For decades, Roberta in downtown Langley has been Whidbey’s own small slice of the New York City runway, with walls stocked with cashmere and high-end fashion lines from locales such as Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
But after years of giving straight and uncompromising fashion advice to customers, store owner and Whidbey Island’s own fashionista Roberta Sawyer is closing her doors.
“It’s the end of an era for me,” Sawyer said. “I’ve been in fashion all my life, but I’m ready to try something different.”
Roberta has called the small storefront next to Moonraker Books on First Street home since the early ‘80s. It’s one of Langley’s longest-standing businesses, and is something of an icon to women’s fashion aficionados on Whidbey Island, according to Langley Main Street Association Program Manager Lorinda Kay. The doors will permanently close on March 4 when Sawyer retires. Sawyer is currently selling the store’s fixtures and the typically high prices are slashed in a last effort to sell the contents of the store.
“She has been around for so long in Langley that her store has become an iconic Langley destination, and she’s become iconic herself,” Kay said. “She brought high-end fashion to a place you’d never expect to find it.”
The word “icon” is a descriptor many of her loyal customers and long-time Langley residents use to describe both Sawyer and her store. The shop is oddly placed on Whidbey Island, while many of the items in the store are more typically found in the world’s fashion capitals. Her way of working with customers is straight forward and New York-esque — she won’t hesitate to tell a customer if an article of clothing looks terrible on them.
It’s not about selling for Sawyer, it’s about the art of making people beautiful.
“Being forthright with customers is my business model, and it’s worked for as long as I’ve been here,” Sawyer said. “Customers appreciate an honest opinion. I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. It’s just who I am. The store is me.”
Sawyer confidently says Roberta is the spot for high-end women’s fashion not only on Whidbey, but for the greater Seattle area. She says that’s not ego talking, but her insider knowledge of the industry she’s spent a lifetime in. As she says, “this isn’t Nordstrom.”
“Customers will come in wearing something they bought 15 years ago that hasn’t worn,” Sawyer said. “The quality of the clothes is high, and I only buy what I would wear. This is basically my closet.”
It’s clear Roberta is Sawyer’s closet after learning of her modeling past. A young, tall and slim Sawyer walked the runways of New York City in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She worked in showrooms and for famous designers such as Thea Porter after her modeling career. Her fashion sense took her from the Big Apple to Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in renown department stores. She even rubbed shoulders with famous creative minds such as the eccentric Saldavor Dali, who did a photo shoot with her.
Eventually, she settled in Langley to carve out a living; a friend convinced her to visit the Village by the Sea, which resulted in Sawyer offering to buy The Star Store. The deal went through, so she packed her bags and headed to Puget Sound.
She only had it for a few years, selling the business “sometime” in the ’80s to Gene and Tamar Felton. She opened Roberta soon after, and many say its success is the result of her past business experience and natural fashion acumen.
“This woman is a master of fashion merchandising, and she has a huge ability to merchandise with her customers in mind,” Store Manager Karin Bardarson said. “She brought beauty to the island, and we needed it.”
With the closing of Roberta, Moonraker Books owner Josh Hauser says Langley is losing “an impeccable taste” and a “one-of-a-kind merchandiser.” She says while others may try to simply sell product, Sawyer always has the customer in mind, even when the straight-forwardness suggests otherwise.
Roberta has also become somewhat of a home away from home for some customers. Sawyer says many of her loyal buyers regularly stop by to talk, knit and even walk her dog. The store’s final days have been filled with visits from regulars who stop to chat, buy one last item and exchange hugs. To them, this is the “end of an era.”