It wouldn’t have been surprising if Rizik’s had closed.
After 109 years in business, much of it from the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street in Northwest Washington, the family-owned fashion boutique had run out of family members who wanted to devote their professional lives to hemlines, alterations and the ever-changing moods of first-time brides. A good percentage of the store’s loyal customer base had retired, moved away or died. The Internet had upended the model for independent retail. Rizik’s was not a business with a bright, shining future. It was “challenged,” as one family member diplomatically described it.
But Rizik’s didn’t close. Despite the familial shifts, the cultural upheaval and the dying off, Rizik’s refused to go quietly into history.
Instead, at the end of July 2016, Rizik’s shuttered its doors. Not for good, a sign promised, but for a major renovation — one that dragged on and left more than a few people suspicious that the darkened interior was really just the beginning of the end. “I was not confident at all they’d reopen,” said customer Janet Janjigian.
But then, on April 17, Rizik’s returned. There was no party. No drumroll. The family just turned on the lights and unlocked the doors.
It wasn’t dramatic, but it was remarkable.
The store, originally called Rizik Brothers, opened at F and 15th streets in 1908, a time when life moved more slowly and with greater formality.
The Rizik brothers had come from Lebanon at the turn of the 20th century and established themselves as haberdashers importing lace from Europe. After saving a bit of seed money, they opened their own dress shop and began selling ready-to-wear, which was beginning to blossom in New York.
Rizik’s catered to the well-to-do, to women who had social clout and busy social calendars. The brothers became known for their attention to detail and their customer service. A woman in a pinch could walk into the boutique, buy an evening gown for a formal dinner later that same day, and have it altered in time to make the cocktail hour.
In its heyday, which lasted into the late 1980s, when gross sales were reportedly about $4 million a year, customers from Mamie Eisenhower to journalist Helen Thomas shopped there for professional wardrobes and inaugural ballgowns, wedding dresses and little pick-me-ups.
There was nothing edgy about Rizik’s. It was a store filled with glimmering chandeliers and soft love seats, deep pile carpeting and hushed tones. The day-to-day business was overseen by two second-generation sisters: Miss Renee and Miss Maxine, who even today have a quietly firm demeanor, but one that always allowed for this mantra: The customer is always right.
“If the customer says it’s black and you know it’s navy — it’s black,” says Maxine Rizik Tanous. “You never asked a customer her size. You never asked what she wanted to pay. You asked her what she wanted. And whatever she wanted, you gave it to her. You never let a customer go out disappointed.”
The store had its ups and downs, as all businesses do. The 1930s were tough. But the World War II years were flush, as money poured into Washington. The ’60s brought fashion’s “youthquake” and the rise of a generation of working women. Luncheons turned into lunch. Rizik’s adapted.
“You had to go with the wind. We added different departments. We added sportswear and working clothes,” says Rizik Tanous.
The times kept changing and Rizik’s did too. But the changes started coming faster, and it was hard to figure out exactly how to respond to e-commerce, disposable fashion, social media, yoga pants and an endless stream of new designers that most people had never heard of and yet were charging thousands of dollars for a dress. The youngest member of the sales team was about 70 years old. The store was catering to women 65 and older, and it was doing so in a way that was not welcoming to younger customers.
“The young girls run into H&M and buy what they want during lunch and still have time to eat,” Rizik Tanous says. The only time they seem to slow down is “when it comes time to shop for a wedding gown.”
“I’m getting married in three weeks.” They think they’re shopping early. They think three weeks is a lot of time. But it’s not. Not when a dress has to be ordered and altered and tried on and tweaked and tried on again.
“But Rizik’s never said no to a customer,” Rizik Tanous says. “The store still gives personal service. What else can you give?”
The third generation of Rizik siblings and cousins is dispersed across the country. They have dedicated themselves to marketing and finance and politics. But not to retail. Miss Renee, with her delicate physique and halo of café au lait-colored hair, visits the store about twice a week. She still remembers the old clients, their likes and dislikes. Miss Maxine, who used to do all the buying, still comes in, too. But she’s 88 now. Still elegantly attired, her graying hair set just so — but feeling the weight of her years.
So yes, the store could have closed. That’s what retail pioneers Martha in New York and Louis Boston did. Saks Jandel, too. Run by the Marx family, Saks Jandel was the other multigenerational Washington fashion fixture. The 128-year-old Chevy Chase boutique announced its closing last year, a family-run business that had run out of family members interested in running it.
But Rizik’s didn’t close, for reasons that might best be summed up as: It was too old to close. It had lasted too long to end. It was part of the family identity, says Jackie Tanous Jacobson, FaceTiming in from her home in Colorado.
“Family engagement doesn’t directly link to the continuation of the business,” says Paul Jacobson, Jackie’s husband. He likens Rizik’s to Marriott Hotels or the Ford Motor Co. Smaller, of course. Much smaller. But a business that continues independent of its founders.
That’s how they came to hire Ande Riggins-Johnston, 44, a tall, lanky mother of two who grew up mostly in Tennessee and has a background in fashion retail.
Riggins-Johnston oversaw the store’s renovation, because if there was one thing the family knew, it was that the store needed a fresh start. She’s also the general manager, lead buyer and the face of the store’s next chapter.
“There were lots of discussions about whether to close or remodel. But this is the whole history of how they came to this country as a family,” says Riggins-Johnston. “They loved it so much. It was Miss Maxine and Miss Renee’s whole life. They didn’t want it to end. But they knew it needed a new direction.”
Rizik’s sits on the second floor of a commercial building on a busy corner where morning commuters hustle up from the Farragut North Metro station and make a beeline to Peet’s or Paul for a shot of caffeine. A passer-by would have to look up to notice the full glory of Rizik’s, and most people are looking down — down into their mobile phones, where they are texting or emailing or quite possibly shopping.
Life thunders along at street level. And up above, behind the wide glass windows where one can make out a few faux cherry blossom branches, a twisting, dark wood staircase leads to a wide, open sales floor. Light pours in. The tones are not hushed. Macklemore is rapping from the sound system.
“We don’t want to be a large department store. We’re fine as an entity that’s intimate,” says Tanous Jacobson.
They simply want to be relevant and in the thick of fashion. Riggins-Johnston has added collections by Elizabeth Kennedy, Brandon Maxwell, Christian Siriano and Adam Lippes. They will hang alongside Oscar de la Renta and Naeem Khan. She’s added less expensive collections, such as Frame denim, Rachel Zoe and Derek Lam 10 Crosby. The Paris-based brand Paule Ka is well represented. The fur coats are gone, but the bridal salon remains. A younger, five-person sales team has replaced the old guard.
There are no longer 20 seamstresses ready to nip and tuck in an emergency. But Elsa Montero is still there, adding sleeves to sleeveless dresses, taking in waists on trousers, creating custom bridal veils.
“When I went back this last time, none of the people who used to be there were there anymore,” said Janjigian, a media crisis consultant who lives in Los Angeles but visits Washington regularly. “Every woman at a certain time in life needs a makeover, and that’s what [Rizik’s] did. They’re appealing to a younger, fashion-conscious group of Washington women.”
The store also made a sale. Janjigian picked up a navy, boat-neck Black Halo sheath for evening outings. “Bravo to them for taking this risk,” she said.