Yvonne LaFleur has seen it all in her 40 plus years in the retail fashion business, starting with a store that specialized in jeans hand-altered to fit perfectly to a boutique that can fill women’s fashion needs from lingerie to a custom-made hat, plus everything in between.
Her namesake Yvonne LaFleur boutique has clothed New Orleans women for all types of events, from casual picnics to weddings, Mardi Gras balls to professional meetings. She even developed a signature fragrance made from all-natural flowers and herbs that has become popular with women — and the men around them — all over the world.
She’s seen trends come and go and come back, but her focus has always been on offering women the finest of the designs in style at affordable prices and helping them feel better about themselves.
Most items in the store bear the Yvonne LaFleur label, a trend that started when she owned a factory in New York in the 1970s and has continued through relationships she developed with people in the industry who will create small collections for her.
“I still love my business,” she says. “I love coming to work every day and having company all day; that’s what retail is all about. I sell pretty things, so I think of what I sell as what people buy for celebrations of life, so it’s a happy time.”
“I can remember vividly the day I first arrived in New Orleans. My mom and I had traveled from San Francisco to New aboard the Sunset Limited. The train station was still on Canal Street, and we exited the train without our bags and took a streetcar to the department stores on Canal Street.
I had one aunt who was in charge of billing at Godchaux’s, one who sold sportswear at D.H. Holmes, and one that operated the elevator at Maison Blanche. Instantly, I was in love with retail on Canal Street…
…My aunts all lived as old maids in a wonderful old house on Camp Street. The house was not in the greatest of repair and of course wasn’t air-conditioned, but there was certainly a lot of love and excitement in that house. I bunked up with my Aunt Rita, who ran the elevator — and she had a great sense of humor.
My first night in town I remember two incredible things, the first being a spearmint snowball. Now telling a four-and-a-half year old you are going out for a snowball, I could only imagine a field of ice and whatever else, but it was just wonderful and spearmint is still my favorite flavor. I also remember riding past Audubon Place and seeing the arch above it all lit up in lights…
…One of the nicest things about the French Quarter at that time as all of the beautiful orders of nuns in the Quarter. You can imagine the Sisters of Charity in their incredible habits, the Cabrini nuns who were mostly Italian and very tiny, and the Sisters of the Holy Family who ran St. Mary’s Academy in the Quarter.
Most of the French Quarter at that time looked like the Napoleon House and M.S. Rau, and people knew one another. If they recognized you from walking down there week after week, people would invite you into their shops for a Coke.
Growing up in New Orleans, we were exposed to all the beautiful antiques, the wonderful people, and of course being Catholic, all the incredible art, stained glass, and the blending of colors in the various churches. Even though we were very poor. we were surrounded by all this grandness…
…As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have my own dress shop. I began sewing at four, and with three aunts and a mother, i always had plenty of old dresses to cut down to fit me.
I literally worked in stores from one end of Canal Street to the next. My mother wouldn’t let me date until I was 18, so I would spend my Friday nights sewing a new dress for work from the material I bought at the remnants tables at local stores.
I graduated from Cabrini High School where I was taught by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They were Italian and were very family oriented, but they were also very strict — there was no teased hair and no boy could pick you up after school. The words ‘can’t’ and ‘I forgot’ were not in their vocabulary.
I enrolled in LSU in the fall of 1965 majoring in merchandising. Even though my first love was retail, I had to take some other classes along the way…Throughout my four years at LSU, I would always take the $1.65 round-trip bus ride to New Orleans each weekend to work in the stores.
You see, in New Orleans you still have the advantage of the American system. We still have a place in America where you can start with nothing, have a dream, and have something one day. There are not many places in America where you can do that.
I was 22 years old and just out of college when I opened this store., in this location with 100 $100 bills. How many people would let you sign a lease for $565 a month and how much initial inventory could you buy?
You never really feel successful. What you feel is the journey towards your goal.”
Interview with Yvonne LaFleur taken from ‘Louisiana Stories: Growing up in the Bayou State’ by John Jones