September 25th, 2012 / posted by paularath

Naomi Loewe at Chelsea in Ward Warehouse

Years ago, I wrote a story for Hawaii Business magazine about four local owners/buyers of women’s wear who really understood their neighborhoods and their customers. Naomi Loewe of Chelsea was on that list.
Now Chelsea has moved from Manoa Marketplace, where it was located for 24 years, to Ward Warehouse, and Naomi is still totally “getting” her new neighborhood and her customers, old and new. Chelsea is about to turn 25 and it’s going strong.
How did she get so retail savvy? Naomi swears she didn’t start that way. She grew up in Aina Koa and attended St. Augustine from grades K through 3 and Star of the Sea through high school. For 31 years she flew for United Airlines.
None of this prepared Naomi for her first foray into retail. She and her friend and fellow flight attendant, Francie Kinkade, opened G. Willikers in Manoa in 1985. The 800-square-foot store specialized in antiques, particularly those of the Victorian period. They were very trendy among the Manoa populace of the time, which was mainly families with young children.
In 1987, the owners of Manoa Marketplace had something else in mind for G. Williker’s space: women’s clothing. They asked the partners to make the switch. With no buying background, not having a clue about where to go to buy women’s clothing, Naomi and Francie simply jumped in.

Chelsea carries clothing and accessories from many different designers, but only a few of each style. It’s also a great place for gifts.

“We were completely oblivious to how to do it,” Naomi said with a chuckle. “We didn’t know where you were supposed to buy stuff. We fumbled around for three or four years. The only thing we can say is that we didn’t make the same mistake twice. But we didn’t even know how to operate a cash register.”
Their early buys were based strictly on personal taste. Francie and Naomi each had different taste but they respected each other’s choices. “We soon learned to buy for the customer, not for ourselves” Naomi said. “As we got to know our customers, we learned what would work and what wouldn’t.”
Francie moved to Colorado and Naomi decided to stick with Chelsea on her own. Now she spends as much time as she can in the Ward Warehouse store, talking to customers and seeiing what they like. Many of her Manoa customers have followed Chelsea to Ward Warehouse. In addition, many new customers, including visitors, have discovered the chic boutique.
Now a savvy buyer with a lot of experience, Naomi said when she goes on a buying trip she often has specific customers in mind.

In addition to clothing and accessories, Chelsea always stocks a wide selection of unusual gifts. Every holiday is celebrated in the store. Whether it’s Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, Naomi buys with the gift-giver in mind. Many of these gifts reflect her quirky sense of humor. For example,  the Dammit Doll, a stuffed fabric doll created for those days “Whenever things don’t go well, and you want to hit the wall and yell,” as the label says, simply “Whack the stuffing out and yell ‘Dammit, dammit, dammit!'” (We all know someone who needs a Dammit Doll sometimes!)

The Dammit Doll was originally created on Kauai.

Naomi buys in L.A., San Francisco and the huge MAGIC show in Las Vegas. She has always wanted Chelsea to differentiate itself from department stores, so  she buys limited runs, a maximum of six or eight garments in each style. Many of her selections are one-of-a-kind. Her customers are always looking for something different, fun, playful and colorful. Naomi finds many of the lines they love are from Europe and Japan.Her customers, she said, “Are starting to be more daring now so I have to pay attention to who’s buying this (more edgy fashions).”

Chelsea features a lot of chic European designs that work well on Hawaii’s women.

Sadly for every chic boutique owner, there’s a fine line between high fashion and what sells. It’s easy to go overboard with a buy and end up with really cute clothing that has to be highly discounted at the end of the season. “Fashion is fun but you can’t always sell it,” Naomi said with a shrug.
With the move to Ward, Naomi has broadened her customer base. “We have a wider range of customers now, with tourists and locals from all parts of the island, so buying is more challenging with a wider customer base. There are many different economic groups. I hate to hear ‘I love your stuff but I can’t afford it.’ I try to let them know when things go on sale.” Chelsea carries a wide range of merchandise at many different price points.
Naomi is also learning to buy for an aging population. Many of those young families from Manoa are now retirees.They bring their adult kids and grandkids in to shop but their own needs have changed dramatically with age and lifestyle. The woman who used to buy dresses and jackets for career at Chelsea now buys leggings and tunics for fun in her retirement years.
Chelsea’s most recent addition is the Chelsea Collection. Naomi is working with a long time Honolulu seamstress and designer on a collection that suits her customers perfectly. It’s based on recycled kimonos but it’s not boxy. The silhouette is longer and more shapely. “We’re making fashion forward garments with antique fabrics,” Naomi explained.

Chelsea is all about color and fun.

Naomi invites readers of to her 25th anniversary celebration:
Date: Thursday, September 27
Time: 4 to 8 p.m.
Location: Chelsea in Ward Warehouse

There will be champagne, pupu, live models and 25% off everything in the store. Fro more information, go to

– Paula Rath

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