The liquidation sale happening at Nolita is on through Friday, July 31, but a visit to the store last week already found its racks heavily depleted, picked over by wolfish shoppers hunting for deals on separates, jewelry, and of course, denim. For years Nolita has been ground zero for jeans in Portland, with a huge selection of styles for both men and women. Invariably, it seemed, they were all over the latest designer lines that were getting buzz—if you read about it in a magazine, chances were they already had it in stock. The "denim bar" was complemented by a no-nonsense selection of tops, sweaters, and jackets. They didn't fool around too much with color, knowing their customers would invariably go for the blacks and grays that would go with anything, like the jeans they were paired with.
Nolita as we have known it in Portland was heavily influenced by Katy Kippen, who opened and ran the Portland location after having worked at the original Nolita in Missoula, Montana, under the owner, Margit Meriwether. Kippen took real enjoyment in the work, and carefully studied the customers in order to tailor her orders to their preferences. Now, after about seven years, Kippen is leaving the store, which is going through transitions of its own.
The diminishing racks at Nolita aren't—happily—heralding that the store is going out of business. The lease is up in August, and after unsuccessful renegotiations with the landlord, it was decided that Nolita would move to a new location (as yet to be determined). But the fact that Kippen won't be moving with it does mean that it will never be the same.
Though the store may be solvent, Kippen is frank about the current chaos in the retail industry that has been wrought by the economic events of the past year. She points out that few people think of the impact on stores beyond the cash register, but boutiques are being hit from both the customer and manufacturing ends. Obviously customers are being more persistent in limiting their purchases and waiting for sales. In addition, behind-the-scenes suppliers and lines are being bought "like crazy" by corporations. (I felt a tiny stab into my heart when Kippen listed Mike & Chris, a favorite of mine and Nolita's, as one such company that is now "all corporate.") Production is being delayed or canceled due to a lack of orders, and shipments of goods are more frequently showing up late or end up being of poor quality. On top of that, changing lending practices are upending the way most stores operate, forcing them to pay up front for goods rather than selling them in order to pay, which is "how it's operated for years," she says.
It seemed a good time, then, to look at other options. Kippen's been making jewelry since high school, when her line (hilariously called "Katy Duds") was popular among schoolmates. Her most current work takes the name Grayling (graylingjewelry.com), which she explains is partly named after her love of the color gray, partly because she thinks of the citizens of this gray city as "graylings," and partly in tribute to the fish of the same name. Her work is already selling briskly at Relish (1715 NW Lovejoy) and is on the brand-new online store pdxboutique.com, founded by WeMa apparel designer Wendi Martin. She plans to use her knowledge of what boutiques look for to angle toward 10-15 more wholesale accounts in the next year and in a major coup, is moving into the studio of longtime under-the-radar Portland jeweler John Rink, giving her access to advanced machinery that she otherwise would have had to pay immensely. Kippen has also begun consulting with retail stores on their marketing, and may even pursue work as a personal shopper (with a specialty in fitting denim, naturally).
As Meriwether shops for Nolita's new Portland home, we'll have to wait to see how the store's new direction plays out. In the meantime, you might want to stock up on those jeans while you can. (Nolita moving sale, 923 NW 10th, through Fri July 31)