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Octavia changing to remain in fashion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was 1965 when Octavia Dugan, a local beauty with an eye for fashion, opened her elegant store in the start-up Village of Cross Keys. The shop, simply called Octavia, was an instant hit among Baltimore's fashionable moneyed set - women like Dugan, then nearing her 50s, who wanted a local place to buy classic suits and tailored ensembles for daytime wear and sophisticated dresses for the evenings.

Forty years later, Baltimore's moneyed set wears designer jeans and jeweled flip-flops during the day and has stepped up the sexy quotient for nighttime affairs. And it's their daughters and granddaughters who are driving the retail market, demanding edgier labels, trendier styles and more bling for their considerable bucks.

And so the Octavia that for years anchored the tony Cross Keys shopping center has had to evolve.

Octavia Dugan has long since retired, and her store - now run by her grandson and his fashion-model wife - is bolder, hipper, younger. It is less Roland Park and more Hollywood Hills meets Upper East Side.

"I think it's so glamorous," says Dugan, 89, taking a look around the jazzed-up store Jay and Betsy Dugan have created. "And I'm so proud of these two."

The younger Dugans are smart, to be sure. But they are also in step with a nationwide trend in retail. If specialty stores hope to stay viable in the lightning-paced market that fashion has become, experts say, they have to attract a younger, more fashion-forward customer.

"It's always been important in retail to adapt to customers' tastes," says Jay McIntosh, director of retail and consumer products for Ernst and Young, an international accounting and consulting firm. "But it's even more important now."

The population is changing, McIntosh says; baby boomers are aging. Wealthy spenders have more choices - shopping malls, discount stores, the Internet - about where to spend their money. And the more-diverse middle class is willing to spend more than ever before for aspirational fashions.

"It's not just the wealthy that like luxury goods today," McIntosh says. "The middle class may be moving up for some purchases. And the younger middle class may want a store with a little different feel."

That's why Octavia moved five years ago from Cross Keys to a strip-mall stretch of Pikesville that is fast becoming Baltimore's new style center.

Since then, the new owners have brought in hip designer labels such as Milly, TRB by Tory Burch, Iisli, Nanette Lepore, Paper Denim & Cloth and Moschino.

Today, celebrating the company's 40th anniversary, which was Monday, Octavia will officially unveil the new collection of Marc Jacobs handbags - a highly sought-after line that is mostly carried by high-end department stores.

And, recently, quietly, they've even changed the store's name, adding "etc." - suggesting variety, newness, possibilities.

"Retail stores are finding that it's not only the moneyed socialite who needs their midrange to upscale services and are willing to pay for them," says image consultant Dianne M. Daniels, author of the book Polish & Presence: 31 Days to a New Image.

Upscale specialty stores, like Octavia, have to give the new fashion-forward woman an incentive to bypass the mega-malls and discount stores to spend those extra few dollars. Usually, that incentive is the promise of quality and cachet.

Octavia of the 1960s provided that.

Today's Octavia, Betsy Dugan says, provides "a little rock 'n' roll," too.

"People are going to realize when they walk through the front doors that there's something different," says Jay Dugan, 41, who took over the family business in 1991. "This is not my grandmother's Octavia."

In its new, larger, brighter space at 1838 Reisterstown Road, Octavia looks more like a hip New York shopping destination, with boldly painted accent walls and surprising architectural details, such as amphitheater-styled cut-outs in the ceiling.

The front entrance is decorated with artistically styled outfits from designer Elie Tahari. Mannequins sport colorful La Roc blouses and studded Be & D handbags. Diane Von Furstenberg's latest designs grace one rack. Big Star jeans hang from another.

The new designers appeal to young professionals like Kristen Collie, 34, who has been driving to Pikesville from Arlington, Va., since she discovered Octavia a year ago during a shopping trip with her mother and grandmother for dresses to wear to her brother's wedding.

"I'm a little bit edgier, more fitted, more trendy," says Collie. "Mom and my grandmother are more classic. But it's great, because we can all go and have a fun shopping experience together and know that we're leaving with great clothes for all of us."

That's no accident. The Dugans, along with several new buyers, have carefully thought out the store's mix of classic and contemporary.

On one side of the room, there's French tweeds by Gallant and Max Mara suits. On the other side, Pucci scarves, Roberto Cavalli sunglasses and $1,200 Marc Jacobs bags - the hottest-selling handbag in fashion.

"In the '50s, women used to match their nail polish to their lipstick to their pocketbook to their suit," says Andrea Kaplan, Octavia's new contemporary buyer. "No one wants to do that anymore. People are mixing and matching."

In pulling off the store's own personality reinvention, Jay Dugan says it was important that the makeover not be so drastic as to alienate Octavia's historical clientele. "We're pushing the envelope for the Baltimore market. But we're buying it carefully," says Jay Dugan.

Barbara Katz, for instance, who has been shopping at Octavia since it opened, says she's noticed the contemporary bent the store has taken, but doesn't find it overwhelming or dismissive.

"I don't dress according to the latest whim in fashion," says Katz, 71, of Pikesville. "I dress for myself."

She calls her taste "rather sophisticated," and she prefers fine apparel, classic suits and dresses to "some of these newer clothes that are definitely ingenue for younger people."

And she says she can still find those classics at Octavia.

The store's careful mix of old-fashioned tweeds and glittery beads may be working in part because of Betsy Dugan, a former model and retail specialist who works as the store's primary buyer.

At 40, Dugan is equally as comfortable in a designer ribbed tank top and sneakers as she is in a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress and pearls.

"Women are different now," says Dugan. "A 65-year-old woman, she's at the gym. She's doing all the things she wasn't doing 40 years ago. ... Our store is for her and for her daughter. That customer who has made herself educated on fashion."

Octavia

What: Marc Jacobs Trunk Show

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and tomorrow, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; a Marc Jacobs representative will be in the store tomorrow.

Where: 1838 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Goodies in the bag: Handbags, consignment pieces, samples; gift with purchase of Marc Jacobs bag; raffle prizes; giveaways.

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