NEWPORT BEACH — Every pocket of affluence in this country seems to have one stellar independent designer boutique, and in Newport Beach it's A'Maree's.
Over the last 35 years, the family-owned business has grown into an international fashion force, showcasing cutting-edge labels such as Celine, Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaia, Dries Van Noten and the Row.
And now that it has moved to a new location at Newport Harbor, a waterfront space inviting comparisons to Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo in Venice, Italy, A'Maree's is also one of the most beautiful boutiques in the retail universe. Boasting soaring arched windows and glass portholes in the floor to allow views of the fish swimming below, it even has its own boat slip for those who want to dock and shop.
As the yachts float gently by, sunlight pours over cases of sparkling jewelry by Irene Neuwirth, Aurora Lopez and Lanvin. Racks are filled with lace-trimmed Sacai sweaters, asymmetrical Junya Watanabe military jackets and wispy Dosa dresses.
The Modernist building was designed in 1961 by Pasadena architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey, who would go on to design the Norton Simon Museum. Formerly occupied by the Windows on the Bay, Stuft Shirt and Cano's restaurants, the space had been vacant for 13 years before the store's owners leased it nearly a year ago.
The business has been a labor of love for family matriarch Nancy Brown since 1971, when she bought into the clothing boutique after a divorce. Back then, A'Maree's was on Eastbluff Drive and was a destination for conservative togs from the likes of JG Hook.
But almost immediately, Brown's three daughters — Dawn Klohs, Denise Schaefer and Apryl Schaefer — began to change all that.
"If we didn't like something in the store, we'd hide it," said Denise, who was a teenager at the time.
Nancy took her daughters out of school to go on buying trips.
"I learned so much from them," she said. "Even as little kids they wouldn't clean their rooms, they would arrange them. They were already merchandising."
Self-described "low maintenance girls who don't wear makeup," they have a point of view that is less about fashion than it is about being comfortable and casual.
"It's the lifestyle here in Newport," Denise said.
Over the years, they introduced Newport to new designers such as Marni, Byblos, Moschino and Peter Cohen. At night, Nancy would bake chocolate chip cookies for customers to enjoy. She also did all the alterations.
In 1991, A'Maree's moved to a larger space on Westcliff Drive, where they stocked cashmere from Lucien Pellat-Finet and jeans by Current Elliott.
"For us, finding new talent is the most exciting thing," Dawn said. "We don't want to compete with designers who have opened at South Coast." (Bouchra Jarrar is a new favorite.) "And I can't tell you the number of things I've sold off my back. We've learned to keep tags on the things we wear in the store."
Even though Nancy retired a decade ago, she still dresses out of the store. "Except for these shoes," said Denise, covering up her mom's scuffed flip-flops with her own Golden Goose sneaker. "I just came off the golf course!" her mother protested.
Shoppers at A'Maree's are far from the "Real Housewives of Orange County" stereotype. They are buttoned-up women in wool slacks and cashmere sweaters, carrying Birkin bags and buying Lanvin ballet flats.
The sisters wouldn't share how much the store renovation cost, and they acknowledge that the last two years have been challenging for the retail enterprise, given the slumping economy. (A'Maree's recently opened a sale shop on Balboa Island.)
Still, they are hopeful about the future.
"We have an edge on big department stores because we know our clientele," Dawn said. "People who shop here buy everything here, from their fine jewelry to their Wolfords to their cheese platters they are giving as gifts. We want to have the best of the best."
A'Maree's is at 2241 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach. For more information, call (949) 642-4423 or visit http://www.amarees.com.