Isabell Gerhart and the Golden Age of Boutique Shopping
I'll never forget the day I walked into Henri Bendel's famous Fifth Avenue shop, ready to invest in a strange new hat or finally buy that Pamela Love Pentagram cuff I'd been dreaming of for five months, only to discover that it seemed to have completely transformed overnight.
The Old Bendels, Photo from NYTimes
And it was definitely not the "glow up" transformation that would have restored it to its former glory days of yesteryear, either.
It was worse than a downgrade.
It was a tourist trap, filled with nothing but Henri Bendel-branded merchandise like headache-inducing candles and necklaces that only a real housewife of New Jersey could love.
Gone were the upstairs boutiques featuring up-and-coming jewelry designers, the room full of turbans, hats, and scarves by Anna Sui, Helene Berman, and Eugenia Kim, and the endless line of perfume bottles.
Instead, the upstairs floor was almost empty, and the downstairs floor was...not a place anyone who actually lives in New York would ever want to go.
It was clear that the new Bendel's had become the Times Square of retail -- and I wanted out immediately.
On my way towards the giant door, I encountered another bewildered shopper who, like me, hadn't seen this coming or been reading the fashion papers closely enough. "What happened?" She asked me, staring at tourists who were actually considering buying transparent plastic bag "purses" with "HB" written on them in a truly sad font.
"I have no idea," I said, and exited Bendel's for the final time.
The store, and all other Bendel's locations, blessedly closed a few months later, but in my opinion, they still let that dying horse suffer for too long before finally shooting it in the head and putting it out of its misery.
Bendel's hadn't even been allowed to die with dignity.
The Brutal End. Photo: Jessica Tyler, Business Insider
I've always liked boutique-style department stores like Neiman's and Bergdorf's (you can even, especially around Christmastime, catch me rummaging through the Christmas decoration sales at Bloomingdale's.)
However, the era of the department store, at least according to countless thinkpieces from the fashion world and elsewhere, is finally coming to a close.
And I'm even contributing to it, with my online vintage shop!
That being said, let's talk about one of the quintessential, if not a department store, certainly one of the most celebrated and sought-after couture and ready-to-wear boutiques of all time:
Isabell Gerhart's famous Houston store.
Isabell at a store opening. All remaining photos from Chron.
Since her 1949 arrival on the Houston society scene at the opening of the Shamrock Hotel, Gerhart became one of the leading dress buyers in Houston and elsewhere.
But it certainly wasn't planned.
In fact, Gerhart only opened her store because her husband knew a landlord who was looking for tenants for his River Oak building.
Despite having absolutely no experience with running a shop, the Gerharts opened up a dress shop, spending every cent of their savings in the process.
To call it a risk would be an understatement.
In fact, Gerhart was so nervous when the first-ever customer walked into her shop that she hid, asking another sales representative to step in.
Salesladies prepare for a hard day's work at Gerhart's store.
But perhaps ironically, it was Gerhart's attention to detail, meticulous eye, and above all, her one-on-one, personalized customer service and a genuine love for her clients that made her a success.
In a 1973 interview with Texas Monthly, Gerhart stated, "We knew each customer almost like kinfolk, in fact, we sometimes had to remind ourselves not to make it too much like a club and to welcome strangers when they came in. We tell our girls that a customer should feel as though she were in our living room—treat her as a lovely guest, offer her sherry or coffee, try to be honest."
She went on buying trips in New York, and whatever she came back with would quickly become the ultimate fashion of the moment in Houston and beyond.
Both Gerharts were extremely personable, funny, and likely mostly unaware of the kind of impact they were having.
In a 1991 article on Gerhart, she says of being a working woman, "It just came naturally, working and raising a family."
A beautiful shot of Gerhart admiring her shop.
She also developed quite a social network, spending time with some of the biggest and most influential names in fashion. But she wasn't just buying their designs for her shop -- she was a genuine friend to big names like Adele Simpson, Oscar de la Renta, Bob Mackie, Louis Feraud, and Mary McFadden (among countless others.)
She also offered custom clothing under her own Isabell Gerhart label, which were designed by Michael Novarese and Ronald Amey.
Over the years, she would move her shop to the Galleria shopping center back to River Oaks, where it dressed some of the biggest names in Houston society and Hollywood alike until its closure in 1993.
Gerhart passed away in 1996. She was 78 years old.
Her pieces are getting harder and harder to find today, and fetch moderate prices like $80-$100 all the way up to well over $1,000 for gowns and more unusual pieces.
I don't know about you, but I do wish that more shopping experiences emulated Mrs. Gerhart's sense of commitment to her customers.