Victorian Flair: Couple sells period clothing online

When people think of the Victorian era, they generally think of 19th century England, tea parties and May-poles. They rarely think of the guts and glory that was the American Civil War, despite the fact that the war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, fits neatly into the six decades defined as the Victorian period. However, one Willow Glen business, operated by husband and wife team Chris and Alicia Allen, is doing its part to change all of that.

As freshmen at UCLA, Alicia and Chris Allen never dreamed they would one day be married, much less co-owning and running a business from their home in Willow Glen. Their business, Gentleman’s Emporium, was founded in 2003 and sells authentic calligraphy supplies and Victorian apparel for both men and women.

Alicia became interested in Victorian clothing through her father-in-law Terry Allen, who is a Civil War reenacter. Terry, 59, had taken an interest in the Civil War as a child and has ardently studied the time period since, becoming a reenacter in the late 1970s.

In 1990, Terry moved to Iowa. Four years later, he opened his own store, which started as a way to reduce the number of old books he had on the subject.

“I said, ‘What the heck,’ ” Terry recalls, ” ‘I might as well sell a lot of other stuff, too.’ ”

He began to dabble in Civil War attire, and developed a collection that traveled with him to reenactments around the nation, where he sold the authentic regalia to other reenacters.

Alicia Allen took an interest in her father-in-law’s passion, encouraging him to expand his business to the Internet.

“I kept telling him, ‘Terry, you need to start a website,’ ” she says. “Finally he said, ‘Alicia, if you want to do the website, do the website.'”

Fueled by her background in software and website development, Alicia created gentlemansemporium.com in January 2003, officially launching the site in May of that year.

The original goal of the site was to provide an online hub for Terry’s traveling sales operation. Alicia and Chris, both 37, intended to manage the website while Terry Allen would act as the primary force behind shipping the actual orders. But, as with many start-ups, it evolved into another business entirely.

“The reality of it is that if someone’s a Civil War reenacter, they go to Civil War events every weekend,” Alicia says. “They don’t need to buy things from me on the Internet.”

The Allens revamped their business and took it in another direction, focusing on Victorian costumes and clothing. The clothes are purchased from various clothing vendors around the country, though their primary vendor is based in Oxnard.

Though the pieces themselves are not antiques, they are created from authentic designs of that period. Alicia and Chris are the primary employees and Terry, who lives in Iowa, works as a drop-shipper. Terry also continues to manage the traveling store, which goes to up to 58 reenactment events a year.

The business, however, is not exclusively for Civil War or Victorian era reenacters.

Although these individuals do make up a large portion of their client base, Alicia says the company sells a significant volume of apparel to theater companies, museum docents and to the Goth community. The business also sells its apparel to customers for wedding and prom dresses in spring and early summer. The company’s busiest season is fall, when a significant percent of their inventory is purchased primarily for Halloween costumes.

San Francisco resident David Vetter, 26, was brought into the world of role-playing by friends in 2002. He recently purchased Victorian outfits from Gentleman’s Emporium for his part in a Victorian-themed vampire role-playing game.

“I think it’s a lot of fun to dress up in various eras,” says Vetter of the numerous role-playing events he attends each year. “If people look around, there are a lot of events where this type of thing is appropriate.”

While the transition from authentic Civil War garb to Victorian era apparel may seem like a stretch to some, Alicia Allen says it’s because many people overlook the fact that the Civil War actually took place during the Victorian era.

“When people think Victorian, they think Dickens,” Alicia says. But because the Victorian era covers nearly 60 years, from 1837 to 1901, including the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the overlapping of clothing is not as odd as it might seem.

Alicia, originally from Las Vegas, Nev., met Santa Barbara native Chris Allen as a freshman at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1987. The couple graduated in 1990 with degrees in political science and economics, respectively, and married two years later. They then attended business school at the University of Virginia where they each earned a master’s degree in business administration. After graduating, the couple moved to Willow Glen in 1996.

Alicia Allen called the first year of Gentleman’s Emporium’s operation “difficult” for her. First, there was the issue of distance and time differences between her Willow Glen-based home office and her father-in-law’s operation in Mason City, Iowa. Alicia was also doing double duty, managing the Internet business while maintaining her full-time consulting job.

Alicia previously worked as a project manager and software and website consultant for multiple companies, including Hewlett-Packard. She left her consulting job in 2004 to devote herself entirely to the online venture. However, sometimes when things are slow, which is typical during the summer, it’s difficult to work as an entrepreneur, she says.

“I get a lot of energy from people around me,” she says, “and suddenly I was home by myself.”

Chris’s transition to working in a home office has made his wife’s job more enjoyable. The new warehouse, which the couple opened on the corner of Stone and Curtner avenues in April, is also a break away from the home office.

“We used to have everything in our garage,” Alicia says, “so now I have someplace else to go.”

The Allens’ two young sons, Cameron, 7, and Clayton, 4, help with the business by assisting with the packing and ship orders. They also provide comic relief as miniature models for some of the costumes sold by Gentleman’s Emporium.

“I set aside stuff that was damaged and let them play with that,” Alicia says. “They have a good time with it.”

The Allens plan to expand their clothing line to include authentic western apparel. The new website, which is slated for launch in August, is appropriately named Western Emporium. The site will serve primarily western reenacters such as the Single Action Shooting Society, an international organization created to reenact and preserve cowboy and Old West culture.

“Western reenacting is a big thing,” Alicia Allen says. “We’ve constrained ourselves by a time period, but we could sell to a broader market if we didn’t constrain ourselves and frame it as a time period.”

Alicia also hopes to eventually expand to include period attire from other eras, including Edwardian apparel. Her father-in-law, whose childhood passion and adulthood hobby inspired the company, also looks forward to seeing it grow.

“I am so lucky to have Chris and Alicia,” Terry Allen says. “This has turned into a very successful business. Old grandpa is pretty happy with it.”

For more information about Gentleman’s Emporium, visit http://www.gentlemansemporium.com or call 408.264.4311.

This piece originally appeared in the Willow Glen Resident.

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