With a small storefront in the pedestrian-friendly town center of West University Place, Julie Rhodes Fashion & Home looks more like a hip Manhattan boutique than the typical Houston megastore.
There’s the chandeliers, two of them, giving the space an upscale boost, and a white marble countertop where Rhodes plans to serve her customers espresso. The minimalist clothing racks are arranged in such a way that the two-room shop still feels spacious. The feel is more welcoming than simply fancy, though, with dog biscuit tins by the door for occasional four-legged customers and a tree in the corner named Fred.
A native of Seattle, Rhodes has a master’s degree from the Parsons School of Design and worked in New York identifying and forecasting fashion trends as part of the merchandising team for Christian Dior and others. She moved to Houston five years ago and started her own design consulting business.
“I really wanted to create a place that reminded me of those other cities where I always shopped, and I didn’t find anything like that here. I wanted a place where women come and have a great time and leave feeling really excited and beautiful,” said Rhodes.
Racks are filled with a mix of familiar labels, including David Peck Crop, Catherine Malandrino and Bailey 44, as well as up-and-coming designer names such as Obakki, Ramy Brook and Nonno, several of them being sold for the first time in Houston. There also are Bloch ballet slippers, handbags from Below The Belt, denim by Henry & Belle and Viscaino, intimates, pet accessories and colorful jewelry by Gerard Yosca, Lulu Frost and Julie Vos.
The “home” portion of the name is represented by a chicly edited group of home accessories, from colorful throw pillows and elegant vases to Antica Farmacista scents, hand-painted Florentine picture frames from Cavallini & Co. and Seda France candles. There’s also a duo of couches by Kim Salmela in a soft off-white fabric with a rainbow of fabric options hung above them on clothespins.
The idea behind the couches, as well as the rest of the goods, is to bring custom options into the retail experience. Rather than carrying the entire line by one designer, Rhodes selects versatile pieces to carry in the store and orders samples of others that are displayed on dress forms. Based on her relationships with designers, Rhodes can order virtually any piece from any of the lines she’s carrying, even before they hit stores. It’s a continuation of a service she offers her consulting customers, who often are ready to buy a seasonal wardrobe up to six months in advance. In the store, that will translate to trunk shows with brands such as Bloch, which makes ballet flats to measure.
“It’s a very custom experience without that custom price tag,” said Rhodes. “To me, it’s a special thing: they can come in and get something that no one else in the city has.”
Rhodes also reached out to a friend who creates custom letterprint stationery in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the pair collaborated on some cute just-for-Texans designs, with holiday cards coming soon. Rhodes’ store is the first in the world to sell the line, called Lettuce Paper, and custom invitations or cards also can be ordered.
Rhodes’ picks are based not only on her experience in merchandising but also her life in Houston as a busy mom seeking out items that are chic but wearable, not to mention washable. She swears by the Viscaino jeans because the cut rises higher in the back, so she can bend down and still be covered. And rather than snap up J Brand’s popular coated denim, the version here keeps the same look but with a lighter, non-waxy feel, critical for warm Houston temps.
“I always try and find things that are really relevant and on-trend and are going on in New York, but make it possible to wear them in Houston,” said Rhodes. “I buy pieces that you can wear in multiple different ways. I don’t have time to shop all the time, and I like to get a lot of wear out of the pieces I buy, and that’s what I try to do for the women that shop with me.”