Tuesdays are usually quiet in the retail world, but Étui was a beehive of activity after word got out that after more than 30 years in the fashion business, ElMatha Wilder plans to close her boutique. Longtime customers, who had received the news in the mail, stopped by the store on West Alabama near Lamar High School to confirm it was really true.
"My lease is up and my landlord doesn't care, so why not?" Wilder said, in between trading hugs. "Keeping up with brick and mortar is huge."
Since 1980 at Étui (and before that at Strawberry Frosting in Rice Village), Wilder has outfitted Houston women and shaped their clothing choices. In the 1970s, customers were young West U moms who seldom worked outside the home and needed daytime and party clothes. In the 80s as women entered the work force in great numbers, Wilder catered to them with professional clothing. Now the look is more casual, even in the office, Wilder said.
Her comfortable store has been a stopping-off point for generations of women over the years. (She thought up the name because it was short, fit well on a logo, and had a backstory. For anyone who does crossword puzzles, étui is a four-letter word for a case that holds valuable necessities.) After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, customers dropped by even if they weren't interested in buying anything.
"They told me they felt like it was a safe place," Wilder recalled.
Wilder will keep the store open for several months as shipments she had previously ordered come in. (She is offering discounts of 30 percent or more or merchandise.) "We'll be here until it's all gone," she said.
But at 62, Wilder is ready for her next act. A Renaissance woman, she teaches cooking classes and is working on a cookbook to be published at the end of the year. She also teaches seminars on packing for trips (one customer who dropped by the store says she continues to pack clothing in individual plastic bags as Wilder instructed "and it makes all the difference") and offers photography classes, having published several books of photos.
And she plans to continue informing her substantial e-mail list of clients about fashion trends.
"I'm not about to quit," she said. "I'm ready to spread my wings creatively in different ways."