By Sara Bauknecht / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For decades, Emphatics boutique has enticed people through its doors with a selection of hand-picked, high-end fashions rivaled by few others in the nation.
Apparel by the likes of Japanese designer Issey Miyake and shoes by Parisian designer Maud Frizon were among their offerings. French haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier credits Emphatics in a 1984 article in The Pittsburgh Press as the first Americans to bring his clothes to the United States. (Today his designs are found in Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, and he was the focus of a nearly four-month exhibit at New York’s Brooklyn Museum that wrapped up in February.)
What kept clients coming back was not only the clothes but also the one-on-one service owners James and Karin Legato and their sales staff provided.
“It was an experience,” Mrs. Legato says of the business that started as a hair salon called Legato Hair Fashions in the old Jenkins Arcade before evolving into Emphatics in 1969. “We are interested in the art of it all.”
When the store migrated in the early ’80s to One Oxford Centre, its new space was dubbed a “theater of fashion,” complete with stage-style lighting, marble floors and a platform where models showcased styles for guests at fashion shows.
After 50 years, the show has reached its finale; Emphatics has closed because of a serious health issue in the Legato family.
Emphatics’ impact on Pittsburgh’s fashion scene was “tremendous,” says Pittsburgh Fashion Week founder and executive director Miyoshi Anderson. “It’s going to be a tremendous loss for us. I don’t know of anyone else who is going to be able to fill their shoes.”
Ms. Anderson got a taste of Emphatics as a model and wore some of the store’s clothes during a photo shoot for The Shops of One Oxford Centre.
“We were taught to have great respect for the designers and their art,” Ms. Anderson says, “so going in there to put anything on was major.”
Beyond local media, Emphatics was a go-to over the years for major style publications, including Elle and Harper’s BAZAAR, for pieces to feature in their fashion spreads.
“Emphatics put Pittsburgh on the map of global couture,” says Oxford Development Co. board chair Anne Lewis. Her late husband, Edward, envisioned One Oxford Centre as a destination for Fifth Avenue-style shopping in Downtown Pittsburgh.
“Emphatics played such an important part of that, and they were such innovators.”
It was typical for clients to read about designers or trends in a magazine or The New York Times a couple years after first hearing about them at Emphatics.
“Their designers have always been ahead of the curve,” says Sue Friedberg of Squirrel Hill, who has shopped there since its days at Jenkins Arcade.
The sights and styles of Paris were common inspiration pools for the Legatos.
“You have to get into the right restaurants where everyone hung out,” Mr. Legato says. “And you listen.”
“You were pioneers. You were adventurers,” Mrs. Legato adds.
The designers they discovered often became their friends. Letters of gratitude and well wishes fill portfolios. One dated October 1992 from Didier Grumbach, who’s had a hand in such brands as Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Givenchy, praised the couple for their faithfulness to the lines they sold and their talent at selecting on-the-pulse pieces.
“If we had to discontinue our relationship, I do not know who could replace you in your city, and what I tell you is shared by most of our European competitors,” wrote Mr. Grumbach, who worked at Thierry Mugler at the time. He now heads the French Chambre Syndicale.
Emphatics didn’t try to squeeze Pittsburghers into the ideals of Parisian couture.
“It was edgy with a Pittsburgh twist,” Ms. Friedberg says. Mrs. Legato’s “selections were things very much understanding what her clientele needed, what they wanted and what they’d enjoy.”
The Legatos aimed to make upscale fashion approachable by educating shoppers about the store’s accessories and apparel and ways to wear them.
“It was almost like going into an exhibit in a museum in a way,” says Angela Lowden of Mt. Lebanon, who shopped at Emphatics for about 15 years. “It would be a wonderful experience to walk in there and see the wearable art.”
Trying an outfit on was essential to seeing it come to life, clients learned, and Mrs. Legato helped them figure out if it worked with their wardrobe.
“She’d remember everything that you owned, which was amazing,” says longtime client Kathe Patrinos of Shadyside.
Other customers, including 40-year client Barbara Prine of Mount Washington, shared similar experiences.
“This would look great with that Galliano you had,” she recalls Mrs. Legato telling her. ‘”I had to think back about what piece they were talking about, but they always knew.”
High-end fashion can come with a high price tag, but layaway options and diffusion lines with lower price points helped clients make the investments. Several clients commented for this story that they still have — and still wear — things they purchased at Emphatics 20 or more years ago.
The Legatos have held on to standout designer styles from decades past and collected years of invitations to international fashion shows, advertisements, press clippings and other store mementos. They’re seeking a permanent home for them, possibly in a museum, to preserve these pieces of fashion history after their business vacates One Oxford Centre.
But it’s Emphatics’ clientele who will preserve the memories.
“They were very concerned about each person individually, and they took an interest in the lives of their clients,” says Rosemarie Rizzo Parse of Downtown, another devoted Emphatics customer.
“They are our family,” Mrs. Legato says.
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.