Buttons and weddings sustain longtime Carson St. boutique

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A young bride-to-be visiting Clarissa Boutique tends to focus on the veils and other wedding accessories. But her mother or grandmother might recognize the current incarnation of a longtime Pittsburgh business along one long wall.

Buttons are displayed on the ends of cardboard boxes stacked high on shelves and organized by color, style and size. The Parker Button side of the South Side store evokes memories of a narrow shop in the long-gone Jenkins Arcade and other locations Downtown.

The combination of the Clarissa name, rooted in a fashion design school that operated for about four decades in the city, and Parker signifies a tradition that appeals to many customers.

“Nostalgia comes into play, big-time,” said Penny Smith, who owns Clarissa Boutique and Parker Button with sisters Gretchen Narcisi Jackowski and Earldine Greer.

The current store, which has been growing sales by about 10 percent a year, has other pluses:

• Its location on East Carson Street, frequented by 20-somethings who are learning to make and embellish items via websites such as Pinterest and Etsy.

• Brides who buy simple, less expensive gowns and seek out Clarissa's veils, belts, jewelry and other embellishments.

• Loyal individual customers who knit and sew, and businesses, including dry cleaners, that buy large quantities of Parker's buttons.

“I always leave happy. You can go in and get help buying buttons,” said Polly Swanson, who runs a pattern-fitting business from her Verona home.

The Parker business differs from chain stores that sell buttons affixed to cards because its buttons can be lined up on a partly finished garment to see how they look, Swanson said. She recently bought black shell buttons to complement a chambray shirt.

The mother of the current owners, Mary Narcisi, was a seamstress who founded the Clarissa School of Fashion Design in 1950 to offer associate degrees to students who aspired to careers in sewing and pattern making. The three sisters ran the school after her death in 1988 but by that time, enrollment was dwindling.

“People were sewing less, the computer generation was starting and sewing was being phased out at high schools,” Smith said. “Young people weren't interested in making a living by sewing.”

They transitioned the business during the 1990s to a boutique focused on wedding items, while fulfilling obligations to the school's remaining students.

Howard Korpacy, whose father founded Parker Button in 1915, approached the sisters in 1992 about buying his unique store. By then, the merchant known as “Mr. Parker” had moved from Jenkins Arcade, a multi-level retail and office building where Fifth Avenue Place now stands, to the Benedum Trees Building on Fourth Avenue.

The combined Clarissa and Parker business moved to the Warner Centre shops about a year later. “We thought that was the place to be — Lord & Taylor, Lazarus, it was all right there,” Smith said, adding that 2,500 people ate at the center daily when they first moved there.

But Downtown retail was in for a fall. Those two department stores closed, and the parent of nearby Kaufmann's laid off 1,500 workers, many of whom bought accessories, fabric and buttons at the store, Smith said. Warner Centre's daily food court traffic fell to 100 people. Moving to the South Side nine years ago has paid off, Smith said.

Parker Button in its heyday employed five workers who covered buttons with fabric using a machine to meet demand from home sewers and professionals. Later, Downtown business people shopped there for replacement buttons for suits and shirts.

“They were just the authority on buttons, and they carried some very unique, designer buttons — the kind you would find in the fashion district of New York,” said Debra Thompson, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Sewing Guild.

Employees there helped her find the right buttons for a heavyweight sweater coat she made in 1977. “I still have the sweater, and my daughters like to wear it,” Thompson said, adding that artistic buttons are making a comeback for use on items such as purses.

Buttons and other supplies, excluding fabric, account for one-third of the $4.4 billion-a-year sewing and crafts store business in the United States, market research firm IBISWorld said. A resurgence of interest in do-it-yourself fashion, and aging baby boomers with more leisure time, could raise sales 1.8 percent in 2013, the Santa Monica firm said.

Parker Button sells “a few thousand” buttons a month, Smith said, ranging from 35-cent shirt buttons to $20 larger, ornament-style closures. One Florida linen-products maker buys thread buttons for use in duvet covers.

Unusual buttons may be made from stone, seashell, horn, wood or metal. The store owners source buttons from Europe and elsewhere, and buy some antique buttons from collectors.

The Clarissa side represents about 80 percent of sales, including many items produced in the shop. “This is what I love to do,” said Jackowski, who makes veils and accessories. The sisters spend hours each day updating Clarissa's social media presence and communicating online with customers.

“We've bought buttons and bridal veils and accessories” going back 25 years, customer Mara Jacobs of Troy Hill said of her family. The three owners “have pointed us in the right direction many times.”

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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