Visit: 811 E Burnside St #112, Portland, OR 97214
Story by Rachel Schwartzmann – Shop Seven Sisters – Photos by Nicholas Peter Wilson
It’s no secret that Portland is known for –
its growing creative community, and as we’ve gotten to know it on a more personal level we’ve loved meeting the innovative minds at the helm of this up and coming city – and today’s feature better speaks to this. Enter Jillian Punska, the tenacious and artistic owner of Seven Sisters who has it made her mission to champion women through a thoughtfully curated lens. “We are mindful of the images of women that we create and put out into the world.” Jillian shared in our interview below, “Our focus is not only on the way women’s bodies look in images, but on their minds and expressions of their thoughts and interests.” With that in mind, we weren’t surprised to learn that the shop-boss contends that Seven Sisters is a resource that encourages women to look beyond, well… their looks. Her position is that personal style is all about how you feel.
The space itself fits the bill for these ideals, as Seven Sisters is nestled in between other celebrated women-owned shops and businesses. So with a premise for building a sartorial haven for independent fashion and objects, while empowering customers to embrace their style and celebrate their individual spirit, Seven Sisters is truly a dynamic force. Even so the road to success hasn’t always been easy, but as Jillian eloquently stated in our interview below, “The challenges are real. But, you will overcome them. If there’s authentic intention that is driving your work, others will get excited to join in too.” Case in point, this feature, where we were excited to join the Seven Sisters community and connect with Jillian in real-time. On a sunny Saturday afternoon we stopped by the shop to chat more and there, we had the opportunity to learn more about her story and the inception of the store. Read on to discover our full conversation with Jillian which features her thoughts on the city’s small business community, fashion’s role in some of the world’s bigger conversations, and how she hopes these values will transcend on a global scale. Also enjoy exclusive photos from our visit by Nicholas Peter Wilson for The Style Line.
I’m Jillian Punska, the owner of Seven Sisters.
I grew up riding horses and spending lots of time in the forests of Western Massachusetts. I lived near Emily Dickinson’s home in downtown Amherst, and spent many afternoons exploring her gardens. I’d also often wander through the town’s historic cemeteries and read Sylvia Plath’s personal letters at the Smith College archives. I spent hours as an adolescent honing my photography and darkroom skills, while mining local thrift stores for props and costumes. This was around the time that Kim Gordon, who resided in my town, started making and showing art. Both Kim and her husband at the time, Thurston Moore, were very active in the local art and music community, facilitating all sorts of cool, inspired programming. Needless to say, Kim Gordon, and by associations, Chloe Sevigny became immediate and long-lasting sources of style inspiration.
I studied studio art and art history at Smith College. From there, I pursued advanced studies in museum administration, ultimately landing a public programs position at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon. While there, I organized various public programs and managed a varied roster of artists. After five years at the museum, having facilitated various programs for tens-of-thousands of people, I began to miss making art myself, and decided it was time to focus on my own work. Shortly thereafter, my plans were waylaid by a serious car crash. For several years I was focused solely on my recovery. After intensive treatment, I emerged from this experience full of gratitude and strength. Encouraged by penny-pinching friends, I began meeting up with folks to thrift a few times a week, taking my discoveries to flea markets just for fun. I found I really loved matching special objects to shoppers. It was around then that I decided to go out on a limb and open a shop.
Can you walk us through the inception of Seven Sisters? From conception to launch what would you say have been some of the biggest milestones of owning your store?
When I saw that the space where the store is currently located was available, I knew it was kismet. The building has long stood as an incubator for some of the most inspired, women-owned businesses: Stand Up Comedy, Nationale, Sword + Fern, the list goes on. I’m forever grateful for the work these amazing women did to put the 811 building on the map. They paved the way for a shop like Seven Sisters to exist.
I started off with a lot of vintage and just a few new lines, at first unsure of how the shop would evolve and how to incorporate my interests in art and feminism into the mix. Giovanna Parolari, owner of Portland’s Una, and co-owner of Luce, Navarre and Angel Face stopped by Seven Sisters during the first few weeks we were open.
During this busy and challenging time, she was so encouraging, recounting that she too started out with a mixture of vintage and new lines. As somewhat of an outsider, wholly new to Portland’s fashion scene, this simple interaction meant so much.
From humble beginnings, the shop has evolved, and quickly. We try to offer our customers timeless, high quality, ethically made clothing at a fair price. And, people have really responded. Our customers are very aware of the environmental and social impacts of “fast fashion,” and are making intentional choices, valuing quality over quantity, hand-made over factory-produced, and the empowerment of women small business owners over unethical, multinational corporations. It can still be expensive though, which is why we encourage quality over quantity and try to stock the shop with a lot of items that can function for both casual and dressier occasions depending on how they are styled. I try to live out our store’s values in every way; it’s become very personal for me.
As a small business owner what tools would you advise aspiring entrepreneurs to utilize in their own endeavors?
You are stronger than you think you are. And, you can turn your ideas and dreams into reality. Along the way, people will challenge you. They will tell you that you won’t make it because you don’t have enough money; you need a lot more education; it will be too hard, etc. The challenges are real. But, you will overcome them. If there’s authentic intention that is driving your work, others will get excited to join in too.
We admire your focus on supporting women-owned businesses and designers. What other ways would you say you’ve made the Seven Sisters community dynamic but still inclusive?
We are mindful of the images of women that we create and put out into the world. Our focus is not only on the way women’s bodies look in images, but on their minds and expressions of their thoughts and interests. We don’t believe in feeding into damaging patriarchal systems that objectify and rank some women as more valuable than others. This is my and my sisters’ time to take charge of what stories are being told about us, and with this platform we’ve poured our hearts into, we’re hoping to have the chance to keep doing just that.
How do you think Portland’s fashion-focused community has responded to the product assortment and with this in mind, who is the Seven Sisters woman? How do you hope to see her evolve?
There’s so many women that inspire Seven Sisters, but in this moment Yoko Ono comes to mind. She’s someone who is passionate, curious and meaningfully engaged with the world around her. She embodies a palpable sense of self even when under intense scrutiny. And, she always seems to have the self-confidence to be honest. I admire that.
It’s easy to become content when living and working in an amazing city like Portland but because fashion is such a global industry do you ever see yourself anywhere else? What role do travel and exploration play in both your personal and professional passions?
I’d like to see Seven Sister’s values transcend and facilitate the evolution of mainstream fashion as it exists currently. For that reason I don’t think I’ll ever be completely content because there’s always more work to do. It definitely doesn’t end here.
Based on what we’ve seen in our stories with small business owners in Portland so far, there’s definitely an affinity for small boutiques that cater to emerging and independent brands. Even so, everyone has managed to carve out a unique point of view! How did you find your sartorial voice and why do you think it’s resonating so deeply with Portland shoppers?
Portland is a place where people are pretty accepting of slightly out-there ideas, particularly if they are contextualized within the confines of a boutique or specialty retail environment. There’s a Portlandia skit that satirizes the city’s eccentric, often overly-specialized, even twee entrepreneurial spirit. In “Two Girls, Two Shirts,” (filmed in our building… of course) Carrie Brownstein and Miranda July play shop owners who have only two shirts for sale. After their store fails, another equally outlandish shop opens in its place called, “One Guy, One Vintage Tube-Amp.”
All that to say, Portland has been a haven for outsiders, weirdos, and creative types for decades. It’s a special place where conventions don’t apply in the same ways they do in other cities. People can try out all sorts of crazy ideas and potentially get their start. This independent spirit has favored small businesses in a big way. You have to leave the city to go to a big box store or mall. I love it!
The Style Line was built on the premise of discovery, exploration and transit. With this in mind, if what is your “the style line” in your wardrobe?
After all this time, I still love to leisurely peruse thrift shops and garage sales – coffee in hand. I’m always looking for the unexpected, for beautiful objects and the stories behind them.
What is one question you wish people asked you more often?
I spend a lot of time helping women try on clothes. I’m often asked how a piece looks – a natural question. However, I think it’s potentially even more important to also ask, “How does this feel?” Does it make me feel good, confident, comfortable, and so on. If we ask ourselves these kinds of questions, we’ll dress for ourselves and not to satisfy other people.