With a go-go girl as window dressing, Selma Weiser opened a new boutique on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That was on April Fools’ Day of 1967. But Weiser, an out-of-work clothes buyer at the time, wasn’t fooling when she christened her new store Charivari, which means “uproar” in French.
In the intervening years Weiser, 56, and her kids, Jon, 32, and Barbara, 34, have caused quite a commotion in the fashion world. Their business, which grosses $12 million annually, counts Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Nastassja Kinski and Mariel Hemingway among its clients. There are now five Charivaris on the Upper West Side and, emboldened by their success, the Weisers have advanced on Midtown. Earlier this year they opened a sixth store, done up very Japanese modern, on West 57th Street—down the block from Henri Bendel and across the street from Bergdorf Goodman. The Weisers’ impact on the fashionable isle of Manhattan has not gone unnoticed within the industry. Last year they became the second retailers in the history of the Coty (L.L. Bean Inc. was the first) to snag an award for innovative merchandising.
Don’t look for ultraconservative clothes chez Charivari. “We are constantly looking for that new thing,” says Jon. “We take risks with unknown designers.” The Weisers were among the first in the U.S. to sell Giorgio Armani and the sporting British designer Katherine Hamnett. Ditto Marithé and Francois Girbaud and the way-out clothes of the British design firm Culture Shock.
Their biggest coup came three years ago when most department store buyers thought Japanese fashion meant a Madama Butterfly kimono. Barbara spotted an early Yohji Yamamoto collection on a buying trip to Paris in 1981. Cruising through a small Right Bank boutique, she zeroed in on a rackful of strange-looking shirts and pants. “I didn’t know whether I hated or loved them,” says Barbara, who showed them to Selma. Mama tried them on and was sold. Within half an hour Selma had written a $10,000 check and had Yohji signed up to an exclusive contract.
A bulky lady with carrot-colored hair, the hyperkinetic Mama Weiser has long been fascinated by fashion. In the early ’50s, before her marriage to fur buyer Magnus Weiser, she surveyed the market as a department store notions buyer, checking out bobby pins, hangers and bathing caps. In 1959 she became a dress buyer for a chain of specialty shops owned by Lane Bryant. By the mid-’60s, divorced and discouraged by the department store pace, she headed out on her own.
Although Selma didn’t force her children to work with her, Charivari has been a family affair almost from the beginning. Jon, a former film student at New York University, founded the highly successful men’s division in 1971. Four years later, Barbara, working at the time on her Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf at Columbia University, entered the Charivari fold full-time. In a close-knit mother-daughter act, Selma and Barbara split buying for the women’s division, which means tearing from fashion show to designer showroom every season.
Covering the international markets keeps the Weisers on the road more than three months a year, and they find the work to be grueling. Selma describes October’s European trip to write orders for next summer’s clothes as “twenty-five 13-hour workdays. It was absolutely crazy. It was a marathon.” Jon puts it this way: “There is constant pressure to reinvent the wheel. People think, ‘Well, now you have discovered Yohji and Japan. What’s next?’ ”
When they are not traveling, the Weisers are based in Upper West Side apartments within easy walking distance of each other. As for working with Mom, Jon and Barbara clearly respect Selma’s powerhouse drive. “We are a very close family,” says Jon. “And I guess if you have to be in business with your mother, it should be Selma Weiser.”