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Harriet Kassman's D.C. Boutique Is Closing

By Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

For more than 30 years, Harriet Kassman has personally greeted almost every customer who came through her doors. She calls her namesake boutique her living room and has decorated it accordingly, from the sofas and armchairs to the crystal chandelier. Kassman and her staff call many clients "friends," and they make sure to get them hems at the right length, sparkling water, and help zipping up dresses and finding matching pieces.

Kassman's boutique became a key stop when stocking the work and play wardrobes of Cabinet members, the wives of senators and Washington's career women. But now, with fewer galas and more customers cutting back, the shop in the upscale Mazza Gallerie in Northwest Washington is closing. The thousand-dollar gowns and suits by Badgley Mischka and Armani are marked down. Even the chairs, fixtures and now-bare mannequins wear "for sale" stickers.

Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio's legal affairs correspondent, said she doesn't know what she's going to do without the boutique. She got to know Kassman 15 years ago, when her husband spent six months in intensive care at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She'd stop by Kassman's after visiting at the hospital. For Totenberg, it was "a store with some humanity."

"I'd often buy something to cheer myself up," she said. "[Kassman] was just wonderful to me."

Harriet Kassman the person is a fixture in Washington's social circles, a lady who demanded that the doors to the store be kept unlocked during preparations for the "retirement" sale so that customers weren't turned away. Barely 5 feet tall, with feathery white hair and large, black-framed glasses, she was brought to tears by the fluorescent-orange "sale" signs being hung on the store's windows.

Harriet Kassman the store was an alternative to shops with a more traditional lineup of styles and less service. Her clients described it as the go-to place for something "a little different." It has full-time seamstresses in the store and sales associates who know their customers' bodies and tastes.

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, has shopped at Harriet Kassman since it opened and said she always found outfits and designers that "nobody else had."

"Harriet's store will be greatly missed by a lot of people in this town," Zirkin said.

Kassman's spokeswoman, Barbara Martin, said evening and formal wear have taken a huge hit in the past year as budgets got tight and galas and parties were canceled. The bridal section, which Kassman opened three years ago, is still thriving, Martin said, and accounts for about one-third of Kassman's sales. To deal with slower business, the boutique cut back on advertising and stopped opening on Sundays. But sales continued to dip, and Kassman mailed her loyal clientele postcards to notify them of the retirement sale a few weeks ago. When the inventory is gone, the main section will close, though Kassman still has hope that a "white knight" will save her store.

High-end retailers have been hit especially hard during this recession "because of consumers' adamant focus on price," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation.

"We were really on one end of the scale -- people were walking into the store and buying with abandon," Davis said.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said luxury retail sales in May were down 18 percent from May 2008, nearly double the loss of mainstream department stores. From February to May, luxury stores' sales fell an average of 19 percent a month from the corresponding period last year.

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