Fashioning a way into downtown Palo Alto | June 27, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- June 27, 2007

Fashioning a way into downtown Palo Alto

Clothing boutiques join forces to promote area as shopping destination

by Jocelyn Dong

To the pulsating beat of taiko drums, Esther Shih stepped out on the runway a few Saturdays ago, modeling a finely tailored black-and-white silk coat over black pants and a camisole.

It was the Palo Alto Downtown Boutiques' Association's first open-air fashion show on Bryant Street, and Shih -- a designer/store owner -- was doing her part to raise the profile of the consortium of boutiques.

Downtown Palo Alto may be better-known for its restaurants than its apparel, but over the past year, no fewer than 10 clothing retailers have opened, according to local store owners.

Six participated in the fashion show, along with interior design firm Hot Mango Pickle and a host of local restaurants.

With events like the fashion show, they're aiming to make downtown a shopping destination.

Shih's two-year-old store, Far East Living on University Avenue, offers Asian-inspired apparel. She calls her designs "fusion" -- combining Asian fabrics with Western designs, or Western fabrics with traditional Asian styles.

Among the first pieces she created were a lavender silk charmeuse blouse and matching A-line silk brocade skirt with an off-center pleat. The skirt was patterned with chrysanthemums, peonies and traditional Chinese "double-fish" and longevity characters.

Other garments at the store include intricately hand-embroidered wool tweed coats and backless silk dresses with mermaid flairs at the hem.

She offers two collections of clothing: Dynasty, which she designs, and Serenity, which includes the work of domestic designers. Dynasty garments sell for $200 to $2,200; Serenity pieces go for $19 to $300.

Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer have bought pieces from her, Shih said.

Mostly, she sells to Caucasian customers, some of whom enter the store believing they can't wear her fashions if they're not Asian, Shih said.

But the fusion look -- wearing a Far East Living jacket over jeans, for example -- is part of the aesthetic.

"People like to mix and match," Shih said of her collection.

Another designer to open in downtown Palo Alto is Neide Hall (pronounced "Nay-gee"). Her Charmosa on Bryant Street features Brazilian-inspired women's wear.

"What I'm trying to do is create clothes that it's easy to go on a cruise (with) and also go to work," Hall said.

Among her collection are breezy dresses made of black and white crinkled silk chiffon and others sewn from pastel cotton jerseys. Customers have responded positively, she said.

"My store they like because it's unique -- the colors, the mix of fabrics," she said. "They want something they don't see in the mall."

While some may think Brazilian styles are too bright, Hall has done her best to make the styles in tune with the local market.

"I love color, but it's not over the top," said Hall.

Of course, she also sells bikinis. Hers are handpainted in Brazil. One hot seller this year is white with aqua, green and turquoise, with a twisted bra top.

"People go crazy because it's different," she said.

Her bikinis range from $80 to $150.

A few doors down, Charina Cabanayan opened Bloom Butik one year ago. She specializes in an urban aesthetic.

Recently, she held up a Mike & Chris chocolate-brown top -- sweatshirt material, she said -- that's been styled with a round neck, two large buttons, buckles on the sleeves and a billowy silhouette.

It's an example of clothing that's "pushing the envelope," Cabanayan said, "a take on 'casual.' You can dress it up and down."

The high-end shop is not a place to get khakis and polo shirts.

"We sell the non-basic things people get," she said, standing amid garments made of lace, chiffon and cashmere, as well as cotton and spandex. "We have customers shopping for a special item -- something to fill a gap in their wardrobe."

For the most part, the boutique owners say, Palo Alto customers have a certain style. Cabanayan calls it "casual, yet sophisticated."

"I see women who are so put together," Cabanayan said. "Most of my customers are very fashion-savvy."

And as a group, the store owners believe their hopes in the Palo Alto market are well-grounded.

"A lot of people told me, 'Don't do University Avenue. No one shops there.' I disagreed. I felt a change coming. It seems like a perfect location for unique boutiques," Shih said.

In fact, the diversity of styles offered by the apparel stores could be their strength, she added.

"Nobody sat down and planned it out. If we were a mall developer, I don't think we could have planned it better. We're all so perfectly diverse. We don't compete with each other," she said.

Other boutiques that participated at the fashion show included Gitti's Fine Lingerie and Vian Hunter on Bryant Street and Fashion Passion on University Avenue.

According to Shih, the City of Palo Alto has already asked the group to sponsor a second fashion show in the fall, but members have not yet decided what their next event will be.

Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Lorena Santos
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2007 at 2:53 pm

Hello, I'm a mom for one of the models in the fashionshow how can I get this weekly magazine for June 27th? A appreciate your response at 650-575-4457. Thank you very much!! I always see you weeky edition but I miss this one. Thanks