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Covering the Fashion Bases

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Fashioning a wardrobe entails building on strengths and collecting great-looking clothes that are as easy to care for as they are to wear. That's the concept Carolyn Billet used to open Gae-tana's (7732 Maple St., 865-9625) Uptown in 1984 and the one that has kept it a thriving and popular women's clothing store ever since.

"Everybody has a specialty in the world," says Billet, who has worked in the retail clothing business for 35 years. "Mine is practical fashion. That way you can be able to always use it."

The best part about the fashion sensibilities at Gae-tana's is that customers don't feel they're shopping for basics. The fashions are contemporary designs of the season that are selected for their durability, economic value and longevity of good looks. Billet says she buys with an eye toward helping people assemble wardrobes in which every piece becomes a comfortable favorite.

"Everything we do is washable," she says. "It is less expensive (than dry cleaning) and less stressful because you don't have to make the trip to the dry cleaners." Selling merchandise with a focus on expanding wardrobe options with pieces that work together also helps customers, both financially and in convenience.

"I suggest that people buy a small group of separates in good basic colors, then throw in something in a fashionable color to get their wardrobe going," Billet says. "My rule of thumb is if you find something you like and it doesn't go with three other things you have, maybe you don't need it. That way you don't end up with a dozen different items that don't go with anything. When you get up in the morning, you can always find something that matches; whatever is clean goes together." The next season, she adds, customers simply need to add a few pieces of clothing in that season's fashion colors and replace things that are worn out.

"It takes the stress out of shopping," she says. "It's less traumatic on your budget and your psyche."

When Billet opened Gae-tana's 18 years ago, Maple Street -- now a burgeoning retail area with coffeeshops and restaurants -- was a sleepy Uptown strip with little development. And the concept of opening a small boutique-like shop with personalized service, up-to-date seasonal clothing and reasonable prices wasn't common.

"Business has only gotten better," Billet says. "When we opened in 1984, we were the only ones here doing this. I feel lucky. We watch our prices. We are very concerned with having the best quality for the smallest amount of money."

The decision to open on Maple Street as opposed to a shopping center where stores get incidental foot traffic from people passing by, also turned out to be a good one.

"We are a destination spot, but it's convenient to almost everywhere," Billet says. "What I like about Maple Street is that it's a small-town street. You don't feel like you're getting lost in a big city."

In addition to blouses, skirts, shorts, pants, dresses, jackets and other clothing items, Gae-tana's also carries a range of fashion handbags, a variety of jewelry styles in several price ranges, and fashion-forward shoes, which have proved very popular among the customers, who range from high schoolers to mature women.

"Putting in the shoes brought in a completely different audience for us," Billet says. "I've been surprised how many people come here just to buy shoes." Part of the new customer base the stores enjoys also comes from recommendations from satisfied customers.

"We have a wonderful group of customers," she says. "We try to be down to earth and honest (in our recommendations). I like people to work here who will listen to customers and help them to look the best they can. I want to sell from an honest viewpoint. Shopping here needs to be a pleasant experience. We have a strong return customer base and, of course, word-of-mouth is the best."

She also acknowledges the value of a good staff that works in tandem and all have the same customer-satisfaction goal in mind. She has maintained a core of longtime employees who know her vision for the store, like to help customers find what they want and don't mind working hard. Since opening, Billet says, she's worked with three solid teams of members who stayed on for several years.

"I like this business," Billet says. "It suits me. I've always loved fashion and I like retail and watching a business grow."


Even Ritzier
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. (921 Canal St., (800) 241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com) has added the deluxe-accommodation Maison Orleans boutique hotel under its management umbrella. The Ritz-Carlton took over management of the intimate luxury hotel last month, adding the Maison Orleans to its list of other boutique hotels in Miami and soon-to-open in Washington, D.C., operated by the corporation.

The Maison Orleans, housed in the same restored Maison Blanche building as the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, offers 74 deluxe guest rooms and a grand suite that are elegantly appointed with demi-canopied beds, floor-to-ceiling windows, works by New Orleans artists, CD/DVD surround sound, Internet access and multiline cordless telephones. Guests also are treated to a 24-hour butler service, around-the-clock room service and easy access to the dining, lounge and spa facilities at the adjoining Ritz-Carlton.

Owner Carolyn Billet mans the counter at Gae-tana's Maple Street Clothing, where everything is washable, comfortable and fashionably affordable.
  • Owner Carolyn Billet mans the counter at Gae-tana's Maple Street Clothing, where everything is washable, comfortable and fashionably affordable.

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