The owner of a well-known women’s fashion boutique in Port Alberni is passing the torch to the next generation.
As Gayle’s Fashions gets ready to celebrate 40 years in business, founder Gayle Stephen-Player has sold the business to her daughter, Rebecca Palmer.
Palmer officially took over ownership of the shop at the end of April. The timing, she said, “just felt right.”
Stephen-Player was born and raised in Port Alberni, but left home to go to fashion design school in the United States. After school, she spent several years working around the U.S. but always knew she wanted to return home to Port Alberni.
“I knew that I wanted to own my own business,” explained Stephen-Player. “I decided to combine my two interests—fashion and fitness.”
Gayle’s Fashions officially opened on Argyle Street in 1983. At the time, Stephen-Player started out by running aerobics classes and designing her own aerobics wear. But after a few years, the fashion design department was phased out and Stephen-Player started to bring in ready-to-wear fashions. She added a dancewear supply division and eventually let go of the fitness studio to leave more room for fashions.
“I wanted to make running the business a little easier,” laughed Stephen-Player. “As it turns out, it was not easier—just different.”
Over the years, the store moved to Fourth Avenue—across from Little Bavaria Restaurant—then to its current location at Kingsway Crossing in the historic harbour area of Port Alberni, where it has remained for the past 10 years.
“We love it here because it has the history, it has the waterfront,” said Stephen-Player. “It has the vibe.”
Stephen-Player credits the success of her business to being adaptable.
“Being able to make changes quickly and mould the business to what it is that people want and need,” said Stephen-Player. “How can we bring to them what is important to them?”
Over the past few years, Palmer has developed a strong online following for Gayle’s Fashions on both Facebook and Instagram. An online store also opened in 2019. Both of these changes allowed the business to quickly adapt as COVID-19 restrictions fell into place. Gayle’s Fashions was still able to sell products when the physical store was closed, and they even started a “take home” program where customers could pick up a package full of clothing to try on at home.
“It was really fun,” said Palmer. “They were sending pictures and videos of them trying it on at home.”
Developing strong customer relationships, said Palmer, was another key to the store’s success over the years.
“We’re always trying to maintain the relationships we have with all our customers,” said Palmer. “That way it can go down the family line. It’s become part of people’s lifestyles.”
Stephen-Player says she has seen “generation after generation” of young dancers coming through the store to purchase their dancewear.
Customers aren’t the only ones growing with the shop. Palmer was born in 1989 and has been joining her mother at work almost every day since she was two weeks old. As she grew up, Palmer also developed a keen eye for fashion and a desire to work in the fashion industry.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Palmer also moved away from home to attend school, studying at Blanche Macdonald Centre in the Lower Mainland. And like her mother, Palmer always knew she would come back to Port Alberni.
“I always had this vision of coming back, taking over the family business and raising my family here,” said Palmer.
Palmer now has two sons of her own—four years old and nine months old—who spend time in the shop, much like Palmer did.
And although the store has changed ownership, Stephen-Player isn’t going anywhere soon. She will continue to work at the store.
“I do still need my mom’s help day-to-day,” said Palmer. “But I liked the idea of being able to take some of the workload away from her. She’s retiring, but she’s definitely still going to be part of the business. It’s my turn to step up and do the hard work.”
Although the business has changed and adapted over the years, Palmer says one thing won’t change. The store will always be called Gayle’s Fashions, even though there is a new owner.
“I want to carry on the legacy that Gayle started,” said Palmer.