Liana Pai and Eunsook Pai in their store on Columbus Avenue. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
It all started with a white linen jacket. Liana Pai's aunt and her mother Eunsook wanted to start a retail business despite having no experience whatsoever, so they used to go to department stores and write down the labels of the clothes on sale to see what was in demand. In 1979 Pai's aunt saw a white linen jacket she thought she could reproduce, copied it using a sewing machine she bought for $10 and successfully sold an order of them. That was how the duo discovered they did not want to be in manufacturing. Three years later they opened the clothing store Liana on Columbus Avenue selling items curated with class and precision — and made far away. Thirty-seven years later, it's still a neighborhood staple.
“We thought fashion might be the right thing to do because we are women and we have interest in fashion,” Eunsook said. “We were so naive.” All the same Eunsook recalls the time fondly, even the months of working around the clock to get the fledgling business off the ground.
Liana, 51, and Eunsook, 77, continue to run the store together today — her aunt retired in 2014 — styling women of the Upper West Side for weddings, graduations and lounging at home. An actor by trade, Liana had no intention of becoming a business partner. But after shifting her focus to her kids, Liana joined her mother full time at the store that bears her name about 15 years ago. She had always helped out as a teenager and when she was between acting jobs, and she came to love hearing customers' stories.
It has not been an easy road. The Upper West Side is a drastically different place now, with more similar-looking banks and coffee shops edging out family businesses each year. Indeed, a Bank of America and a Starbucks share the block with Liana. The store's footprint has doubled from the humble 300 square feet of its beginning, and it carries far more than the barely two-dozen items it boasted on opening day on February 21, 1982.
“Very few stores are left like us,” Eunsook said. Their rent has skyrocketed from $800 per month, though she expressed gratitude to a great landlord who has stuck with them all these years. The rise of Internet shopping has presented a challenge that they are hoping to meet soon with an online store of their own.Sharing Stories in the Dressing Rooms
Above all, the secret to the store's longevity is customer loyalty. Some have shopped there for everything from their bat mitzvah dress to their mother-of-the-bride outfit. But the reason people keep coming back is not just the careful curation and range of prices, but the good conversation and space to engage with neighbors. “One of the things that you'll see is all the dressing rooms are filled, women are talking to each other, it's a real community,” Liana said. “They're all kind of getting involved in encouraging one another and also hearing and sharing stories.” Shopping can be a dull, disappointing task, but Liana said she's proud of how often customers will leave happier than when they came in.
The occasional celebrity appearance hasn't hurt, either. The store has been graced with the presences of Julie Andrews, Maria Shriver and Madonna. “Sean Penn came in to buy a dress for Madonna,” Liana says, her mother chiming in. “He bought it in two colors and my mom thought he was giving a fake credit card.” She and Eunsook talk over each other and fill in gaps with such loving familiarity that it's tempting to break that cardinal rule not to do business with family. “We talk to each other several times a day, and we have for our whole lives,” Liana says.
On a chilly Thursday afternoon, Liana is running late because a friend of hers has dropped by. Well, she started as a customer, but has become a friend. Liana heard she recently suffered a loss and was discussing how best to deliver her an eggplant parmesan. “Maybe I'll come over and bring it,” Liana told her. The customer left smiling. Just another day at the store.