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The Heidi Chronicles

With three stores on Fillmore, Heidi Sabelhaus is the Queen of Retail.

By Barbara Kate Repa

In a city not shy about renaming its streets, Fillmore Street may soon stand in jeopardy of being redubbed HeidiSays Way.

In just over six years, Heidi Sabelhaus, who exudes a mix of serenity and style, has built a mini-empire covering the fashion gamut — from sophisticated day-to-evening collections to casual wear to shoes. Her offerings fill three shops, all located on Fillmore.

The newest store, HeidiSays Casual, sprung up last month [February 2008] at 2416 Fillmore in the space vacated by the Yountville children’s clothing store just a few weeks earlier.

Sabelhaus says her original idea was to establish a retail website selling women’s clothing, HeidiSays.com, which she started in Seattle in 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom. “The site was going well,” she says, “but I always wanted to have a brick and mortar store.”

Photographs of Heidi Sabelhaus by Dickie Spritzer

She decided to move her virtual retail roots here after visiting and becoming smitten with the street. “I always came to the neighborhood to shop and eat and meet friends,” she says. “And I always remembered Fillmore as being a classic street — kind of timeless. The people and some of the businesses and the architecture and elements of style all had a sophisticated feel.”

Still, she was tempted at first to set up shop on Union Street, a natural fit for the young and edgy clothing she intended to stock. “But I was on the cusp of turning 30 and beginning to be more sophisticated and classic in my own style,” she says. “I thought that ultimately the customers would relate to my products better on Fillmore and in Pacific Heights.”

In the spring of 2001, she found a near-perfect local spot: the wide and light-filled space at 2426 Fillmore, former site of Paint Effects, a furniture painting store. “I loved the space, especially the windows; they’re so important to me because of displaying merchandise.” Inside — amid racks hung with creations by Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, Catherine Malandrino and Missoni — is a sign on the wall in script exhorts shoppers: Indulge.

With the perspective that seven years on the street will bring, Sabelhaus looks back on her own fashion sense and the merchandise she first stocked and notes the evolution in both.

“I carried more of the girly-feminine in the beginning,” she says. “Now there’s more of a range as I’ve evolved — and the customers have evolved with me. We’re more serious in terms of fashion and design. But I really try to have a selection of choices in the store: some very feminine, some clean and sophisticated, some serious and higher-priced and some couture.”

Ironically for a company that started online, Sabelhaus shut down the retail website only eight months after opening her first Fillmore shop. It quickly became crowded with customers and ever more merchandise, prompting her to look for additional space.

“I always dreamed about doing shoes, and had quite a selection at the main store,” she says. “But because of the space limitations, we couldn’t carry a complete collection — and it was frustrating not to be able to give customers all they needed.”

Third store's the charm: Inside HeidiSays Casual.

Sabelhaus wasn’t tempted to stray far from home to scratch her itch. “I live in the neighborhood, work in the neighborhood — and I wanted to meet the customers’ needs right here,” she says. So when Express Photo left 2105 Fillmore, HeidiSays Shoes was launched, opening in February of 2007.

Sabelhaus says the rapid success of the shoe store only reminded her of a drawback of the first store: It was overcrowded. “That frustrated customers — and me, too,” she says. “It was a struggle to provide more designers, but be restricted by the space.”

Her solution was another expansion, this time into 2416 Fillmore, just two doors down from the original HeidiSays. “It made sense to be able to separate and provide more casual clothing,” she says. “I realized for me personally, there’s a time to be dressed up and a time to be casual.” That realization was brought home with the birth of her daughter, Vivian Grace, nine months ago. “As a new mom, I realize I can’t be in a little black Phillip Lim dress with spit-up all over it,” she says.

The newest store, HeidiSays Casual, aims to meet the challenge of customers who say they crave stylish casual looks for weekends, rather than sloppy tees and sweatpants. The racks are hung with tops by designers known for their comfort and style, such as Ella Moss and Zooey, along with a line of HeidiSays label sweaters and hoodies made of cashmere milled in Scotland.
The shelves are piled with jeans from various designers that come with an ironclad promise from HeidiSays buyer Liz Hynes: “I can fit anyone,” she vows.

Sabelhaus says she got the space for HeidiSays Casual on January 2 and opened February 8. “There are still finishing touches to add,” she says. “I’m itching to put up a new awning, for example. Then my plan is to just relax and stop expanding for a while.”