At Association, a new space that opened in April of this year just off of 28th and Glisan, it's hard to tell where the gallery stops and the boutique begins.
It's easy to spot the dozen or so paintings around the shop's all-white interior. The current show, consisting of about a dozen works from established Portland and West Coast artists depicting animals in varying states of abstraction, is organized by art and animal welfare group Fauvist, and 40 percent of art sales go to groups that support the animals chosen by the artist.
Yet the sculptures and ceramics from the show start blending in with the purses from cult Japanese label Eatable of Many Orders, each leather bag adorned with a knobbly wooden handle. Then, the scrunchies—or "hair clouds"—from Dutch brand Comfort Objects, each made of repurposed scraps of Hermès scarves, begin pushing the boundary between wearable art and nostalgic hair management. A pink, marble bowl full of perfectly arranged Palo Santo incense certainly qualifies as an effortless addition to one's Instagram story, and the many zines and art books scattered throughout offer more art to enjoy while browsing Association's higher-end womenswear.
Everything at Association is beautiful, almost intimidatingly so. But owner Jen Vitale's space is intended as a panacea for the fancy boutique's tendency toward elitism and exclusion.
"I think there's a pretentious energy from having a curated store," says Vitale. "From the minute I opened, I thought 'How can I create something focused and thoughtful, but not have it where you walk in and feel like you're not supposed to be there unless you look the part?'"
Association started as an online store in 2014 as a way for Vitale, then a prop stylist for commercials and film, to express her own creative vision away from the demands of work. "I've always had an interest in curating spaces and curating clothing," she says. "Starting the online project is a way for me to have something that was mine, that was my project. I love collaborating with people, but as a stylist, you're ultimately fulfilling someone else's vision."
To distinguish Association, Vitale began releasing art object collaborations with friends and artists she had met over the years as a stylist, mostly based in jewelry and ceramics. When she snapped up the space for Association this year, this collaborative mindset transitioned into its current iteration as a retail/gallery hybrid.
"The physical store for me was this weird merging of all of the things," says Vitale. "I wanted to have the gallery aspect because I didn't want people to walk in and feel like they had to buy something. I wanted people to be able to come in and touch things and experience, or read a zine. It's about people being excited and experiencing the space."
That was what I did when I visited Association. Jen and I spoke about the Fauvist show, and I paged through a zine entirely of drawings made with lipstick and other cosmetics by design darling Alyson Fox before I looked at a tray full of silver pinky signet rings.
"It's not about buy buy buy," she says. "It's about appreciating a few things that you really love, and getting them and wearing them for as long as they last."