Seventh Avenue? No, Witherspoon Street

Spring House Tours

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These articles by Jamie Saxon were prepared for the May 12, 2004

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Seventh Avenue? No, Witherspoon Street

Where were all the women with the best handbags and haircuts in Princeton last Tuesday, May 4, at 8 p.m.? At a private, by-invitation-only fashion show by Princeton designer Chantal Palmer, who debuted the spring/summer line of her company, Victoria Kit/Kat at Small World Coffee. Peter Soderman (creator of Mediterra’s Herban Garden) transformed the cafe into an exclusive "house of couture," replete with a daisy-strewn runway. Live music was courtesy of 9 Volts, a band of former Small World employees.

More than 100 women in their 20s to 60s filled the cafe, many wearing what seems to be the uniform of the moment – a tiny fitted jacket, tight jeans, and heels with pointy toes. There were even a few fashion forward men.

Palmer couldn’t have started her career farther from the design world. The daughter of a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and an abstract expressionist painter, Palmer, 34, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She studied sculpture at a high school for the arts, then earned a B.A. in industrial psychology from the University of Johannesburg in 1993.

Palmer inherited her father’s entrepreneurial spirit. After college, she took over a company that provided organizational stress analysis, which she later sold to earn her MBA in 1998.

A self-proclaimed clotheshorse, Palmer found her true calling when she moved to the United States with her husband, Gary, VP of the U.S. cardiovascular division of Pfizer. With three years before she could work legally, Palmer fed her arts cravings with sculpture and photography classes at the Arts Council of Princeton and commuted into New York, earning a fast track degree in merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2002.

"I couldn’t get an internship anywhere because I was so overqualified," says Palmer, who got lots of job offers in New York but, with two small children, now 4 and 6, turned them all down. "Most women go through this; it is such a dilemma."

When she decided to design her own line of clothing she found her MBA came in handy. "An MBA teaches you to assess the risk in each business venture. This is in direct contrast to the instinct of an entrepreneur, who operates on gut instinct and passion." Palmer has learned to work her two halves – the financial and the creative – to her advantage. "I couldn’t ask for a better background."

To gain retail experience she worked at Hedy Shepard on Nassau Street for six months, and they gave her a rack to show her clothes. Her big break came last year when Palmer Square’s David Newton had a store space in between leases and let Palmer come in for a weekend. She showed 30 skirts, priced between $185 and $225, and sold half. Palmer had befriended Small World Coffee owner Jessica Durrie at yoga class, and then Paige Peterson and Michelle DeHaven of the boutique Rouge, also on Witherspoon Street (who did the make-up for the show). After attending a private party Durrie held for her staff at Small World’s roasting facility, which Peter Soderman had transformed enchanted garden, and where she first heard 9 Volts, "I turned to my husband, and said ‘I want to do a fashion show.’" She approached Durrie, who quickly agreed.

Palmer used real models, many of them working women, including Tia Davis of WZBN-TV; Laurie Morris, a wardrobe planner in Princeton who has worked for Calvin Klein and Donna Karan; Linda Domino, a former ombudsman for the University who now teaches yoga at Kokopelli Fitness on Spring Street; Elizabeth Sheldon, a TV producer and documentary writer; and Bonnie Bassler, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. The youngest model was Simone Awor, a stunning Ugandan and senior at Princeton High who models professionally in New York.

Victoria Kit/Kat’s customers from 13 to 60 who want something one of a kind," says Palmer. "My customer doesn’t want to walk down the street and see someone else in the same thing they’re wearing. They’re looking for something completely different than mass-produced clothing. The minute a trend gets to mass, it’s already yesterday’s news." She says Victoria Kit/Kat is about marrying what is highly fashionable and edgy with classic. "It’s that one amazing piece in your closet. I don’t want to be a follower, I want to be a leader."

Victoria Kit/Kat, 609-252-1177.

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Spring House Tours

Putting an unusual spin on the same-old, same-old house tour theme, the Hopewell House Tour, Sunday, May 23, from noon to 5 p.m., will include two offices. Offices? Yes, but not just any offices. In addition to classic Victorians and country farmhouses with floor-to-ceiling parlor windows, original 1880s moldings, and plaster chandelier medallions, the tour will take you through Dana Communications, a marketing communications firm housed in a 1915 brick building, once the home of Hopewell National Bank, and the offices of architect Maximillian Hayden, a Federal-style 1830 home.

Hayden, who lives across the street from his "new" office at 381 Carter Road (pictured top right), at the intersection of Carter and Cherry Valley roads, had been secretly eyeing the house – which sits on an acre of land and was once a general store and a post office – for years. "I saw this house going downhill. I would watch the shutters fall off and it would pain me," says Hayden, an avid historic preservationist whose many prestigious projects include the restoration of Westland, a home on Hodge Road where Grover Cleveland once lived. In 2001, HGTV featured a property on Russell Road, which was knocked down to its foundation, then restored into a Dutch colonial by Hayden.

When he found out through a neighbor that the owner of the little house across the street wanted to move to Ireland, he approached her. Since he was moving his home office mere yards away, he quickly procured a zoning variance. The kitchen was turned into a reception room, a bathroom into a small office. Hayden’s own office used to be the parlor.

Hayden was careful to utilize as many of the original elements of the building as he could in the $200,000 restoration. "We found some wonderful floorboards and relocated them to another room. We took out one 1940s window and used it as a cupboard door in the bathroom." One of the original doors was morphed into a door with an after-hours drop-off slot.

If you go on house tours to get ideas about restoring your own old house or are thinking of buying an old house, Hayden offers the following advice: "You have to have patience, you have to really watch your money, and try to be true to the building." Hayden certainly does additions – all architects do, but he also does a lot of what he calls "subtractions." He once took down a tin ceiling that had been installed in an old home in 1985 because it just didn’t work and removed sponge painting from a wall that had been done poorly.

"Try to be true to the architecture. It doesn’t have to be gussied up with a lot of molding from Home Depot," says Hayden, adding that the beauty of an old home lies in its simplicty. He recommends living in the building for awhile before a restoration and is against unnecessary additions. "Try to make the house work without building onto it. I didn’t add anything onto this building."

Hopewell House Tour, Sunday, May 23, noon to 5 p.m. $15 (proceeds benefit Hopewell Public Library). Call 609-466-1625.

Lawrenceville House Tour, (right), Sunday, May 16, 1 to 5 p.m. $15 in advance; $20 day of tour (proceeds benefit Lawrenceville Main Street). Call 609-219-9300 or visit LawrencevilleMainStreet.com.


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