Jillian Punska owner of Seven Sisters boutique (located at the 811 building on NE Burnside in Portland, Oregon) sat down with me for coffee and a quick chat about the details behind her thoughtfully curated women's boutique. Over a croissant, a honey latte and a too-cute-for-words dress, Jillian was adorning (yes, I was obsessing and still am), she answered a few questions I know all of us have been dying to ask.
MH: What motivated you to want to be a boutique owner?
JP: I have a degree in studio art and art history and I was working in art museums for many years. I got in a car accident and while recovering it gave me some time to think about what I really wanted to do. For fun, I started estate shopping and vintage hunting. I tried selling at Flea Markets and realized I really enjoyed interacting with customers. I realized that I wasn't getting enough of that kind of interaction from my career at the museum. After that, I knew I wanted to keep working with people. I just love helping people find and search for the things they love.
MH: How did you have the concept for the store? Was it inspired by a childhood experience? Or while working at the museums?
JP: My store is named after the "cultname" for the first seven women's colleges on the East Coast. I grew up around those schools in western Massachusetts. I was highly influenced by the rich history and stories about the women who attended these schools. I lived nearby Emily Dickinson's home for example. One time I was walking in the forest and came across a cluster of historic graves in Old Deerfield, I mean its kind of morbid, but also such a unique experience growing up in a place where one can stumble upon this kind of history while out for a walk. Having that kind of experience with these real things, real objects, really inspired me. It's kind of similar with my relationship to vintage, the idea that this object that I can hold in my hands now can connect me to another time, it is almost spiritual to me. I also often attended free lectures at the colleges, as well as looked at archives of these women's letters and writings, like Sylvia Plath, in the archives and libraries. I later attended Smith College for undergraduate studies. If you pay close attention to what my store offers you will notice a little bit of a feminist and art history vibe in the choices we make in what we carry. Smith is the place that inspired my love and devotion to those ideas.
MH: How old were you when you realized you were surrounded by this rich American history?
JP: Pretty young, I'd say I was about ten years old. I remember I did a summer program at Smith College and the history is just around, it is everywhere there. I just grew up falling in love with learning.
MH: Were you mainly influenced by the literary figures who attended these schools?
JP: No, I was influenced by many different women; scientist, artists, historians etc. In fact, I almost went back to school for medicine but then Seven Sisters happened!
MH: I know you have a degree in studio art and art history. When you are out buying product are there certain artists that you are particularly influenced by when choosing designs/designers each season?
JP: I'm definitely drawn to designers that are looking at that sort of thing. I have a jewelry designer now in my store that's influenced by Alexander Calders' mobiles--how they turn and move--called Tara 4775. Another good example of this is with a clothing designer, Sunja Link from Canada. I am highly attracted to designs, clothing wise, that look and feel like you are wearing a piece of art. Sometimes it won't reveal the artistry until you actually put it on and see how the fabric has been cut, and the mastery in how it drapes on your body. We are always looking for clothes that are inclusive in fit and will fit a wider range of body types. We look for clothing that is super wearable, that you would want to wear multiple times a week if you could, in many different ways. We adore Emerson Fry, because the fabrics they use are super functional. For example, they use stretch silk that tends not to wrinkle like most other silks and moves with your body. Everything is ethically made and at a very fair price. At Seven Sisters we are looking for high quality items that will last.
MH: Where and how did you find these designers currently in store? Was it at market? How do you stay in the know?
JP: I found Emerson Fry at Capsule in New York. Sunja Link, I found on Instagram because she was doing a collaboration with a fabric designer, Banquet, that I loved. Her dresses have been super popular. Many times designers cold call and send me emails with their brands look book or line sheet. I don't know if many people click open on those things, but I actually do. I also find designers online and on Etsy. I spend a lot of my time looking for people who are emerging and not yet represented in Portland.
MH: Are you open to taking a designers first collection, or do you prefer buying in their third or fourth season?
JP: Yes, I take designers on their first collection. It's been a fun thing to do. The pieces tend to be from a small run which makes the items very special.
MH: I am HUGE on encouraging my clients to create a strong partnership with their retailers/buyers. It's a big part as to how I was able to win Trina Turks professional respect as a retail sales associate turned designer. Do you find that most designers are doing this and understand the value of your insight?
JP: Oh yeah, like one of the new designers I picked up wants to know what people are saying in the dressing rooms from the size of the armholes to the neck hole, etc. (laughs). I love working with people who are new to the business, as it can be more of a collaboration and more of an investment on my part in their brand's success.
MH: So we both agree that the designer and buyer relationship can be super valuable to the betterment of a line if the right information for strategy and growth is being collected and applied. What would you say you are currently in high demand for, product wise, according to your Seven Sisters customer needs?
JP: Right now I need more sizes! I need more 14, 16, and so on as well as extra small and petite. I have the customers, there are people who want to shop those sizes and love fashion and boutique shopping. I know the customer is definitely there.
MH: Have you ever come across any huge mistakes designers have made, for example line sheets, how they approach the retailer partnership, production, etc?
JP: Specific care instructions. I have had two orders now, that when steamed ruined the garment. I'd ask for more testing on the fabric pre-production. Spend time knowing more about the garment details. Think more about the function of the materials and how people are actually going to use them, wash them, steam them, live in them.
MH: Are you influenced by any particular runway designer?
JP: I look at runway, but I don't point to it as inspiration. I am more into the smaller designers. Miranda Bennett Studio, Emerson Fry, Paloma Wool, Diarte, Proud Mary, Revisted. Designers from all over the country and world.
MH: Do you have a particular favorite season that you enjoy buying for over the others?
JP: Personally, I definitely love dressing for winter more. But I think more unique designs come out in the spring/summer, so I actually enjoy buying for warmer weather the most.
MH: So I am going to read a "this or that" of options. Answer one of the two options that is most you!
MH: High heels or flats?
JP: Neither...clogs and boots.
MH: Dessert or forest?
MH: City or town?
MH: Music or movies?
MH: New York or LA?
MH: Paintings or photography?
MH: Leather or lace?
MH: Cotton or cashmere?
JP: Cotton. And sometimes cashmere too.
MH: Runway or street style?
JP: Street style.
MH: Coffee...black or with cream?
MH: Paris or London?
MH: Decades...70's, 80's or the 90's?
Seven Sisters // 811 East Burnside Street Suite 112 Portland, Oregon // sevensisterspdx.com