Then & Now: Upscale retailer is in the right place
1959 Family moves to Massachusetts after father’s death
1983 Opens Nouveau Fashion Gallery as an appointment-only store in a Boylston Street office
1985 Nouveau moves to Dartmouth Shops in Copley Place
2015 Moves to second floor in main mall of Copley
Take the escalators to the second floor of Copley Place across from Barney’s New York to the Nouveau Fashion Gallery and you’ve entered the world of haute couture, or at least it’s Boston’s equivalent, minus the outrageous Paris price tags.
It’s good enough for Liv Ullman, Debra Winger, Monique and even Lou Gossett Jr., though we’re not quite certain whom he shops for. Should he need a model for an item, the rail-thin woman behind the counter with the coif to shame Diana Rosswill gladly wrap herself in it, in a sweeping motion all but guaranteeing whoever it is will like it.
It’s a long way from Ophelia Bakon’s childhood, when her mother made the family’s clothes from grain sacks to wear in the cotton fields of Georgia. “My mother had to take me and (my sister) Wanda to the cotton fields with her,” Bakon recalls of Covington, Georgia, in the early 1950s. “She would put Wanda under a big bush and I would help her pick cotton and she would say, ‘Go and check your sister. Make sure no ants is on her.’ ”
The sisters — there are four in all, and one brother — also had to improvise their toys, such as a whirligig fashioned from a June bug tied to a stick.
Bakon is reminiscing in the store the sisters have run for 30 years. They’re all co-owners, but Ophelia is its face and full-timer, while the others have worked in other careers. This summer, they turned a corner, literally, by moving upstairs from a location that was openly called “the ghetto of Copley Place.”
“It was referred to as Black Alley or the ghetto of Copley or Minorities Row. We had all kinds of names,” Ophelia says of the strip of shops facing the Back Bay MBTA station, with limited access to the indoor mall.
She says she knew she had wanted to move into Copley as soon as she heard the development was making the minority spaces available — something the developers offered following protests by a displaced low-income community. On that row, she recalls seeing countless shops come and go, including a bookstore shortly after Nouveau’s opening in 1985.
“This young girl, I think she was about 24, 25; the first day she said to us, ‘I’m going to make a million dollars in a year,’ ” Bakon says. “And we were like, ‘OK!’ After about a month she would come in in the morning, turn the lights on, leave, and come back about 7 and turn the lights off. She lost that little bit of hope, and she started to goof off, basically, and eventually closed.”
Not that it was solely the fault of the proprietors. For years, Bakon says, the shops clamored for an elevator connecting to the main mall to no avail. “During those 30 years we learned about patience, perseverance, faith,” she says.
“When a customer walks in, you know what her body type is, what looks great on her. You learn how to relate to all nationalities, all personalities,” she continues, describing her clientele as “80 percent white, Middle Eastern, Asian, and maybe 20 percent black,” contrasting: “When we first started in 1983 (in an appointment-only office down Boylston Street), it was predominantly black.”
Bakon traces her aspirations to the late 1950s, when the family moved to Boston after the death of her father, assisted by his Social Security benefits. “We had never seen a place with beautiful hardwood floors, indoor plumbing, electricity. We loved it,” she recalls of the house on Highland Avenue in Fort Hill; a palace compared to their Georgia shotgun shack.
Her oldest sister, Fannie, had already graduated from college and settled in Boston. Ophelia and her other siblings followed. Ophelia studied business at Boston University Metro College and earned a cosmetology certificate from Wilfred Academy.
With the move, she says traffic and sales have doubled, but that’s all you’ll get. Refreshingly open, Ophelia willingly talks about anything — volunteering her age as 68 well before reaching that mark on Oct. 28 — except the store’s financials. Dun and Bradstreet lists the store’s revenue at $290,000, while A to Z Databases places it closer to $400,000. Sometimes earned the hard way.
“Yes. Yes. Like when I’m sitting there for a week, and no customer comes in. A week. A whole week,” she says. “I learned how to take that time and do other things. That’s how I developed my displaying skills. Just learning. Rather than make it a negative situation.”
Putting it further into perspective are real tragedies: The murder of her grandson five years ago and the passing of a son three years later. Her own near-death experience and, as she describes it, “a very bad relationship, domestic violence.”
Refreshingly open? Make that painfully so.
So will the move inside make that much a difference?
So Ophelia perseveres, her improbable journey likely unknown to the women who wander in, prepared to drop a hundred or two or three for a sweater-coat that makes a statement.
And who decide, like Ophelia after 30 years outside, they’re in the right place.
‘Once he died…’
Wanda Bakon keeps slipping up when telling the family story.
“Once Daddy died — well, not once he died, but after he died,” she says with an embarrassing chuckle, “we got a TV, a refrigerator. We got linoleum on our floors. We got couches. And then we moved to Boston, where kids had allowances.”
No disrespect or anything less than love is intended toward her late father; it’s just Wanda’s habit in telling the history. Her sister Ophelia picks it up.
“We came from what’s referred to as a shotgun shack. It was actually a two-family,” Ophelia Bakon recalls. “They had three rooms, and we had three.”
That was before their move North, where they share their memories in their women’s fashion boutique in Boston’s chic Copley Place mall. Their mother was born in the early 20th century the granddaughter of a landowner — highly unusual among African Americans in the rural, Jim Crow South, and even more so because they’d held onto the land. With that came an inheritance, though divided among 12 descendants, and zero assets from her marriage (the sisters say they may have eloped) to an unskilled laborer.
One by one, their mother’s relatives migrated north and relative prosperity while they wallowed in poverty. Then, in the mid-1950s, their father died, and the family received his Social Security death benefits. Though their mother was very frugal, she did spring for some material goods, and most importantly, took the children North — something that hadn’t happened earlier, Wanda recalls, “because Daddy wouldn’t go.”
“I didn’t know that,” says Ophelia.
“Daddy wouldn’t go. He would not leave.”
“Oh!” Ophelia exhales.
“So once he died ..!” their voices ring together.