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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the October 6, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Witherspoon Street Goes SoHo

by Jamie Saxon

"I refuse to live my life on a mediocre level — mediocre is like a

swear word to me,” says clothing designer and Princeton resident

Chantal Palmer, 34, who debuted the spring line of her company,

Victoria/KitKat, at a private fashion show last May at Small World

Coffee on Witherspoon Street. She unveils her fall/winter line at a

fashion show open to the public at Princeton Writer’s Block on

Saturday, October 9, at 2:30 p.m.

Princetonians with an eye for fashion will be watching closely,

including those who attended Palmer’s show last May. Palmer couldn’t

have started her career farther from the design world. Initially she

seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of her father, a

pharmaceutical entrepreneur. She grew up in Johnnesburg, South Africa,

and, after earning a B.A. in industrial psychology from the University

of Johannesburg in 1993, she took over the helm of an ailing company

that provided organizational stress analysis. She turned it around,

then sold to earn her MBA in 1998.

When she moved to Princeton with her husband, Gary, VP of the U.S.

cardiovascular division of Pfizer, she took advantage of the three

years when she couldn’t work before getting her green card. Ever the

enterprising woman, Palmer earned a fast track degree in merchandising

from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2002. A self-proclaimed

clotheshorse, she decided to design her own line of clothing while

picking up some retail experience at Hedy Shepard on Nassau Street. In

2003, David Newton, VP of Palmer Square Management, 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. Victoria/ KitKat

was born.

While Palmer admits her MBA has certainly come in handy while

launching her own business she calls herself an artist. (Her mother

was an abstract expressionist painter, and as a teen, Palmer studied

sculpture at a high school for the arts.) “I feel more like an artist

than a designer,” she says. “Artists work in fits and spurts. For

example, for eight weeks before a show, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I

lose 20 pounds. Then, in the downtime, I regenerate. I sit back and

think about what’s next even before the existing show. I had ideas

about my spring (2005) line four months before this show.”

To prepare for the October 9 show, Palmer has moved into office space

above Holsome Tea on Witherspoon Street. But the four-room apartment,

freshly painted in serene, quiet shades of cream and butter yellow by

landlord and Holsome Tea-owner Paul Shu, can hardly be called an

office. It’s more like a creative incubator. “I’m a tremendously

spiritual person in essence. This space has a calmness,” says Palmer.

“There’s an incredible aura in this building.” The designer, who

practices yoga four times a week, says that as an artist, she is not

like others “who live their whole lives on a frenetic level. You have

to be in touch with your body and self — then you log in more with

people.”

Previously working out of her 250-year-old home on Mercer Street,

Palmer says she specifically chose to be on Witherspoon Street. “This

is the little SoHo of Princeton,” says Palmer. “Princeton wants New

York to be in their backyard. They don’t want to get on the train.” On

Witherspoon, Palmer has connected with a group of entrepreneurs, many

of them women, including Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee

(who she met at a yoga class), Paige Peterson and Michelle DeHaven of

the boutique Rouge, and Lana Breygina, owner of Onyx Nails. It is a

small circle of women who both socialize together and provide

professional support and inspiration.

“When we get together, it’s not small talk. We exchange ideas. Some of

us are older, some younger, some divorced, some married,” says Palmer.

“Some are more avant-garde, some have a quiet inner strength. We all

have a strong sense of tenacity and confidence — we’re like ‘Sex & the

City in Princeton.’” Ironically, Palmer and Breygina were once

neighbors on another continent. They lived in the same suburb in

Johannesburg, where Breygina had an accessory store that Palmer

frequented. They hadn’t seen each other for years but reconnected — on

Witherspoon Street.

In addition to designing clothes, Palmer has more than one agenda —

she wants to foster entrepreneurialism in Princeton, referring to

Princeton’s little Soho as “a center for entrepreneurs.” She says:

“One of my passions is to start a business incubator program,”

referring to the practice in some cities of dedicating one building in

which entrepreneurs can work rent-free for nine months, then pay rent

via a percentage of sales. “That in itself would create a tourist

attraction in Princeton,” says Palmer, who claims she is “committed to

try to make it here in Princeton” but acknowledges that the borough

could do a lot more to support entrepreneurs and involve them in

meetings and programs that cover municipal planning, tourism, and

promotion.

Palmer, who is totally self-funded at this time, says: “I’m not sure

how much more I can put in — if entrepreneurs are going to survive

here, there has to be more support.” She has taught a course at the

Princeton Adult School called “Retail Reality,” which, she says, “was

really about entrepreneurship. Lots of women have dreams (of starting

their own business) but financing and fear are the big shackles.”

Financing and fear take a back seat once Palmer sits down to design

clothing. The Victoria/ KitKat fall/winter collection carries the

theme “Autumn Folly.” “It ties in with the 10 follies of the Writer’s

Block,” says Palmer, referring to the structures that

representationally blend the work of architects and writers. “This

will be the 11th folly.” The show will also have a strong South

African influence. In addition to Palmer’s designs, the show will

feature hand-beaded evening dresses by South African designer

Vesselina Pentcheva. Palmer is using recorded music of South African

diva Brenda Fassie and may use a live drummer to give the event a

tribal feel. Small World Coffee will serve a South African drink

called a Rock Shandy.

The fall/winter collection centers around skirts with a low-cut

waistline, what has now come to be known, says Palmer, as “the

Victoria/KitKat cut, which sits right at the hip for comfort.” Palmer

will show 30 pieces in the show — variations on five core styles in

fabrics that are rich in color and texture. “They’re thick, like

velvets and brocades, luscious, fun, romantic, and a little bohemian

like Michael Kors’ ‘70s gypsy,” says Palmer, referring to the

designer’s fall look. She adds that the fabrics also are at “a very

sophisticated level, like wool tweed with tulle coming out underneath

for a whimsical element,” and many, like the corduroy and cotton

velvets, are wash and wear. The skirts are sewn in New York, then

brought to the Victoria/KitKat studio on Witherspoon, where Helena

Sabova, a Morrisville-based seamstress, creates customized add-ons —

cats cut out of printed material and sewn on the skirts — another

Victoria/KitKat signature.

At the show, the skirts will be paired with sweaters, long boots,

round-toed heels that are very in this season (Palmer reveals her

fashion-forward radar by holding up a pair she says she bought three

years ago), and fiber and wool woven scarves and wraps by Princeton

designer Hope van Cleaf, who also happens to be the event coordinator

for the Writers Block.

One key difference between the show last spring and this one is that

at the October 9 show, Palmer will have skirts available for sale. “My

biggest mistake (last May) was not selling right after the show,” she

says. Palmer has also made arrangements for a trunk show at Onyx Nails

Spa and Boutique, 15 Witherspoon Street (609-683-5855), on Sunday,

October 10, from noon to five p.m.

She says that despite the fact that she did not have skirts for sale

at the spring show, all the skirts did sell out. “The whole point is

not to create too many of any one style,” says Palmer. “At $200 to

$300, they’re not priced as mass merchandise but the people who do buy

them realize they have something unique. I’m designing not for an age

but for an attitude — the confidence to wear a conversation piece, to

wear a little bit of whimsy.” Many of her customers travel

extensively, and she says the skirts she sold last spring have

“traveled the world from the West Coast to Nice to London to

Switzerland.” Word of mouth also drives sales. “One friend who modeled

in the spring show wore her skirt to work, and her boss phoned the

next day to order one for herself.”

The idea to hold the show at the Writers Block came from a good friend

of Palmer’s — Peter Soderman, the moving force behind the Writers

Block project. For Palmer’s spring show, Soderman transformed Small

World Coffee into a mini-atelier with a daisy-strewn runway. In a

conversation with Palmer last May, he not only outlined his vision for

the Writers Block but also told her he wanted her to do a fashion show

there. Palmer readily agreed, and Soderman is constructing a T-shaped

runway out from the 18th century barn, donated by the Ringoes-based

New Jersey Barn Company, that acts as the main garden entrance.

It seems that at every turn Palmer cites the help of a friend — she

never uses the term “business associate.” Forging good relationships

and giving credit where credit is due are lessons she learned from her

father. “In the first company I owned, I had 12 consultants,” says

Palmer. “At our Christmas party, I introduced my father to them and

said, ‘These are all the people who work for me.’ And he said, ‘No,

they work with you. They do it for you and to make you look better.’”

Palmer carries out this advice every day. Among the people with whom

she has forged synergistic relationships is David Newton of Palmer

Square, who gave Victoria/KitKat its first exposure to well-heeled

Princetonians. Palmer also says Palmer Square Management — which

enabled the Writers Block dream to be realized by loaning the property

on which it is built — has been exceptionally supportive of her

fashion show and the other events being held there.

Also key to her success, she says, are several entrepreneurial friends

who are lending support for the October 9 show: Lana Breygina, the

owner of Onyx Nails, will do the models’ nails; Terri Cerf and several

stylists from Metropolis in Princeton Shopping Center will do the hair

and makeup; and Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee, will have

her staff serving beverages; Gabrielle Carone and Matthew Erico,

owners of the Bent Spoon on Palmer Square will serve cupcakes with

pink Victoria/KitKat frosting.

As with her spring show, Palmer intends to use “real” women as models.

In addition to Durrie and Breygina, models will include Bonnie

Bassler, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University; Linda

Domino, yoga instructor (at Holsome Yoga and Simply Yoga) and HR

consultant; Laurie Nibb, professional mother of four and fitness

fanatic, Chie Davis, newscaster at WZBN News; Bettina Slade,

professional mother and rower; Samantha Emerson, student at Notre Dame

High School; Grace Martin, student at the Hun School; Emelyne Smith,

employee of Small World Coffee; Jesse Starbuck, artist and employee at

Small World Coffee; Kelechi Acholomo, a senior at Princeton

University; Sandy Taite, director of a scholarship fund and a former

film director; and Robin Resch, professional photographer and owner of

Robin Resch Studios on Nassau Street.

In addition, Simone Okoth, a stunning Ugandan who graduated last June

from Princeton High and modeled in the Victoria/KitKat spring show

will return for this show. Okoth, represented by IMG, now models

professionally in New York — she recently appeared in a fashion

feature in Time magazine and worked nonstop on the runways at Fashion

Week in September in New York. “I am so amazed that people like her

and others are so willing to get up there and model for me,” says

Palmer. “These are amazing women and girls.”

Palmer readily admits that her success is based on hard work that is

completely interdependent with the work of others. “My dad worked long

hours,” she says. “He always said to me, ‘Keep on plowing.’ That’s

what an entrepreneur does. Multitask times 10. Then get the right

people to help you. I’m only as good as the people who help me.”

Autumn Folly: Victoria/ KitKat Fall/Winter 2004 Fashion Show,

Saturday, October 9, Princeton Writers Block, Paul Robeson Place

(between Witherspoon and Chambers streets), 2:30 p.m. Free; donations

welcome to benefit the Writers Block. Call 609-252-1177 to reserve

seats by Thursday, October 7, at 5 p.m.


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