Sarasota is a town known for its glamorous events—but they've all come to a screeching halt this year due to the pandemic. So where does this leave gala, wedding and business event attendees? And where does it leave the retailers who supply the attire for these occasions?
Rahelia Durrani has found herself asking these questions since she opened her luxury dress and accessory boutique, Rahelia Couture, this April in downtown Sarasota. When she closed her store in Westport, Connecticut, two years ago and moved to Sarasota, she had no idea the toll the pandemic would take on her business. She planned to open the boutique in January, well before pandemic concerns, but couldn't due to building permit setbacks.
"It was all the wrong timing," says Durrani. "If permits had gone through sooner, the store would have opened earlier."
Her Ringling Boulevard space was bare when she first bought it, which required licensing from the county to install AC and heating, plumbing and lighting. It took close to a year to build out and finish the space—and then Covid-19 happened.
According to Durrani, in addition to the evaporation of Sarasota's events season, she was not eligible for government support due to the pandemic.
"I've had zero government help," she says. "If the timing was such that I opened in January, I would have been eligible for support, but I've received none so far."
"It's been very difficult," she adds. "I thought my service, type of merchandise and knowledge in the field would be enough, but we have no special occasions going on."
After working in the fashion industry for 30 years, styling celebrities, TV stars and well-to-do Manhattanites, Durrani believed the move to Sarasota would be a breeze, complete with loyal stream of clientele, like she's had with her other store locations.
Rahelia Couture first opened its doors in New York City in 1986, after Durrani spent several years in the fashion industry consulting for designers and felt she had the experience to branch out on her own. She began her career selling Elizabeth Arden cosmetics at age 15. She later graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for years on Madison Avenue, styling high-end clientele like Revlon cosmetics manufacturer Marcella Borghese and artist Andy Warhol, whom Durrani dressed for several photo shoots.
While gaining knowledge working with stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, Durrani began her first business: a cosmetics line to be sold at Saks. But after some financial uncertainty and advice from colleagues, she realized luxury clothing and styling was her niche.
"I found new beginnings in clothing, and that success took off even more," says Durrani.
After gaining recognition in NYC, Durrani moved her boutique to Westport, where she settled into a large and loyal stream of clientele who came to her when they needed a new dress for a gala or wedding. Durrani specializes in mother of the bride, mother of the groom, black-tie and red carpet pieces, carrying sizes ranging from 4-24.
"Not every dress is for every woman," Durrani explains. "I develop a personal relationship with each of my clients, taking the time to get to know them and their lifestyles." Durrani says she is always honest, and lets customers know what looks best on their body type.
She designed the Sarasota location herself, from the shelving units with recessed lighting to showcase accessories to the mannequins standing in the storefront's windows. She says she is looking forward to gala season beginning again, and has hopes that business will thrive.
"We've had a few customers coming in or people walking by, knocking on the window, saying the place is beautiful," says Durrani. "I've had positive reactions from whoever's been here so far."
When you reserve an appointment at Rahelia Couture, you receive a free one-on-one consultation with Durrani, discussing your desires and fashion taste. Then Durrani will hand-pick pieces for you. Dresses range from $500 to $7,000, depending on the season and brand. After your fitting, Durrani will also work with her seamstresses to alter pieces, making them fit perfectly to your figure.
"You have to educate the customer about sizing and redesigning," says Durrani. "I am not particular about brands, so I tell my clients to focus more on the fit over the label."
"I love making women feel beautiful," she continues. "I don't look at customers based on their size or budget, like other boutique owners might."
Customers can also shop an entire look, with shoes, jewelry and handbags sold at the boutique, as well. Rahelia Couture sells reproductions of jewelry brands like Cartier, Swarovski and Tiffany, along with American and European designs she purchases at runway and trade shows in New York City. She orders products six months prior to selling, and says her sharp eye for styling real women has made her an expert in her industry, with other buyers asking her for advice at shows, like which fabrics will be long-lasting, and which brands produce the best product.
And despite the current difficulties, she is hopeful that as the Sarasota gala scene comes back to life, it will welcome her services with open arms.
"I can't wait for events to start again and get back into full swing," Durrani says. "Helping women is where I get my energy; it's where I feel happiest."
Rahelia Couture is located at 1420 Ringling Boulevard, Sarasota. To book a reservation, visit the boutique's website or call (941) 330-1600. Boutique hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with after-hours requests available. Walk-ins welcome.