Goodbye Rocky River, Hello Chicago

Chicago-bound owner closing Couture Club

Most often, what leads to a boutique’s demise is a lack of business.

In the case of Couture Club in Rocky River, owner John Muller’s success has spurred him on to bigger dreams, in a bigger city – Chicago.

So, sadly for women in Northeast Ohio, the 2-year-old boutique on Old Detroit Road is closing its doors Saturday. It was known for offering vintage and designer fashions with such labels as Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, Courreges, Chanel and Thierry Mugler.

“I’ve had a grand time here,” says Muller. “But my business was doing so well that I am now in a position where I could buy a building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, where I can house my boutique.”

Neighbors in that prominent and popular area include such Chicago institutions as Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.

For a while, Muller had thought of keeping Couture Club open here as well. “But I decided what I do is too specialized, and I can’t be in two places at once,” he says. Muller had moved to Cleveland in 1996. At the time, he was manufacturer’s representative for several clothing lines with clients in an 11-state region. A cou- ple of years ago, he decided to try his hand at retail, using his apparel industry contacts as sources for merchandise, which he sold at reasonable vintage prices. A Dolce & Gabbana suit, which still carried its original $4,000 price tag, he sold for $400.

His new boutique, in a high-end retail district, will be more thantwice as large as his space in Rocky River. He will add clothes from more iconic designers, including James Galanos, Rudi Gernreich and Norman Norell.

But Muller, a native of Northern California who has worked in apparel for nearly 20 years, wants to be more than just another retail success story in Chicago. He says that while cities such as New York and Los Angeles have vintage boutiques that are known nationally (for example, Resurrection and Paperbag Princess, respectively) Chicago has no such nationally known boutique. He wants Couture Club to become “the place” for vintage designer fashions in the Midwest’s largest city.

“There is no powerhouse vintage retailer there,” says Muller, who used to live in Chicago and always has kept a loft apartment there. “I want people who think of collectible clothing in Chicago to think of Couture Club as ‘the store’ for it.”

Even at his Rocky River boutique, Muller drew dealers from Toronto, Los Angeles and New York, including Sotheby’s auction house. When he traveled to New York twice yearly for vintage shows, he sold items to celebrities and designers, including Bette Midlerand actress-fashion muse Chloe Sevigny, Angie Harmon, Donna Karan and Mary McFadden.

But Muller says it is hard to leave behind his customers here, many of whom have become good friends.

One is Joan Simpson, who lives in Rocky River. “I will miss him – I think it will leave a big gap,” Simpson says. “The shop is fun, he’s a delightful personality, and he does an incredible job of matching clothes to bodies and personalities.

“I was one of his very first customers, and I continued to pop in almost every week.”

Simpson notes that many of her East Side friends regularly traveled to Rocky River to shop at Couture Club and dine at Stino da Napoli a few doors down.

Among Simpson’s favorite purchases from Couture Club are a black 1920s-style spaghetti strap long dress by Yves Saint Laurent, and a Chanel black cashmere body suit.

Susie Kornbluth of Orange was another frequent customer. “I bought clothing from him, but I really loved the jewelry, and he has so much of it from the ’50s and ’60s,” she says. “But also, John is just such fun, and he has flair. He could really put things together and his taste level is excellent.”

Among her favorite buys were a Karl Lagerfeld suit, Maria Pinto shawls, and several pieces of vintage Bakelite and Lucite jewelry.

Fortunately for her, says Kornbluth, her daughter lives in Chicago so she will be able to shop at the new Couture Club, which will open in March.

Theiss is The Plain Dealer’s fashion editor.

© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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