An Interview with Barbara Weiser, A Founder of Charivari

About forty years ago, Barbara Weiser, her brother Jon, and their mother Selma were in Paris for the fashion collections. Fifteen years earlier, the three had opened an Upper West Side boutique called Charivari. The Weisers were unusual from the start, offering innovative and trendy designs in the clothes they sold and in the instinctive, dramatic, futuristic presentation at Charivari. There were no fashion stores on the Upper West Side in 1967, and they chose a name that in Old French meant “uproar,” because that is what they sought to create.

Charivari featured  extraordinary Japanese, Italian, Belgian, French, English and American designers. They saw themselves as pioneers, explorers discovering new talent and bringing it to the attention of the American fashion audience. Some of the designers they worked with included Giorgio Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Gianni Versace, Miuccia Prada, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Perry Ellis and Helmut Lang – and many others.

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At one time, there were five Charivari stores within a ten block radius on the Upper West Side. The New York Times referred to them as a “charm bracelet,” since each store was a variation on the other, Barbara recalls. The stores included fashion for both men and women, and their showplace was ultimately the store on 57th Street.

Charivari

A Charivari boutique on the corner of 81st and Columbus. c/o Landmark West

It may seem like working the fashion collections in Paris would have been luxurious, but the Weisers worked grueling hours – every day until 10pm. One morning, after they finished their appointments, Barbara set out to Les Halles to see if there were any new stores there. She noticed a small store with very odd garments in the window. They looked like “hospital gowns,” odd shapes in offbeat colors. She went in and found that all the pieces were one size, at that time an unusual concept. It was hard to understand these pieces without trying them on. When she did, she called her mother and said, “these things are so interesting, either wonderful or terrible.” Her mother joined her and started trying on the same garments. She then approached the staff and asked if they had a collection to buy. Racks were suddenly rolled out. The collection had arrived too late to be shown and all of a sudden, Charivari was the first international customer. Yohji Yamamoto’s collection had a tremendous impact on the fashion audience when Charivari introduced it to New York in 1979. He has continued to be a significant talent and is always of interest.

Weiser's in Paris with Designer Yohji Yamamoto

The Weisers in Paris with Designer Yohji Yamamoto – photo provided by Barbara Weiser

Marc Jacobs lived up the block from the store on 72nd and Columbus. The day before they opened, he came in with his grandmother and was star struck that the store would carry collections of such luminaries as Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Jean Paul Gaultier. “His grandmother asked why we didn’t give him a job , but since he was 13, that was not a possibility,” Barbara says. “He came every day after school though and enjoyed being on the floor. Ultimately we made him a stock boy. The rest is history!”

Does Barbara still follow fashion? She says she has an archive of the extraordinary pieces Charivari carried during the years it existed (1967-1998). Although she preserves these pieces for their historical significance, with the possibility of some day of doing an exhibition in her mother’s honor, she has her own personal collection of many of the designers she still loves.

Most recently, Barbara and Jon have been sheltering in Miami Beach. Although always an Upper West Sider, her apartment on West 90th street is currently on lockdown.

Barbara Weiser

Always fashionable, Barbara Weiser recently returned to NYC after sheltering in Miami Beach.

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