Rosemary E. Reed Miller, who took a flair for the one-of-a kind and turned it into an institution, said she plans to close Toast and Strawberries, the boutique she opened nearly 40 years ago in Dupont Circle.
Miller, who resisted the discrimination she encountered as a young black woman trying to open a clothing store in the 1960s, said rising rents will force her to shut down the store.
She said a proposed 19 percent rent increase -- from about $3,200 to $3,800 a month -- would turn her store into "an expensive hobby" rather than a business. "There is a critical line that has been crossed," she said of the escalating rents in the neighborhood.
Her landlord said renovations would have forced Miller out in December, at least temporarily, and would eventually result in an even higher rent increase.
Miller tucked her 1,200-square-foot boutique into a narrow townhouse on 20th Street NW and there weathered three decades of gentrification and the conservative tastes of Washington men and women, stocking hard-to-find designs in an era of mass-produced sameness.
Her fashions appeal to shoppers who do not want to see themselves coming and going, Miller said in an interview at her store, where neighbors now include Ann Taylor Loft and United Colors of Benetton.
Few have had Toast and Strawberries' staying power, or its homespun charm. Labels are still handwritten. The walls are painted green and gold. And the clothes, not to mention the jewelry, are hand-picked by Miller and her staff -- the fur-covered men's jacket and the wearable art scarf (whose label says "handwash with baby shampoo, cold water").
Toast and Strawberries began not as a store at all, but as a showroom where Miller, who began selling on behalf of designers, housed her clients' wares. She let a few shoppers in to "pay the bills," she recalled, but the response was overwhelming. The showroom quickly turned into a boutique.
Over the decades, customers have included singer Aretha Franklin, actress Heather Locklear and Mrs. Casper Weinberger, according to the store's Web site. She opened on R Street at Connecticut Avenue NW, and then moved around the corner in 1995 to 20th and Q streets.
Rents soared all around her -- some to as high as $7,000 a month -- but Miller believed she could hold out. Now she is not so sure. The higher rent kicks in next month, and she plans to close the store in early October.
Hamid Kamvar, Miller's landlord, said he "was willing to work with her." He described the rent increase as minor but he said renovations are badly needed and would increase the rent. He said the upcoming increase would be $3,500, not $3,800.
Miller, meanwhile, became as well known for her civic efforts as for her fashion sense, promoting artists, advocating for women in business and raising funds for community groups -- often inside her store.
"I can't really imagine this is going to happen," said longtime Toast and Strawberries shopper Susan Drake Swift, who lives in Northwest Washington. "I think there will be a hue and cry."
Rosemary Reed is closing Toast & Strawberries in Dupont Circle.