Even when Liana Pai was forced to temporarily close the clothing store that bears her name, she still always put a dress in its window. “I wanted to have something beautiful for people to look at while they were walking down the street,” she said of this gracious act, which she kept up while the boutique was shuttered due to COVID. It is that kind of care that has made her shop a fashion destination on Columbus Avenue, between 75th and 76th Street, since 1982, when Pai’s mother and aunt first opened its door and unveiled that now-iconic window, ever displaying classic looks that, like the store, never go out of style.
A Brooklyn native who stills calls the borough home, Pai recounted all the memorable moments she’s had at the family-run shop from when she started working there part time during school breaks and time off from her acting gigs, to after she became a mom and decided to make it her full time career. At her “mini department store,” which carries notable labels like Theory, Vince and Michael Stars, she has dressed cherished clients for many of their milestone moments, from bat mitzvahs and jobs interviews to first dates and rehearsal dinners.
When asked about the best part of her job, she didn’t hesitate to respond with, “the customers.” From local mothers and artists to A-Listers like Madonna, Frances McDormand, Julie Andrews, Maria Shriver and Brooke Shields, Pai stressed the importance she places on helping women to feel good. And that purpose was only reinforced during the pandemic, when seeing her customers dressed up brightened her days. It was during that time that she was also reminded of the generosity of her clients, who showed their unwavering support by continuing to shop there, even when they didn’t have to. “I mean how much clothing did they need? They were Zooming,” she said.
Tell us how the idea for the store came about.
My mom [Eunsook Pai], at that time, was the director of graduate school admissions at Pratt Institute and my aunt [Hyunsook Lee], was working for Cornell Hospital as a coordinator at the kidney center. They were thinking of opening up a business and they started off looking at spaces, and the reason why they were thinking of a clothing store was because my aunt’s friend had opened up a little shop on the Upper East Side and they thought, “Oh, we could do this.” But when they looked at the prices on the Upper East Side ... especially starting in a business that they didn’t really know that much about, although my mom was always fashionable and even made clothes for me and my brother.
And then they found a space on Columbus, same location, and the rent just seemed like it was the right amount that they could risk ... I was 15 at the time and my mom and my aunt, when they got the space, they were thinking of names, and they finally just said to me, “Would you mind if we used yours?” I ended up working there on weekends and over summer breaks, because it’s a small business and you have to pitch in as family. Eventually, they ended up taking the apartment behind the space because it was approximately 400 square feet; it was very small initially. I was working with them and I was acting as well.
In the story our paper did when you won the Westy Award in 2019, it mentioned you worked as an actress.
Yes, I did a lot of theater. I did a lot of shows at The Public and Manhattan Theatre Club, some film and TV. But when I had my first daughter, I was six months pregnant and I had to have two heart valves replaced. And so, at that point in my life, I was kind of like, “You know what? I think I need to change careers.” And for me, being at the store and being part of a larger community and having real significant relationships with a lot of the women that come in and their families has really been an amazing thing for me. So I became a partner. My aunt retired about five years ago; she took care of the buying and my mother and I worked with customers in the store, merchandising and sales. We often all worked together on many aspects of the store. In the most recent years, because of COVID, I’ve had my mom not come into the store, but we talk every day. There’s nobody whose advice I can get that’s better than my mom and my aunt.
How did you pivot during COVID? I saw that video where you explained you were FaceTiming with clients.
When we were about to close, I was concerned about what was going to happen, because we didn’t know when we were going to be allowed back into the store ... so we quickly tried to photograph everything in the store, so that we could get an online site. We didn’t have an online presence; we always relied on word of mouth and people coming in. And I had heard about Shopify, which I know a lot of people all over the country started using during the shutdown. But it’s hard to start an online website and I wanted to retain my employees. I’ve had a lot of employees who have stayed five years, up to 10 years. And most of the people who have worked for us, I had them work from home because we were closed from March until the beginning of July.
Part of the thing too is that I’m immunocompromised and a lot of my customers know that, so I wanted to make sure that we did everything we could to have safety measures in place. We put a UVC light in our HVAC. I think I have so much Clorox in my back room I could probably sell some. [Laughs] So we got the online site up. My husband and I did deliveries all over the city. And I also did FaceTimes with customers because I had a lot of people who were asking how I was.
You have clients in places like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and London. Are these people who used to live in New York and moved away?
Some of them that’s how it happened and some of them, it was because a friend brought them into the store, so it’s a combination of things. We have customers who have memories of buying their first suit for an interview or their bat mitzvah dress or rehearsal dinner dress. Or they just had a baby and they feel like they don’t know how to dress anymore. And I think something that has always been key for us is the ability to make people feel good. As a customer wrote to me, “When I come in to see you, I feel better than when I walked in.” There’s a customer on the Upper West Side, Carol Newman, whose whole family — she’s the grandmother and all the grandchildren — have come into the store. But her sister, Belda Lindenbaum, was the first one who walked by the store and she came in and told my mom and my aunt, “You’re going to be a success.” All these years later, she’s passed, which was really heartbreaking, but her family continues to be a big part of our lives.
Tell us some stories about pieces you sold that had special meanings to customers.
I sold a dress to a woman for her first date with her future husband. So she ended up coming for her first date and ended up marrying the guy from the date. Recently a mother and daughter came in and were looking for something for their mitzvah and were having a challenging time because they didn’t necessarily want to go for a traditional look, and I was able to find her something and she was dancing in the store. I had one customer who meant a lot to me, and she would always come with a few friends who are also core [customers], I’d probably call them lifers. She had fought cancer a couple of times and there was one time she came into the store because she wanted me to dress her for the last time.
For people who haven’t yet been to your store, how can you describe its style? What brands do you carry?
We carry some recognizable brands like Vince, Theory, Equipment, Judith & Charles, a Canadian company. We carry some Canadian companies. A bunch of Italian companies, like Amina Rubinacci and Whyci. The Italian collections, what’s nice about them is they help me customize — I pick the fabrics; I pick the designs. Then I have things like Michael Stars T-shirts and Frame jeans.
As for memorable celebrity clients, I read that Sean Penn bought dresses for Madonna there.
Yes, he saw a dress in the window. It was a velvet Janet Russo dress that had these kind of burned-out roses; it was beautiful. And it came in both a dark midnight and forest green, and he bought both of them. Madonna kept one of the dresses and came in to exchange the second one. She bought a classic pair of pants and a hand-knit sweater.