A Place Called LaRoque
I first came to meet Annabelle, the proprietor, fashion designer, seamstress, marketing department, floor manager for sales, and chief cook and bottle washer for LaRoque on a rainy spring afternoon in 2008.
We had fished the entire pond of Columbia’s spring fashion offerings and were driving home disappointed and empty handed, our moods as grey as the overcast sky when we spotted a baby blue and white striped seersucker sundress in the rain streaked window of a place called LaRoque on a street called Devine.
“I’ve never noticed that boutique before,” my fifteen year old daughter commented from the passenger seat.
“Me either. Want to give it a try?” said yes in a voice tinged with despair. We were shopping for a party dress that she could wear to the high school graduation celebration of her older sister and we were running out of time.
we parked around back and hugged the building for shelter against the May shower until we got to the front door which we pushed open only to find ourselves standing in the entrance of an upscale women’s intimate apparel shop. My daughter and I exchanged questioning glances before spotting what was either a large closet or a small shop off to our right and in its plate glass window the dress we had seen from the street.
“Hi. Welcome to LaRoque,” a petite, pretty, young woman greeted us from what I would come to understand was not a closet but a studio. My recollection is that the young woman, who introduced herself as Annabelle, was simultaneously smiling and talking around the pins she was holding in her mouth while expertly guiding a pair of seamstress’ shears through some richly colored patterned material on its way to becoming a fashion statement. Several hand tailored dresses crowded the walls in competition for space in the confined area allotted to LaRoque. And that, as they say, was the beginning. She tried on the seersucker dress. Annabelle fitted it for a slight alteration and when She walked into the graduation party a few days later wearing her LaRoque original there was no shortage of compliments on her dress.
Time passed and when the need came for something to wear for my oldest to go to sorority rush we found ourselves back in the studio shop on Devine. On another occasion, when the question was a little black dress, the answer was Annabelle’s, as I had come to think of it. And over time LaRoque outgrew its corner window closet space and occupied the entirety of the building.
it was mid-afternoon in mid-August when I found a parking space in front of Annabelle’s business neighbor, a Greek restaurant called Devine Foods. Once inside Laroque, there was Annabelle dressed in a pair of black runway shorts and coordinated top. I have always thought Annabelle is easily the best advertisement for her clothing line. Reprising the role in which my daughter and I had first seen her, Annabelle welcomed us while deftly brandishing a sewing needle loaded with thread that she was using to make final alterations to a garment. It occurred to me that Annabelle is a perpetual motion, multi-tasking machine.
Adorning the interior walls of the boutique were the results of the creative side of the proprietor’s brain in the form of dresses, skirts and blouses clustered on display hangars like small groups of friends flocking together in girl talk. In the studio birthplace area of LaRoque, Annabelle stood among a scattering of hounds tooth, black and white checked skirts that she was packaging for shipping and that would soon enough adorn the comely waists of fashion conscience women and girls at college football games on Saturdays and church on Sundays during the autumn season ahead.
A visit to LaRoque is more than a shopping trip. It is a social outing. While my daughters poured over the new styles, I took a place on a love seat across a coffee table from a young woman Annabelle introduced as Mama April who, although it would turn out was pregnant, had been dubbed “Mama” long before by Annabelle in that peculiar way Southerners have of adopting close friends as family by referring to them as Aunt so-and-so or Uncle this or that. It is a term of endearment. My children were ten and twelve before they discovered the wives of my best friends whom I always referred to as Aunt Gail and Aunt Karen had no branch on our family tree which explained why my girls never saw them at family reunions.
From a speaker somewhere above and behind me a Dylan tune caught my attention.
“Who’s the Bob Dylan fan?” I asked. No one in the shop but me could have possibly remembered that Sixties poet and icon.
I like Bob Dylan,” Annabelle owned up. “In college I dated a guy who would take me to a perch with a beautiful vista near Capstone dorm at USC and we would get drunk on cheesecake and Dylan.”
“I would love to be a fly on the wall in this place,” I said.
“I’m telling you. It’s like a beauty shop in here sometimes,” Annabelle confessed.
By this time, my daughter had tried on a dress, a skirt and the runway shorts and sister had joined me on the love seat. She liked the dress.
I had no idea who or what Milly is or was but my daughters and Mama April seemed duly impressed so I didn’t ask.
“Annabelle,” Mama April said, switching subjects, “you remember the dress I bought off of your back? I was going out of town and needed something to wear,” she said, directing the story toward me. “I came in here and liked what Annabelle was wearing so I bought it and took it with me. I wore it until I got tired of hearing the compliments.”
“And I gave you a previously worn discount,” Annabelle, always the entrepreneur, reminded.
As we were leaving, two other young women arrived, no doubt shopping for that “look” that would define them. They had come to the right place. On the way home, it occurred to me that when my daughters reflect back on some of the most important social occasions of their early years, they are going to remember that a place called LaRoque was part of it.