Houston, one of the most stylish cities on the planet, has always had an eye to a fashionably sophisticated point of view. Here, our vintage retail expert Lori Duran looks at how the city became so chic… and the stores behind that sensibility.
BOOM TOWN, USA
During the 20th century the Texas oil boom was in full swing and Houston was at the center of it. With a fashion scene tuned to the trends around the world, shopping in downtown Houston was a phenomenal experience. Department stores such as Sakowitz, Foley’s, Battelsteins, Neiman Marcus, Joske’s and other famed establishments formed a Main Street shopping mecca. Additional shopping sites off of Main, such as Rice Village, River Oaks Shopping Center, Pappagallo and Tootsies, completed the city’s fashion landscape. Mary McCleary and Jill Kohnert Nicholson, who grew up in Houston, share their memories of a golden age of shopping in Houston during the 1960s.
McCleary recalls that she used to shop almost every Saturday (girls didn’t participate in sports and other activities before Title IX, like they do today). They typically went downtown to check out Foley’s, Sakowitz, and Neiman Marcus. Mary knew her usual sales lady at Neiman Marcus who helped her since childhood. Her memories include buying plaid dresses for school and kid gloves downstairs. “The store we all loved best was Pappagallo on Kirby,” she recalls. “It was filled with the colors that characterized the time: lime greens, zesty oranges and bright pinks. We would wait for the sales. In fact, my mother let me skip school those days and like so many other young Houstonians we would line up at the door early and come away from those sales with stacks and stacks of multicolored shoes – something to match every dress. I went off to college dressed like this.”
Jill Kohnert Nicholson also recalls shopping in Houston for clothing, shoes and accessories at the beginning of each school year, during the changing of the seasons. “There were always many social events to attend and dress up for throughout the school year, especially during one’s senior year in high school,” she muses. “Shopping for a beautiful dress at an upscale Houston department store was always a fun and special occasion. It was a different time. Men and women wore hats, gloves and hosiery. These departments were popular and well stocked. Handbags and shoes matched outfits.” At the time, Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy were influential trendsetters. Kennedy especially influenced fashion with her European look, Oleg Cassini pillbox hats and shift dresses.
Perhaps Houston’s most fabled store, Sakowitz, was a first-class store that first opened in 1902 in Galveston. Within a few years the family business moved to Houston, where over the years they had various downtown store sites and became known as a specialty destination. First specializing in men’s and boys’ apparel, the women’s departments were added in 1929. In 1951, they opened their last downtown Sakowitz store, at Main and Dallas street, across from Foley’s. Starting in the 1950s, Sakowitz began adding locations such as the Gulfgate Shopping Center, the Galleria-Westheimer site, Town and Country Village and other locations.
Nicholson reminisces that the Sakowitz “Sky Terrace” was a lovely elegant tearoom in their downtown flagship store. “There was a fountain in the center and the tearoom was set up like a southern garden. Live models wearing the latest fashions circulated among the tables conversing with interested patrons about the garment they were wearing and where to purchase it in the store. The meal would start with a basket of cheddar cheese straws and sweet orange rolls. A favorite item to order was the shrimp and avocado salad.” They also offered a creative children’s menu with sandwiches cut into animal shapes.
Fur coats were popular then for well-dressed Texas ladies despite the oppressive heat. In Houston, both Sakowitz and Neiman Marcus offered fur storage and services. These refined stores were intensively competitive with each other for years and each maintained similar services and they each branched out to include boutique stores in the lobby of the legendary Shamrock Hilton Hotel.
The downtown Sakowitz was a well decorated marble-clad luxury store that was festooned with lavish indoor decorations during the holiday season and held exciting seasonal designer fashion shows. The store had a fashion-inspired exhibit in a Russian theme when the movie Dr. Zhivago, was released. The same was done for some other films as well. The money, politics, and growth of the Houston area fueled demand for the latest in couture and fashion among Houston society and those who aspired to belong to it. Women like international socialite Lynn Sakowitz Wyatt, sister of Robert Sakowitz, led the way by example as one of the most beautifully dressed women on the planet, as did her mother Ann Sakowitz.
Robert Sakowitz, the very last Sakowitz scion to steer the family enterprise, was at the helm for the last decade of the store’s operation. He took over the leadership role from his father and was known as a creative and innovative manager. In fact, he was truly a handsome local celebrity. Nicholson adds, “When Robert spoke publicly women in the audience hung on every word he said. He was fascinating. Women loved to hear him introduce the fashion shows dressed in his elegant suits.” Elsa Rosborough was a popular local fashion model bringing star quality to these Houston fashion shows. Sakowitz famously brought Courrèges and other European lines to America, such as Yves St. Laurent (YSL) who was one of his favorites. Emilio Pucci was another popular featured designer.
The newer Sakowitz at Westheimer and Post Oak was part of the suburban push that led to development of the Galleria which pulled shopping away from downtown. Under Robert Sakowitz, the store expanded quickly inside and outside of Texas and some say they grew too fast. The chain added stores rapidly in the late 1970s and early 80s. By the time the great oil boom ended abruptly in 1982, Sakowitz had eighteen stores operating in Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Financial hardship hit the chain hard in the 1980s. The retail market wasn’t what it had been, and competition had increased in Houston and beyond. For most of the century, the Sakowitz family’s high-end stores had served shoppers well. But 80-plus years after first opening they were reeling from the oil bust and buried under a mountain of debt. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 1985, the downtown flagship and some other Sakowitz stores closed. An Australian retailing and real estate company owned the chain for a few of its final years. But the last Sakowitz store closed its doors in late 1990. Sakowitz was one of the last of the major family-owned chains of specialty stores in America. Today the once-elegant downtown flagship store is now a marble-clad parking garage. The exterior is recognizable with the Sakowitz name etched in stone, a symbol to its stature in the community. Yet the inside was gutted, and ramps were added for cars to park on various levels.
Foley‘s started in 1900 when two brothers borrowed money from their uncle and opened a Foley’s Brothers store at 507 Main Street. By 1947, the huge downtown store at 1110 Main Street was owned by Federated Department stores and was known simply as “Foley’s.” Originally Foley’s had departments that included major appliances, fabrics, sewing machines, and anything else that could be used in a home as well as clothing. It had a decorated storefront with a mechanical window display for Christmas. Jill Kohnert Nicholson recollects, “Families took their children to see the festive windows every holiday season and to visit Santa Claus. There was a wonderful little bakery where you could purchase cookies as you left the store. The dining room was the Azalea Terrace. It had a great children’s menu and models walking through the store wearing the latest fashions.” The store hosted seasonal fashion shows and charm schools for pre-teen and teenage girls. Nicolson attended several charm and social etiquette courses and enjoyed them all. In 2005, Macy’s and Federated Department Stores merged and in 2006, the Foley’s organization in Houston was dissolved and the Foley’s nameplate was replaced with Macy’s. In 2013, the, former downtown Foley‘s, now Macy’s, was closed. It was the last remaining major downtown department store in Texas’s largest city, Houston, and within five years the building was torn down.
Battelstein’s was started by Abe Battelstein, the son of Russian immigrants. By 1930, Battelstein had opened a men’s clothing store in downtown Houston. By the 1940s the store sold exclusive lines of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing. Their last downtown store at 812 Main Street, constructed in 1950, was very plain and almost utilitarian looking on the outside. Yet Battelstein’s was an exclusive apparel store where stylish women always shopped. It also had locations in the Houston Heights and other locations. Later, when Sakowitz opened their elegant downtown flagship store it gave Battelstein’s intense competition. Battelstein’s succumbed in the department store wars and the flagship store closed in 1980. Today the downtown ten-story building appears to be vacant and in need of restoration.
Neiman Marcus had a downtown location in Houston that opened in the late 1950s, its first store outside of the Dallas area, and remained until it was replaced years later by their store at the Houston Galleria. There were elaborate fashion shows, by invitation only, often with the designer present. These shows were popular during all four seasons. Nicholson fondly remembers attending fashion shows featuring Gucci, YSL, Diane Von Furstenberg, Pucci, Valentino and Calvin Klein. She also recalls the Neiman Marcus southwestern inspired dining room at their Galleria store, called “Mariposa” with a Helen Corbitt inspired menu. True to the Corbitt tradition, the meal started with a cup of bouillon and puffed popover with strawberry butter. The store carried luxurious gifts from all over the world and Nicholson was present for an exhibit of original hand painted pottery dishes by Picasso in the 1960s. They were selling for $50 each and are now quite valuable.
Joske’s of San Antonio took over the old Foley’s location at 510 Main Street when Foley’s moved further south on Main Street. Joske’s was similar to Foley’s but Foley’s management outsmarted them by putting in the agreement that Joske’s could only carry home furnishings and was not allowed to have any fashion clothing departments. This prevented Joske’s from being a major factor in Houston retailing until it finally moved to a store in the newly developed Houston Galleria years later. Other stores, like boutique Kabro of Houston and Weiner’s, which was an upscale discount store of the era, also thrived in the city.
Away from the downtown Main Street scene were a variety of exceptional shopping sites such as Rice Village, which since 1938 has been a shopping destination that includes various boutiques. The River Oaks Shopping Center opened in 1937 in one of Houston’s most prestigious historical neighborhoods and is noted for its original Art-Deco-style buildings. The Houston Galleria opened in 1970 at 5085 Westheimer Road to much ado and changed the retail landscape forever. The galleria has always been the quintessential spot for the fashion forward with stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Tiffany & Co., Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino. With three million square feet of space, the Galleria is said to be the largest mall in Texas and seventh largest in the United States. The Galleria, and the other area shopping malls, replaced downtown Houston as the primary shopping site for many customers. Tootsies at 2601 Westheimer Road has also been a major player in the Houston fashion scene for more than four decades providing couture, ready-to-wear, handbags, jewelry and accessory offerings from the world’s most exciting and exclusive designers.
Having a robust economy fueled by the oil industry, NASA and rapid population growth created the demand for high-end department stores and specialty stores in Houston. The 1960s were a golden age of retail, but the department stores that dominated that period were eventually replaced by shopping malls. The fascinating recollections of many such as Mary McCleary and Jill Kohnert Nicholson are mostly what is left of the old flagship stores besides photos and a few buildings left standing. Now, though, along with the newly opened River Oaks District and other chic boutiques spread about the city, Houstonians never have to look far for style.