In 1994, when Chicago transplant Pam Coven first opened her boutique shoe store, Imelda's, in a 450-square-foot space just off Hawthorne Boulevard on Southeast 37th Avenue, Portland's attitude toward footwear wasn't what you might call "sophisticated."
"When I came to Portland, there weren't very many independent shoe stores at that time," says Coven. "It was all about Nordstrom."
Twenty-five years and over a quarter-million shoes sold later, Imelda's is a Portland institution, with two brick-and-mortar locations in two major shopping districts—Hawthorne and Alberta—and a spinoff brand, Louie's, which focuses on menswear.
With its quarter-century anniversary approaching, WW spoke to Coven about Portland shoe style, the secrets to maintaining a business in a rapidly changing city and whether naming her store after a dictator's shoe-obsessed wife ever caught her any flak.
WW: When you first opened Imelda's, Nordstrom was your main competitor. How did you get customers into your store?
Pam Coven: I just knew there were brands that probably weren't being represented by Nordstrom at that time that I felt like could work for a boutique environment. I carried Frye before Nordstrom did, I carried Born before Nordstrom did. We're proud of the fact that we've been on the forefront, trend-wise, of product and style. For instance, there's this big Blundstone craze that's been going on for the last couple of years. Well, we've been carrying Blundstone for over 20 years.
How would you define Portland's style when it comes to shoes?
Comfort is important to us. A lot of the brands we carry could be qualified as comfort brands, but that's becoming a blurred line in the fashion industry as fashion lines recognize that people want comfortable shoes. I think we've done a really good job at curating those brands that can be functional and wearable. We don't sell stiletto heels and really open, strappy, dressy kinds of things. We often find people, especially men, are looking for something they can wear to work and also wear to a wedding. And the beauty of being in Portland is that people wear denim to the opera.
The city has changed so much in the time you've been open, and making it to 25 years is tough for any business. What do you attribute your longevity to?
We're consistent in the service we provide. I have long-term employees who are very instrumental in keeping the company vibrant. I'm getting older, but they seem to be getting younger. I value their input and I kind of feed off their influence. I've got kids, so my exposure sort of shifts. So it's sort of become a group effort. And I think the "keep it local" thing—which is really indicative of Portland in many ways—is what has fueled us. I think the internet is really kind of diffusing that for retailers. So it's up to us to keep reminding people what makes Portland great are businesses like what we have to offer.
Where do you see the footwear industry going?
I think the comfort aspect has become more and more important. More and more brands are putting removable foot beds in their shoes. And it's not just an aging group, like, "My feet are hurting." For all ages, comfort is important. And the unisex look—Blundstone is a great example of a product that can fit men and women and it sells equally as well with both. I think that's influencing more unisex looks, especially in the more casual footwear department.
You named the store after Imelda Marcos. Did you ever receive any pushback for that?
It was once in 25 years. I had this young woman tell me she was offended by it, and I heard her out and I said, "I'm sorry. It wasn't meant to offend." I actually had a customer who was Filipino who shared with me what it was like to grow up there. She actually sang for the state choir, and she was telling me about Imelda's idiosyncrasies. I can't prove this, but I think she was never vilified to the same extent as maybe her husband was. Other than that, people just seem to think my name's Imelda.
MORE: Imelda and Louie's is located at 3426 SE Hawthorne Blvd. and 1416 NE Alberta St. The store's anniversary party is Saturday-Sunday, March 2-3. Go to shop.imeldas.com for details.