By Kathy Johnson
Under a fading red and white awning (soon to be replaced), the temporary sign on the front door said “Open,” and the room beyond the opened door offered a Cinderella surprise. Walls of warm inviting shades of gray and cream displayed charming dresses hanging from the walls like photos. Right in front, as if welcoming friends, was a Cinderella ball gown in deep shades of wine colored fabric.
Nearby, as if still in the fairytale, was the charming and petite young owner, Mariah Amine Clark. The shop is called Mariah Amine Couture and is located at 112 South Wayne, two doors north of Shenandoah Valley Art Center and two doors south of the Heritage Museum near the corner of Wayne and Main Streets.
In the center of the shop’s main room, antique glass cases display handmade bags of all shapes, sizes and colors, each made with precision care by Clark. Other cases display one-of-kind items made by other local artisans who share the same love of quality and design. The shop includes another small room filled with additional handbags, a fitting room with a large antique mirror, and, in the rear, a small office. The main room is large and behind the display counters is a sewing area with a large cutting table and four sewing machines.
Born in Greenwood—her parents, Paul Clarke and Loi Patkin, moved to Crozet in 1948 and later onto the farm owned by Paul’s parents Gladys and Larry (now deceased) Clarke. Loi’s maternal grandparents, Jordan and Rhoda Patkin live in Ivy—Clark’s story begins in her senior year at Western Albemarle High School in 2004.
“I did dresses in school,” Clark said. (That’s Clark with no “e” since she met and married her prince charming, Matthew Clark, who is currently doing post doc work at U.Va.). “Did dresses” might be an understatement. Clark spent her senior year working on one dress—an Elizabethan style that she first designed and then made, including crocheting all the lace. It took her a year and then she was on to Virginia Tech, starting with a major in chemistry and changing in her second year to apparel design. She graduated in 2008.
Then came her engagement and wedding. “I did my whole wedding party, my dresses and a few other small odds and ends. I had always knitted and crocheted, but I had never been an avid knitter.” Then she spent four months knitting in a yarn shop in Blacksburg in 2009. “I needed a good bag, and I figured I was a seamstress and I could figure it out. And then it was a hit!” Pointing to a large bag on the nearby counter, she continued, “It was actually that big bag there. Everybody liked it.
“The owner of the shop was having a charity event and she asked me if I would make some bags as a vendor for it. That was the beginning. Bags are perfect because I could sell them on the Internet. It didn’t matter where we lived. People wouldn’t have to try them on. So that’s how I got into bags, and I added other sizes and styles.”
“I’ve been selling them at craft shows and fiber festivals. I needed bigger work space, and that’s when the idea of having a boutique came in and expanding it to have a variety. Really, I love the handmade and U.S.-made products and it sort of became a passion for me. There are so many interesting things that you can’t find anywhere else,” she explained.
“I also wanted to get back into apparels because I’ve missed doing them and you can’t really sell them at a craft show because customers can’t try things on. I’m planning on releasing a small ready-to-wear line this spring, when I do my grand opening,” Clark said with enthusiasm.
“It will be a very small line–probably three or four dresses, maybe a couple of skirts, in a couple of sizes each—but I am hoping to grow it. The idea is it will not be mass-produced in factories, it will be made here,” she said. “In a case where several dresses were needed, I would probably take on more seamstresses rather than ship it out.
“I’m trying to emphasize my classes. I’m going to be doing sewing and knitting classes and offering some private lessons. That’s why I have all the machines in the back; there will be classes of four. I’m starting with basic machine sewing and basic hand sewing. They’re both going to be two-hour classes and they are complete beginner classes—[including] how a sewing machine works—and basically by the end of each class you’ll know how to put in either a hand hem or a machine hem and how to sew on a button or how to make a machine buttonhole,” said Clark.
“Within a couple of months I would like to start introducing some more complicated apparel classes. I want to do some additional classes like ‘how to read a store-bought pattern,’ or ‘make a skirt,’ ‘alter a pattern,’ or ‘construct a sundress.’”
Among other artists’ whose work she carries bags made from recycled grocery bags. “They are 100 percent recycled materials. He doesn’t use anything, no glue or staples or anything. Everything that he puts into them he finds discarded. And they are these beautiful bags. He loves to take something that is considered waste and make it art and beauty. And he lives in Waynesboro,” she explained.
Clark carries polar fleece hats made by Ryan Williamson, hand “painted” yarn from The Flock Bransonas in Staunton, along with felted pins, handmade cards with bookmarks, wrapped silk sachets and from her aunt, textile artist Diane Kowalski (www.wovengems.com), and woven silk and alpaca scarves and shawls.
Clark has a grand opening planned for the spring. Hours for the shop are Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.