Business

A notion to be the ‘fourth Esther’

Employee takes the reins of downtown fabric store.

“Come in and meet the new owner!”

If the window sign that appeared in mid-December sparked a momentary panic, Esther’s loyalists were quickly reassured. The venerable Winslow fabric store is in good hands, and will continue to be an island institution.

“Esther’s isn’t broken, so there wasn’t anything to fix,” said new owner Jennifer Rhoads. “I just want to kind of massage the store a little bit here and there.”

Rhoads, who took over on Dec. 13, has worked at Esther’s for several years, and the staff is essentially unchanged. That includes former owner Mary Terry, who still works at the store a couple days a week but now has more time to focus on her interior design business.

Esther’s will maintain all of its current offerings, the new owner says. But customers will begin to see some subtle changes, including a greater emphasis on fashion fabrics.

Rhoads’ fine-tuning of the shop will include updating the notions section, to help customers take projects from start to finish. She also plans to change the floor layout to make it more “shoppable,” and to upgrade some of the basic fixtures. And pedestrians will see traditional window displays along Winslow Way.

The focus on fashion fabric comes from Rhoads’ own training in fashion design. She has a degree in Women’s Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and spent five years in Seattle doing corporate fashion design for companies like Eddie Bauer. There, she worked in outerwear and men’s wear, and helped launch the brand’s new golf line.

But Rhoads wasn’t happy working in the world of corporate fashion, which she labels “an oxymoron.” She was also disturbed by the company’s attempts to break into contemporary fashion at the expense of their core market.

“You can’t buy something like that, and here they were throwing it away,” she said.

She left Eddie Bauer several years ago, at a time when the local fashion industry seemed to have reached a dead-end.

“With the death of grunge, the spotlight was moving off the Seattle scene,” she said. “Lots of the younger, hipper stuff had moved out to L.A. Even the companies that are still here – Cutter & Buck, Tommy Bahama, Nordstrom, R.E.I. – aren’t doing as much as they used to.”

Raised up

Deciding to do something completely different for a while, she went to work at Blackbird Bakery – feeling her creativity begin to leaven along with the yeast.

A subsequent move to Esther’s brought her passion for fashion design back to the fore.

“I could feel the creativity coming back, just seeing this much fabric and talking to customers about their projects,” she said. “It’s so charging to be in here every day, working with all this great stuff.

“One day back in August, I realized that I could buy this shop and have the best of both worlds.”

She started negotiating the purchase with Terry, and the deal was finalized in December. “I’ve had a smile on my face every day since, so I figure it was a good decision,” she said.

Rhoads hopes eventually to launch her own fashion line, and she sees the store as a “great jumping-off place.”

Family interests are also shaping some changes at the store. Her husband does cross-stitch, “and he’s sick of going to Canada for the good stuff.” (That’s not as odd as it may sound, she says. Cross-stitch is a traditional maritime occupation, and her husband is a Navy submariner.)

So Rhoads is working with Churchmouse Yarns and Teas to develop a line of cross-stitch supplies that will complement, rather than compete with, that store’s needlepoint wares.

This year will mark the store’s 45th anniversary, and Rhoads believes that the business, founded in 1959 by Esther Fox, is the oldest continually open fabric establishment in Washington.

Calling herself “the fourth Esther,” Rhoads emphasizes that the store “really is an institution on this island, and it will always be Esther’s.

“To me, that’s hugely important – holding on to that history and heritage.”

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