STAR-BULLETIN / APRIL 2007
Audrey Fu shows bejeweled gowns at Villa Roma. The Ward Warehouse boutique closes on July 31 after 41 years. CLICK FOR LARGE
Villa Roma falls to whims of fashion
The Ward Warehouse boutique grew fashion, then fell to its excess
STORY SUMMARY »
When Audrey Fu opened Villa Roma in 1966, early trendsetters found her mix of youth-oriented, designer fashion delivered in season irresistible.
Her concept was so new it earned the store the nickname Unique Boutique and her company grew to encompass six stores, including the upscale Chocolates for Breakfast.
But 41 years later, the climate has changed. Fashion is big business and that has meant large retailers, discount stores and designer boutiques. The increased competition has taken its toll and Fu will be closing her last store on July 31.
WHOLE STORY »
VILLA ROMA will close its doors at Ward Warehouse on July 31 after 41 years of business.
It's a bittersweet ending for owner Audrey Fu, who said, "I thought about it for a very long time and customers are telling me I made the wrong decision, but my house burning down (on April 10) precipitated making a decision, and it was too hard to deal with that and running a business.
"Business has been tough, but at the same time I've been here a long time and wanted to leave before the point people start saying, 'She should retire already.' "
Fu opened the first Villa Roma at Ala Moana Center in 1966.
"At that time, they called us the Unique Boutique because it was the first time people could get fashion at their fingertips. If people saw something in a magazine, they would see it in the store. Before that, people always said Hawaii was a year behind in trends."
Barely out of her teens at a time when retail was still the domain of the middle-aged, Fu's enthusiasm for fashion led to such innovations as staging fashion shows when it was a community rarity, and running weekly newspaper advertisements in the 1970s in a column format to share style tips and trends.
Villa Roma also became a leader in treating teens with respect, offering alteration services and starting a registry for prom dresses to ensure that no two girls from a single school would appear at the prom in the same dress.
The company grew to encompass six stores in Waikiki, Windward Mall, Koko Marina Shopping Center and Ward Center -- including Chocolates for Breakfast, geared toward an older, sophisticated clientele with designer gowns that ranged from $600 to $4,000. Chocolates for Breakfast won a following among the beauty queen and show-biz crowd, including models Julia Nickson and Marie Helvin (who went on to become a top model in Europe) Linda McCartney, Bette Midler, Paula Abdul and Imelda Marcos.
The store witnessed a parade of fashion over the decades that ranged from mod to the Big '80s when big shoulders and "Dynasty" reigned.
Chocolates for Breakfast preceded the rush of designer shops to Ala Moana Center. "They saw that it could be done. At the time we closed the store, it was the highest producing per square foot," Fu said. "But things change. Once Nordstrom Rack opened, we went down."
The Villa Roma at Ward Warehouse was Fu's sole remaining store. She said she hasn't found the economy conducive to consumer spending recently.
"With a combination of high gas prices and high home prices, people have very limited funds, and small businesses today are very challenged by big-box stores that have big buying power. We're doing the best we can to keep costs down, but it's hard for us to compete.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I feel the big corporations need to be less greedy. There has to be room for the small and the large, without the large destroying and obliterating us.
"My hope for the future is that people become aware of the things we do that affect others."
Fu doesn't know what her own future will bring. "It's so hard to think about closing the store that I never thought about what I'd do next."
For now she is concentrating on rebuilding her house, and is hoping her old customers will drop in to say goodbye.
"I really want to thank them for their patronage and support. Without them we wouldn't have lasted this long."