her husband was transferred and “we moved out here in ’95.” (Only a Midwesterner would refer to New York as “out here.”) I’m convinced Patricia has a red cape in her closet. In 2001, she opened a store called Iris at 10 Park Place in resurgent Bronxville, near where she and her husband were living. Her take on clothes and accessories had always been idiosyncratic. She had an eye and business experience.
Elena Agostinis (above, right) is a native of South Africa. She was married at 22 and left Africa at 24. “We thought then there would not be a future for children in the country.” Her father was a vintner. He “invented wine machinery without being a trained engineer, so I guess he was very creative.” She was raised in an isolated farming community, far from culture. Elena always made art, but had neither exposure nor tools until she reached Stellenbosch University. She studied Graphic Design.
In 1986, Elena and her husband built a country house upstate, just outside of a depressed town of 500 called Tannersville where Elena leads The Tannersville Paint Project. With Elena’s home as an example, the citizenry is painting the better part of the town in vibrant Victorian detail! In an effort to bring new business to her second adopted home, Elena, a frequent customer at Iris, approached Patricia with the idea of opening a store based on the model in Bronxville. She knew nothing about retailing and asked that Patricia teach her partner and herself merchandising.
The result was The Clothes Line, “which people mistook for a laundry,” commented Elena. They changed the name to Peoria Emporium based on the vaudeville saying If it will play in Peoria, it will play anywhere. Elena proceeded to decorate. “Our concept was to showcase our merchandise within the settling of a contemporary art installation which then affected what we bought…we wanted a sense of fun, to create the feeling it’s ok to wear colorful, non-traditional clothing and accessories.”
The third partner left and Elena formally became Patricia’s partner in both stores now called Peoria Emporium. A few months ago, a third branch opened in Manhattan. Patricia and Elena are completely symbiotic. Patricia manages operations, Elena handles the visuals, they both buy. “We have complimentary tastes.” Patricia observes, “We respect what one another brings to the table.”
Rotating between the store’s locations, Patricia enjoys getting to know her customers and their tastes. She has women with whom she established relationships in New York to whom she sends large boxes of apparel and accessories she feels suit their tastes and style. Personally selected packages go out to Birmingham, Mobile, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Some of these women invite their friends, others sort through the selections themselves. Credit card information is taken, but no charge is put through until what is not wanted is returned. Everybody wins. Women call for wardrobe help in anticipation of events. Peoria Emporium has even made a custom wedding dress for a client who appreciates their particular flair.
Elena, on the other hand, is a traveler. Only when her children were young was this passion curtailed. Having been denied access to the rest of her own continent by Apartheid, Africa has now become a regular area of exploration. Here Elena has developed relationships with a group of women’s artisanal coops who make jewelry, handbags, and some smaller household items that can be transported easily. As her sister still lives there, follow-up is efficiently arranged.
“In South Africa especially, the women really make an effort to help one another. It’s normally one woman who gets a group together. They have children and work at home. There’s no government support,” she relates. Elena has been to Botswana, Ethiopia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Mauritania, Morocco, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. She and her sister climbed Machu Pichu for her fiftieth birthday. Silver jewelry is acquired Taxco, outside of Mexico City. These days, Elena couples her own wanderlust with shopping.
The business has begun creating product as well as selling it. Dinamals, named in honor of creator Dina Reis, are made exclusively for Peoria Emporium. “We come up with the basic concept and Dina gives them personality. Many are based on toys from my childhood,” Patricia reflects. There’s a dog named Buster, wonderful poodles, a large Humpty Dumpty and a take on the perennial sock monkey. “Elena mocked me. Didn’t you have sock monkeys? I asked. We had real monkeys, was the response,” she continued. Of course. You can bring in your own sweaters or sentimentally held garments with which the shop will create a Dinamal.
Other items made by Peoria Emporium include scarves, lamps, cushions, unique wreaths made of recycled plastic, fleece strips, or CAUTION tape, and stylish private label peplum jackets which can be made in sizes xtra small to 2x (note: many garments here fit curvaceous women; sizes can additionally be ordered.) The ladies have even created a custom wedding gown for an enthusiastic sixty year-old first time bride. It was, I’m told, cream colored silk with handmade flowers down the front in shades of cream, beige and maroon.
Elena has created some seriously faaaaaabulous furniture which can be special ordered. The polka dot fur covered couch and stool with patchwork appliqué top and poodle legs are shown. There are arm chairs covered in silver and black metallic lame that would seem at home in Beverly Hills or Milan. “My house looks like this,” observes the designer, “well, this is a little more extreme.” One wall is filled with outsider art panels. “Elena and I would like to affiliate with a rehab center we heard about upstate that’s known for the untrained art its residents create,” Patricia comments as I gaze at the wall.
And the future of Peoria Emporium? “We’d like to sell the business to Anthropologie ,” Elena answers, having clearly thought about it. “They have Urban Outfitters, Free People. We think we serve their older customer,” Patricia adds. Are you reading this, Anthropologie? The Upper West Side and South Hampton are additional possible locations. In about eight years, Patricia and her husband think they might move to the Carolinas and open an antique store. Elena, an artist (no surprise) plans to keep happily working in her Bronxville studio…and on Tannersville.
Store information on Shopping Around
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat
Patricia: Pastis, The 21 Club
Elena: Tamarind in the 20s
Favorite Place to Shop
Patricia: Flea markets
Favorite New York Sight
Patricia: It used to be coming out of the subway near The Odeon, turning to see The Twin Towers. I guess now, being from a limestone family, the front of Grand Central. My grandfather actually did some of the carving on the front.
Elena: Times Square at Night
Favorite New York Moment
Patricia: A favorite ritual: because I work retail, I can’t really go back and spend holidays with my family. So, my husband and I have Christmas Eve dinner at 21 and walk down Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center, looking at the windows.
Elena: Ticker tape parades. There have been a couple during my time here.
What You Love About New York
Patricia: The bustle, quickness…coming from the Midwest
Elena: The vibe; vitality; range of culture
What You Hate About New York
Elena: The garbage in the street.