- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

A tisket, a tasket — ladies, pull out your plastic.

It’s spring, and that only means one thing: the urge to shop. Suddenly, the days are balmy, and nothing feels as good as throwing off down jackets and Ugg boots for flirty dresses and sexy sandals. And there’s nowhere better to find one-of-kind women’s fashions than the upscale boutiques in Old Town Alexandria.

They’re springing up like daffodils, and though Old Town is known for its historic homes and cobblestone streets, retailers say the King Street strip and leafy side streets are hot properties, luring tourists and shoppers who hate malls, can’t find parking in Georgetown and have a flair for individual style.

Old Town even boasts not one, but two doggie boutiques — Fetch and the recently opened Barkely Square Gourmet Bakery and Boutique — for fresh-baked biscuits and four-legged fashions.

In the past few years, several chains also have discovered the city. Banana Republic, Gap, Chico’s, Talbots, Nine West and Ann Taylor all have stores there. In between, smaller shops provide accessories and lines usually not carried outside of New York.

“Old Town reminds me of Europe,” says Roya Hashimi, the 38-year-old owner of Elegance Fashion Boutique on King Street. “It’s very unique. It’s small, and everyone knows everyone. My clients are like friends. Georgetown is too wild for me.”

Mrs. Hashimi was born in Germany but grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the Russian occupation. A striking brunette, she studied fashion design in Hamburg, Germany, before moving to Washington. She opened her boutique in 1998 though she knew very little English.

“I couldn’t even talk to my customers,” she recalls with a laugh.

She scoured fabric houses and stitched up 200 designs in less than a month. Her elegant, classic designs were snapped up by local clients who were willing to pay for Mrs. Hashimi’s hand-beaded and -appliqued dresses, coats and suits. She has since branched out into unique silk, satin and lace wedding gowns.

“One of my customers wanted a copy of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress,” she says, looking through her photo book. She employs four dressmakers but does all the fitting and design herself.

“My biggest advertisement is my window,” she says with a laugh. In fact, Mrs. Hashimi attended a fashion show recently, and a woman approached her, saying “it was all your fault.” The designer was taken aback and puzzled. “I said, ‘What did I do?’”

As it happened, the woman had been so enthralled with the elegant dresses in Mrs. Hashimi’s window that she had rear-ended the car in front of her.

Indeed, the shop windows — many with cheery flower boxes — up and down King Street are enticing.

The silk and satin lingerie at Romance for the Senses is irresistible. The store opened in 2003 and features Mary Green camisoles and slips, lingerie by La Perla and Eberjey, a full range of honeymoon lacy bras, and hip choices for expectant and nursing mothers as well as jewelry and bathing suits. Featured in Lucky and Elle magazines, the boutique also offers gourmet chocolates and silk men’s underwear.

Down the block, An American in Paris — owned by the exuberant French-born Joelle Solimano — is an oasis of one-of-a-kind European and American fashions, including vintage jewelry, handbags, T-shirts, funky fashion-forward sweaters, and jeans from Denim for Immortality and Salt.

“But most of my business is dresses,” she says.

Heavenly silk frocks by Tocca and Kathlin Argiro are extremely popular. She also carries Nicole Miller, Tibi, Jill Stuart, Chaiken, Daryl K and new designer Julie Haus. “Everything here is very special,” she says.

In fact, her tiny boutique has a loyal clientele who appreciate Miss Solimano’s personal charm and love for her clothes.

“Department stores handle the clothes very differently than boutiques,” she points out. “They allow customers to ruin the dresses.”

She usually addresses her customers with affection, calling them “Sweetie Pie” and “Darling,” and she never says something looks “gor-ghusss” if it doesn’t. Buying a special dress for a wedding or prom is an emotional purchase, she says, and Old Town provides the perfect personal touch.

At Periwinkle, a new boutique, you’re hardly in the door before being offered a glass of wine or soda.

“It’s just easier to shop in Old Town,” says Gretchen Hitchner, co-owner of the store just off Slater’s Lane in the north section of town. “Parking is much better than downtown, and there are some great shops here. I get a lot of Hill staffers who are looking for something different.”

The boutique opened several months ago and already has attracted White House social secretary Lea Berman and other administration types. Mrs. Hitchner, former press secretary to Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, teamed up with Elizabeth Mason, former scheduler for Lynn Cheney, to offer a unique selection of fashions.

Washington women, they say, are very conservative during the workday. Evenings and weekends, they want to branch out from the Brooks Bros. black-suit-and-blouse uniform. Periwinkle — whose owners are both in their 30s — carries designs by Milly, Tracy Reese, Liquid and Molly as well as $176 perfect-fitting Salt jeans.

Periwinkle also has a cool collection of hip shoes by designers Beverly Feldman and Magnolia.

When Courtney Reynolds opened Hysteria in 1999, she never envisioned that her store would become one of the hottest destinations in the area. In 2003, she moved into a town house to accommodate the fashions from Diane von Furstenberg, Cacharel, Lela Rose (a favorite of first daughter Jenna Bush), Trina Turk, See by Chloe, Rebecca Taylor, Marc Jacobs, Nanette Lepore and LAMB.

Staples include T-shirts by Petite Bateau and Mimi and Coco as well as Vineyard Vines ties for men. She was the first to carry Kooba bags and Slatkin candles and always had a selection of funky Lulu Guinness bags. Her shoe selection — including Delman and Sigerson Morrison — is around the corner at the Shoe Hive.

Miss Reynolds, a sunny, model-thin blonde with sensational style, is admired for her vision and, of course, making Old Town shopping such a personal experience. She keeps tabs on her clients, offers styling tips and won’t sell a dress to a customer if she knows a friend or acquaintance already has purchased it.

That just doesn’t happen in department stores.

Says Miss Solimano of An American in Paris, “Even if they offered me half the rent and twice the size, I would never go to Washington. Old Town is the best.”

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