The Claire Dickson boutique in Lafayette Hill is an institution in the world of Philadelphia-area specialty stores. Best known for glitzy special-occasion wear, Claire Dickson is the Sophy Curson of the suburbs, if you will. But Dickson also sells sportswear, so she breathes the same rarefied air as Center City's Joan Shepp and Ann Gitter's Knit Wit.
"She found her niche," said Pam Katz, owner of First Impressions, a neighboring Lafayette Hill boutique. "And she sold it well, very well. I'm sad to see her leave us."
In the late 1970s and early '80s, while other boutique owners - including Katz and Shepp - were catering to working women, Dickson zeroed in on the population who planned charity lunches and held elaborate dinners.
Her customers ordered brand-new gowns each year for the Academy Ball in January. They also popped in frantically looking for a cute little something for an afternoon bar mitzvah.
Rarely in a rush, however, the Claire Dickson shopper loved talking about the latest fashions - but she reserved those for her daughter. She, on the other hand, loaded up on classic jewel-toned pantsuits, cashmere sweaters trimmed in mohair, and full-length leather coats. After all, "classic with a twist" never goes out of style.
"I'm heartsick," said Ann Frankel, 65, of Gladwyne, a 15-year Dickson shopper. Frankel's last purchase: a fits-like-a-glove black sheath for a family friend's bar mitzvah. "She was like the best friend who knew everything in my closet who picked out things to complement my wardrobe."
Frankel couldn't tell you who made that dress - Claire Dickson customers, after all, aren't addicted to labels. But it's more than likely from a heavy-hitting designer, as Dickson carried big European names, from Moschino to Alberta Ferretti, as well as smaller popular brands including John Patrick and Jackie Rogers.
Dickson never had any intention of opening her own store. Married in 1956, she spent her early adulthood raising two children, going to charitable events, shopping, and having lunch with her girlfriends.
In 1979, during Debbie's first year of college, Dickson told her husband, David, then president of Philadelphia chemical manufacturing company J.B.I. Inc., that she wanted to open a gift shop.
His response: "Why would you ever want to do that? You know clothes."
She asked Maury Goldberg, owner of the Lafayette Hill House of Capri salon, if she could sell just a few sweaters in his space. With Goldberg's blessing, she took $1,600 to New York's garment district and bought two dozen sweaters. She sold out the first weekend.
Three-and-a-half years later, in 1982, she leased a former plant store in the same Shoppers World strip mall - where she's been ever since.
One renovation later, Dickson has seen gauchos come and go and come again. She witnessed customers get really picky during economic downturns, and specialty denim challenge her personal fashion rules. But she got over it, and when denim was at its height in the early 2000s, she sold $400 South American-made jeans.
"We were always, always looking for something new," Dickson said.
For many, the Claire Dickson go-to item was a good coat, and loyal customers reminisced about trying them on during the heat of August. The Claire Dickson customer didn't wait for after Labor Day sales to start fall shopping.
"I have this green coat, I can't tell you the label, that I bought several years ago and that coat still makes me smile," said 67-year-old Gwen Sperling of Andorra. "I'm very sad she's leaving. It's like losing a family member."
Never one to give a fashion pass to special-occasion sweatpants, Dickson is glad that style is on a dressy uptick. Still, she says, she's done. It's time to take art lessons and travel through Europe.
"It's OK," Dickson said. "I'm ready to move on."