Chestnut Hill boutique that catered to well-to-do closes, signaling the end of an era

Connie Baker is closing her once-popular Sans Appelle boutique inside the Cheltenham Mall, but she’s going to try the pop-up route on City Avenue.

FOR THREE DECADES, Connie Baker's Sans Appelle dress boutique catered to a mostly elite group - the ladies-who-lunch crowd, socialites, and members of prestigious civic and social organizations such as the Carats or the Girlfriends.

During a recent visit to the store, most recently located in Cheltenham Square Mall, Baker - a member of the Epicureans and the Moles social groups - showed off a jewel-trimmed satin suit in emerald green that she had ordered specifically for members of the Links Inc., a prestigious predominantly black social service organization. She also pointed out red and white jewelry with insignia for the sorority Delta Sigma Theta and I spotted, on a clearance rack, a white blouse with a logo from the Red Hat Society.

It was an eclectic assortment - racks of beaded evening gowns, faux-leather-trimmed dresses, fur vests and ponchos, churchy-looking suits, designer knock-off bags, and one-of-a-kind pieces - most on sale. The sight of all that merchandise triggered my shopping impulse to the point that I just started grabbing - a silk teal Indian caftan, a sweater with black and tan faux fur trim, a beaded evening dress.

Now, sadly, Sans Appelle is no more. The boutique closed its retail doors for good Dec. 31.

But hold on to your pearls, ladies. Baker, who turned 80 on Tuesday, is going to try to stay in business but without a traditional storefront. She's scheduled her first pop-up shop on Friday and Saturday at the Crowne Plaza on City Avenue from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.

"She catered to the Philadelphia social set," pointed out Patricia Gilliam Clifford, a society columnist and public relations consultant. "As you know, Philly is the alpha of all of those groups."

Agnes Ogletree, president of the Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, said, "She's a true icon."

A new career

Baker, a 1957 graduate of Morgan State University, moved to Philadelphia after marrying Wendell Baker, of Baker Funeral Homes. Her first job in Philly was at Albert Einstein Medical Center, where she worked as a therapeutic dietitian. After her now-deceased husband began complaining about her working nights and weekends, Baker made a career switch. She went on to teach home economics for 12 years and later spent 14 years as a career development specialist for the Philadelphia public schools.

After retiring, she thought about opening a small restaurant but when that didn't work out, the owner of a boutique she frequented regularly suggested she try retail. Baker was a snazzy dresser and loved clothing, so she decided to give it a try. In 1984, Baker opened Sans Appelle on Germantown Avenue near Springfield in Chestnut Hill.

The shop filled a niche in that it catered to upwardly mobile women looking for statement pieces and something different from what you typically find at department stores. During her heyday, Baker would do eight to 10 fashion shows a year - featuring models such as Julie Wilch, the mother of Eve, the rapper/actress.

"She catered to women who had lives - women who had significant careers or they had married well or whatever," Wilch recalled. "Let's face it, Miss Connie wasn't cheap. If you went in there, you had to be prepared to pay some bucks."

Linda Coleman, an associate director of multicultural affairs at Villanova University, agreed: "She had the most wonderful things to make you feel like a lady. I'm sad what it has come to."

Around 2008, business dropped off sharply. Retailers everywhere struggled. It was the Great Recession. Baker fell behind on her rent in 2012 and was forced to move. Needing a place to go in a hurry, she wound up at Cheltenham Square Mall in Cheltenham Township.

Initially, Baker had high hopes, but failed to make much of a go of it in the new space. She didn't attract the kind of traffic and clientele her business was used to. Days would go by during which Sans Appelle didn't make a single sale.

"This is what I did for the month - a month," Baker told me pointing to a $5,000 figure on a spreadsheet. "I used to do $5,000 in a weekend."

On the day I visited just before Christmas, I was there for a couple of hours and only one other customer came through.

"The people who started with me are no longer shoppers. They started 31 years ago with me," Baker explained, as she sat in her empty store. "Not only that, they are retired or they are helping their children and their grandchildren and they don't have the same fashion needs.

"And the younger people are not dressing the way we used to dress - the way we still dress," added Baker, who had on a sharp, leather-on-mesh, cut-out jacket with black slacks.

Changing times

This weekend's pop-up shop will feature skirts, jackets, sweaters, and coats from the fall. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 23 through Feb. 25 at the same location and will feature formal attire, prom dresses, and mother-of-the-bride outfits.

"I'm not ready to give it up yet even though I know I probably should," Baker told me. "First of all, because I'm healthy and I'm broke. This move to [Cheltenham Mall] cost me over $11,000, which I have not recovered.

"And I don't have a husband. I don't have any children at home. I don't have any parents. I want to keep working. I think you should work a couple of days a week. It gives you something to do. People who retire go home and [too often] die, honestly."

She added, "People need a reason to get up in the morning.""

@JeniceArmstrong

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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com