By Kristen Cook
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson.
When Sydney Duncan was a kid, back-to-school shopping was the best.
Not for the new backpack and fresh notebooks. She was all about the clothes.
Her earliest fashion memories are of Izod shirts and OP shorts. In the ’80s she adored acid-washed jeans and baggy sweatshirts.
“Fashion was a huge thing for me,” Duncan says.
Duncan, 44, owns W Boutique in St. Philip’s Plaza, which for 20 years has been a must-shop spot for those who love clothes.
In the fickle world of fashion — where something’s in one day, out the next — W has managed to stick around by holding true to Duncan’s aesthetic of contemporary but accessible pieces, like snuggly-soft Michael Stars T-shirts and perfect-for-any-occasion Diane von Furstenberg dresses.
At a time when 21st century shopping can be as easy as clicking a button without ever venturing out of the house, W doesn’t have a website. Duncan’s only concessions to technology are Facebook posts on new items and e-mailed sale alerts.
“I don’t buy off websites,” says Duncan, who grew up in Tucson. “It’s not that I don’t like the idea of expansion, but a website doesn’t appeal to me.”
She prefers old-school retail, knowing her customers, remembering pieces they buy and keeping tabs on who buys what dress for a specific charity function so someone else doesn’t buy the same thing.
“The reason she’s so successful is because she’s so good,” says Cyrus Parsa, who owns Armani at Firenze Boutique and took Duncan under his wing when she started working for him at age 19.
Parsa says it’s Duncan’s keen eye for merchandise and a gift for superior customer service that keep her in business.
Duncan also credits a serious stubborn streak.
She was just 15 when she fell in love with retail — she answered a Dillard’s open call for high-school students.
“The interview process was intense,” says Duncan, who went back three times before landing a spot in the lingerie department. She loved it.
“I was pretty much in my element,” she says.
After she graduated from Amphitheater High School, she tried college, but it just wasn’t her thing. Retail was.
Post-Dillard’s, she worked at locally owned shops, including Parsa’s high-end European boutiques, working her way up to manager. By the time she turned 24, she struck out on her own, across North Campbell Avenue from St. Philip’s Plaza in a small, swamp-cooled space that used to house men’s clothing shop Sutton Man.
“I thought I had all the experience I needed, which was not the truth at all,” Duncan says. “I definitely didn’t open the store with enough inventory. I was winging it.”
In those days, W also carried men’s clothing. But Duncan had a hard time stocking the brands she wanted because she was vying against three other established women’s boutiques in St. Philip’s alone.
“I just didn’t have the buying power,” she says.
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“I lost out.”
Still, the other boutique owners were supportive, encouraging her to stick with the business, even as she took on a night job hostessing at a nearby restaurant to keep afloat.
“I held on by my fingernails,” Duncan says. “I was stubborn.”
By her fourth year in business, St. Philip’s came to her, asking her to join the plaza. The space was twice as big and the rent three times as much. She jumped at it.
“I never got scared of things like that,” Duncan shrugs. “You’re naive, young. Plus, no one in my family was in the business so they weren’t telling me about the pitfalls. They were all, ‘That’s great.'”
W really hit the big time when Lucky magazine singled it out in 2003.
“Business went nuts,” says Duncan, who recalls fielding calls from across the country and describing clothing over the phone to shoppers who wanted to buy.
She even opened a second store, in Casas Adobes Plaza. Then the bottom dropped out of the economy.
“We barely hung in there,” says Duncan, who leaned on her husband during the tough financial times. She ended up lowering her price points and holding trunk shows, which didn’t require buying merchandise up front.
Casas Adobes stores closed around her, but Duncan kept her second location for five years before finally giving in. Blame that stubbornness.
“I think in 20 years, you gain so much experience,” Duncan says. “You don’t make the same mistakes twice. You can’t afford it.”
This summer, W gained a little sister, Shoe Boutique, that’s just a few steps away.
“Things are really good right now,” Duncan says.
She’s looking forward to celebrating her 20th anniversary Friday, Oct. 9, with a Paula Taylor-produced fashion show, appetizers, and of course, her customers.
Does it seem like two decades have passed?
Duncan bursts into heartfelt laughter.