- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
First time shoppers may scratch their heads and wonder about the name: California Drawstrings? What does a state 2000 miles away have to do with a chic clothing boutique in a coastal Mississippi town?
And what’s the secret that’s made the store a premier pick across the region for men and women seeking stylish, comfortable clothing? Linda Keenan, owner and founder of California Drawstrings, is delighted to share the answers.
Keenan’s the type of entrepreneur that inspires younger business people. With little capital and lots of gumption over the past three decades, she’s created and grown the business in the brutally competitive fashion market.
As the store’s buyer, Keenan seeks out only comfortable, well-made clothing, with styles that can’t be found elsewhere. She carries lines that can fit all sizes, from extra-small to plus. She prefers clothing that is made in the U.S and leans always toward natural fibers, like those made by Flax and Matchpoint.
The shop’s a mix of artsy designs balanced with clothing that’s more classically styled, created with deft touches that set them apart. Keenan believes accessories like jewelry and scarves can “jazz up” an outfit easily to “look like a million dollars.” The staff are trained to help put statement-making ensembles together. Customers frequently report back with success stories about the many compliments they receive at social events.
“If you want to blend into the woodwork, you can shop in the local department stores,” she says. “But if you want to feel comfortable and look a little different – yet be confident you still look fantastic – we have it.”
Keenan currently manages and buys for three locations – with a fourth opening soon. In addition to the Old Town Bay St. Louis shop, the Chicago native oversees the mother-ship location in the New Orleans French Quarter (812 Royal Street) and a third store on Magazine Street (3650 Magazine Street). And in mid-July, an outlet store, California Drawstrings Last Call, will be opening in the heart of Covington, Louisiana (827 Walker Alley, right off Lee Lane).
Each location is staffed with salespeople who are extremely knowledgeable about the clothing they sell. They know which lines run large or small and which designs best complement different shapes. Most of them have been to market with Keenan and are genuinely enthused about the clothing lines they represent.
But while visiting New Orleans one fall thirty-odd years ago, she decided to try a southern winter instead of heading north toward snow. To obtain her Louisiana broker’s license, she signed up for school. To support herself in the meantime, she began selling clothing in the French Market.
She quickly discovered that the fashion world appealed to her more than real estate and switched gears. Keenan began to rent a series of storefronts, soon winding up with the prestigious Royal Street location - where she’s been a mainstay for than thirty years.
The first clothing she sold was a line of comfortable cottons for both men and women with legions of diehard fans - California Drawstrings. Made in the U.S. out of domestic fibers, the brand was the only one Keenan carried for years and then became a shop staple as she grew.
“It made sense for the shop to also have the name of the clothing line,” says Keenan. “Now we have regular customers from all over the country who know our name, so, of course, we’d never think of changing it.”
After opening in Maggie May’s, Keenan rented a townhouse on deMontluzin and began spending more time in Bay St. Louis. Then, last year, she purchased a historic building on the second block of Main Street. After renovating, California Drawstrings moved into their expanded – and permanent Old Town quarters. And although she still officially resides in Mandeville, Keenan spends as much time as possible in the Bay.
“It’s not like I’m a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city,” she says. “I can be in either Mandeville or New Orleans in an hour. But here, I can wake up and have my coffee listening to the sea gulls.”
The laid-back lifestyle in the Bay hasn’t shifted the entrepreneur’s business philosophy though.
“I want people to say ‘wow’ when they walk in the store. And I want them to feel great when they leave.”
“For me, that’s great fun.”