Heather Caswell figured out early on where she belonged: in a place that celebrated art and literature, theater and music, and where her philosophy of fashion as both art form and vehicle for self-discovery encompassed all of the above.
She found that place in Davis, where for the past 25 years, her store, The Wardrobe, has enjoyed the continued support of a community that shares her vision.
“The people of Davis really get The Wardrobe,” Caswell said recently. “Davis is really interesting… very well-read and really loves the arts and this store is a reflection of the community.”
Whether it’s sponsoring a short-story contest on “If Our Clothes Could Talk,” putting on theatrical fashion shows for the Davis Art Center, hosting photo exhibits, releasing music compilations or introducing the community to a new artist, Caswell and her store have never just been about clothes.
Her philosophy, she says, is “the art of becoming you.”
“It refers to a journey, of following your imagination and expressing your truest self,” she said. “It’s a big part of what The Wardrobe is about: The art of being true is the art of becoming you.”
Caswell, originally from Philadelphia, fell in love with California when she was just 7 years old.
She knew forever after, she says, that that’s where she was supposed to be.
Davis would become her ultimate destination when she read about the Blue Mango restaurant, which in the 1980s occupied a spot on F Street that Little Prague now fills.
The restaurant’s healthy organic food and the bicycling culture of Davis drew her to town in 1986 after she graduated from college.
She moved here on Labor Day of that year and a few months later had a job at the Blue Mango.
There she served as outreach coordinator, learning how to run a business as well as how to produce live music and coordinate events. The experience would serve her well.
A year later, when she popped into a local consignment shop by the name of The Wardrobe — where she planned to unload some clothes — she was offered a part-time job on the spot. Three months later, she owned the store.
After taking over The Wardrobe in January 1987, Caswell slowly began moving the store out of the consignment business and started buying clothes. She started with used clothing and moved on to vintage, including a vast collection of costumes, hundreds of them, in fact.
For several weeks around Halloween, she and her growing staff would dress up in costumes, something former employers still talk about today.
“I had fun with the costumes,” Caswell says wistfully.
At the time, The Wardrobe was at Second and G streets, having moved on from its original location where Sophia’s Thai Kitchen now is.
In 2000, Caswell moved the store to its current location on E Street.
In moving, she lost a lot of storage space and had to give up the costume collection. But no matter: “I’m still a costumer,” she says. “I just costume for the everyday.”
What replaced the costumes were gowns, she said, and “the fantasy of gowns.”
And her store grew up.
Previously, she dressed a younger crowd, Caswell said, but that clientele slowly grew to include women in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Now, she said, she dresses everyone from 14-year-olds to 103-year-olds.
“I went from vintage to modern vintage to art couture,” she said. ”I’m proud of the multigenerational experience here.”
She’s also dressed more than 1,000 brides, as well as mothers of the bride, grandmothers of the bride and bridesmaids.
“A huge reason I continue doing what I’m doing is being able to be part of someone’s special day,” she said.
It was all those weddings, in fact, that inspired that writing contest a few years ago. What if all those gowns could talk, she thought; what stories they would tell.
People from all walks of life submitted their stories, Caswell said, “and it helped people recognize the value fashion has played in their lives.”
Caswell also began bringing her background in theater — dating back to her childhood — to the fashion shows she organized. The Davis Art Center became an early beneficiary of her artistic vision, with Caswell and The Wardrobe raising money for the center through fashion shows that combined theater, music and art, including DACs 40th anniversary celebration at El Macero Country Club in 2005.
Serotonin Surge Charities became another beneficiary, with Caswell over the years helping to raise more than $1 million through fashion shows for health services.
And then there are the local artists.
Giving them a platform, a place to be seen, has been a critical role of The Wardrobe, Caswell said.
She helped launch local hat designer Norma Rice, carried the work of jewelry and clothing designer Sacha Laurin and hosted more trunk shows than she can remember.
“I’ve launched over 100 designers,” Caswell says, “lots of them local.”
She’s also mentored many students, providing more than 100 internships over the years and watching former employees enter the industry on their own, focused on fashion, marketing and graphic arts careers.
Along the way, Caswell has been mentored herself.
She credits Ed Street, a retired CFO, with helping her on the business end of things; Sacramento-based philosopher Carol Klesow for helping her “understand color at a deeper level”; and writer Phil Cousineau, who Caswell calls a “literary mentor.”
A protégé and biographer of mythologist Joseph Campbell, Cousineau recently led a tour of Ireland on which Caswell assisted.
She says her fashion philosophy of “the art of becoming you,” aligns well with what Cousineau does in taking people on journeys to find themselves.
“There are a lot of parallels I find between our work,” she said. “Helping people find their voice. I hope that’s what I’m doing here: helping people find their voice through color and adornment.”
In return, the store has helped her become more active in the community, Caswell says.
She has served on the city’s downtown design committee, the arts commission and other boards, and now serves on the board of Davis Media Access.
The latter has brought her back to her love of multimedia — music, video and more.
Caswell now has a YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/TheWardrobeBoutique) and a Facebook page that include interviews she’s done over the years with fashion icons like Betsey Johnson and Sue Wong.
A long-planned book, “The Art of Becoming You,” may yet include video or other interactive components. She’s still figuring that part out.
What Caswell does know after 25 years in this business, is she found the perfect place to grow into the person she’s become.
“I see myself as someone in a position to inspire others,” she said. ”But if it weren’t for the people who come through here and work here, I probably wouldn’t still be doing it.”
Join Caswell and her staff in celebration of 25 years on Friday, when The Wardrobe will feature a fashion show, a video and CD release party, music, art and more.
The event, from 7 to 9 p.m., coincides with the Second Friday ArtAbout, appropriately enough.
“That’s an event that’s really shaped the downtown,” Caswell said of the monthly celebration. “People come together to celebrate art, and here, at the Wardrobe, fashion as art.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy