Ever since Governor Inslee's March 15 stay on in-person dining, all eyes have been on local restaurants: Could the beloved neighborhood businesses, so clearly built for face-to-face interactions with customers, adapt quickly enough to weather the pandemic?
But as diners dutifully ordered takeout, non-essential businesses like clothing boutiques shut their doors a bit more quietly on March 23—overshadowed by the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order announced the same day and left without an obvious backup plan. Curbside pickup didn’t become a legal option for Washington retailers until the start of May, forcing businesses to move operations online for over a month—fine for bigger retailers like Nordstrom, whose online presence is well-known, but potentially disastrous for boutiques like Momo, whose website wasn’t set up for making sales at the time of the shutdown.
“We spent a few days saying, ‘we’ll just sit tight,’” says Lei Ann Shiramizu, who co-founded Momo with her husband Tom Kleifgen 13 years ago.
Those days of waiting turned into weeks and months of adapting and reflecting—updating the website, putting together Momo to Go packages where customers could name a price and some preferences and receive a “takeout” gift lovingly curated from the shop's collection of eclectic, often Japanese- and Swedish-inspired designs. When boutiques could reopen, they planned an open-air garden popup but were pushed back into the building by rain before it began. Truly, the way of 2020. “We’re waiting for the locusts to land,” Shiramizu joked.
This isn't locusts, but it’s a sad loss for Japantown and for Seattle’s fashion community. Due in part to the Covid-induced pause, in part to 2020 in general, and in part to Tom’s retirement (the couple originally agreed to run the shop for ten years), Shiramizu says that Momo will close for good by the end of September.
“It sounds so cliche to say that I'm going to miss the customer—because we have such nice customers here—but I guess I’ll just be cliche,” Shiramizu says.
Momo’s not the only Seattle fashion giant shutting its doors this month. Baby & Company, a downtown fixture (and the most compelling case for Seattle style) since it opened 44 years ago, announced on its website that it would be closing its Seattle shop at the end of the month and relocating to a smaller location in Sun Valley. “After years of working a relentless schedule, we finally had the time and space to re-examine the priorities in our lives,” wrote Jill Donnelly, who has owned the boutique with her husband Wayne since 2009. “Small businesses across the country, particularly in big cities like Seattle, would become casualties of an economic and social disaster playing out nationwide. Our surrender was inevitable.”
Can’t Blame the Youth, a Chinatown–International District streetwear brand owned by prolific Seattle entrepreneur Marcus Lalario, closed its brick and mortar shop at the end of August after two whirlwind years in business, citing Covid-19: “This is not the way we wanted it to end but I would rather have Covid kill our shop instead of anymore humans,” Lalario wrote on Instagram. CBTY will still operate online—perhaps a sign of the fashion industry’s future, as individual designers and curators increasingly opt out of the costs and uncertainty that come with running a store.
As for Shiramizu, the future’s still being written. She’d like to spend time in Hawaii with her aging parents before figuring out her "next adventure”—perhaps, she says, she’ll run a “Mini Momo” of sorts, with some of her favorite items from the boutique: Japanese textiles, chopsticks, a particularly well-loved line of dresses.
“Maybe I'll welcome private shoppers, who knows. Maybe I’ll get on the road with a mobile mini Momo,” Shiramizu says. “Even though fun seems counter to what's going on, you have to be able to bring people joy… Take them away from the world that we are all living in right now.”