SHOPPING IS THE CURE. Patrick No
catches up with RP's founder Sophia Boli
The third installation of Sophia Boli’s Retail Pharmacy finds itself on the gallery-brimmed Henry Street, which borders Chinatown and the LES. Vendors and patrons around the world are stopping over, eager to acquire clothes, jewelry, home decor, and a whole lot more. As hundreds and hundreds of clientele go in and out of the doors, all I can see is a communal smile on the patrons faces as well as Boli’s. Boli is a key figure in this post-vaccine independent fashion world and I was lucky enough to find some time before the pop-up to catch up and discuss how Retail Pharmacy began, plans for the future, and how community is key.
—Words and Images by Patrick No
Patrick No: So, you said that you’re from LA, moved to Hawaii when you were younger, correct? Did you move back to LA before ending up in NYC?
Sophia Boli: Yes. I always wanted to live here honestly, but LA is obviously much closer to Hawaii. My parents are older and I thought I would visit them a lot when I lived in LA I was like, “Oh, probably visit twice a year.” I think I visited two times the whole time I lived there, in like five and a half years. When COVID happened, all the rents in NYC dropped and I felt like, “All right, time to leave.” I've been talking about it for a while. I told Casey (boyfriend) I wanted to leave. He used to live here, so we just moved together and it almost kind of worked out. I ended up moving to NYC in November 2020.
PN: Did you go to school out in LA?
SB: I went to ArtCenter in Pasadena for a semester… then I dropped out. (laughs) I was studying photography and I was doing photography thinking that I wanted to be a photographer, but not realizing that I actually really liked creative direction and styling. When I was growing up in Hawaii, there wasn't that creative industry where I could pick a job. Like I did everything. I did the styling, photography, creative direction; all of it.
PN: Totally get that!
SB: So I thought that that was just what being a photographer was. Then I learned that it's more… snapping the camera for other people's ideas. I realized I didn’t really like that. The only class I was getting an A in was Concept. Even my concept teacher even told me, he was like, “There's something weird in your head that's gonna be killed by this school.” I'd end up going into a massive amount of debt and probably fail most of my classes. Is it worth it? My teacher was like, "I'm gonna be honest with you girl. It's not.”
PN: In the age of internet, technology and online shopping, explain to me your reasoning for why retail is so important. Personally, I don't think I've bought a lot of clothes online, for the past year. Unless it's like SSENSE or eBay.
SB: I think especially with a lot of the pieces I carry, they're very complex or there's details to them that don't necessarily translate in photos or online. Some of them are really hard to tell what they look like.
SB: It's like A: Internet sales don't do the clothing justice, in a sense of looks. And B: I think that there's something special about finding a piece of clothing in person and connecting that memory of getting the item with the day it happened. I remember where I got almost every single thing I own. Whether it's something somebody gave it to me, or something I bought, found, whatever it is, I remember every single thing.
"AT RETAIL PHARMACY, YOU CAN TELL WHEN SOMETHING'S HANDMADE VERSUS MADE AT AN ATELIER. IT COMES DOWN TO CONCEPT VERSUS PRODUCTION."
PN: The retail experience is something that I find super special.
SB: I do too. I think a lot of these people do also. I think that's why they make garments like they do, pieces that come from their heart because they like to see people wearing things that are personal and have a personal connection with them. I mean, the Internet's great, and Instagram's great because that's how I find all these designers, but buying something in person is more special. You get that whole memory. I love the idea of doing the popup with it because I throw this whole party together. So it's a really good day for everyone to remember and then they get to bring something home with them.
PN: Totally! You take a look at your closet or you look in the mirror and you'll remember the day that you got that piece of clothing.
SB: Exactly. People get hyped about it, you know? They get to run into friends they haven't seen in a long time or the vendors get to be shown with designers who they admire a lot. It's just really fulfilling for me and I hope it's fulfilling for them too.
PN: Describe to me the moment where you had the thought of: "I want to create a popup." Did you feel like something was missing in the city and that you wanted to fill this weird void? Post vaccine, post-pandemic, a lot of stuff closed. Then stuff like this is popping up.
SB: It was a mix of things. So I always kind of wanted to have a store eventually one day. It was kind of always in the back of my mind. I've worked in retail since I was able to work. That was my first job.
PN: What was your first job?
SB: Merchandising windows at a boutique in Hawaii. I would come in every other weekend and do some weird artsy display in the window in this boutique. My mom owned a store when I was really little, and then she worked in a high-end boutique. I was raised in the back of the shops because we didn't have money for daycare or anything. Even my grandpa owned a little five-and-a-dime corner store in Brooklyn. It's just kind of like in my blood!
PN: That's sick! It runs in the family.
SB: I definitely don't have the money to open up a brick-and-mortar, that's for damn sure. I felt that there were all these pieces I was seeing on people and at other popup events, but they just didn't have that much representation in person. There's like maybe one or two other stores that kind of sell this type of merchandise.
PN: Like Lucky Jewel Collective.
SB: Love them! They're great. We have some crossover and I like what they do, but it's like there can't just be one. That's not good for the designers. It's not good for the artists. It's like we live in a consumer society and people are buying something with every paycheck they get.
PN: You wake up in New York and you spend 40 bucks.
SB: Exactly, exactly. I'm really big on the idea that there needs to be more of these types of shops, and this is the only way we're going to actually change the fashion landscape and the way people shop. The masses are not going to follow if two or three people are doing popups. It needs to be something that's really noticeable. What I did notice about living in NYC is how many people were doing popups, especially in the first summer I lived here. I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s the model.”
PN: You were like, “People are doing popups, let me do one! I wanna do a popup.”
SB: Yeah, exactly. I was trying to figure out how I could put together some kind of store, eventually one day. In the meantime, I was managing a boutique in the West Village working full time, and I was trying to learn everything I could about the back. Pretty much trying to learn whatever I didn't already know and just save up money. I had a little bit set aside that I could put towards display and shipping and packaging and all that. I just approached Casey (no gallery owner), and I was like: "I know you guys have some open time! Can I do a popup? It's been something I really wanna do!" I didn't have the money yet to rent out a location. It would've been another, you know, six months before I probably saved up that extra stupid amount of money for popup locations in New York.
PN: In recent years, trends come and go as quickly as a month. Maybe even like two weeks or maybe even like two months. How do you think this affects the new generation of fashion designers that you carry here? Do you think there's something that is special about what you carry? Something that's like something that's not really on main fashion's radar.
SB: I have a mix of designers that get pieces produced for them and do seasonal collections, and then people that just make stuff as they want to. Whether it's upcycled or made from scratch, they do it on their own time. I think it's interesting to see that the people who are creating pieces on their own time tend to be very ahead of the trend. They're not relying on that extra six months of production time or having to get your patterns made and then sending it to your atelier or all that extra stuff. At Retail Pharmacy, you can tell when something's handmade versus made at an atelier. It comes down to concept versus production. I see some of these pieces that are more conceptual and I'm like: "Okay. I feel like that's going to be a trend soon." I actually even had something happen with one of my designers in the last shop. We had this molded black plastic bra top from expo 33. Doja Cat wore this one by OTTOLINGER that looked exactly like it. People kept tagging her and being like, "Oh my God, I can't believe Doja Cat is wearing your thing! She was like, "Wait, that's not mine. Somebody else made that... a year after me."
PN: This popup is the type of thing that stylists or assistant stylists come to, they see something and they're like, "Oh, this is handmade, this is one of one, I want this. This is gonna be something totally new that a lot of people haven't seen yet.”
SB: I'm not paranoid, but I am becoming more aware that people actually do come down to the Lower East Side and look at what the "young cool kids" are doing and they just rip off that.
PN: Yeah. You have like a 27-year-old stylist come in and be like, "I can't think of anything. I'm gonna go see what other people are doing."
"I’M JUST REALLY HAPPY TO BE ABLE TO CREATE AN EVENT IN A SPACE FOR ALL THESE PEOPLE TO COME AND MEET UP AND HANG OUT, BECAUSE I NEVER HAD THAT GROWING UP."
SB: No, it's interesting. It's a thing where it's: Always on the mood board, never on the set. The amount of times I've been sent mood boards where I'm like, "That's my friend on here. Like, why don't we just hire her?” Yeah…
PN: Yes! It's so strange.
SB: It's weird. We're all broke. We're not getting any more money if you just keep doing that.
PN: I know. Yeah! A designer you carry, Camila Frater, one of her shirts got picked up by Pink Pantheress and was worn in an ID article. What's your opinion on having a popup that brings more attention to independent designers, then seeing articles on the "big screen." There's this pipeline and you're a part of it.
SB: I've given them a place to go to! (Laughs) It's interesting. I try not to think about it that much. That's like a very small, negative aspect of a very positive whole thing that I'm doing. For the most part, I'm helping these designers make money and gain more exposure. I can't even stress how grateful I am to be able to do it and to have this opportunity. I grew up in a place where this kind of community did not exist. I remember when I was in middle school, I wore some pants that I revamped myself. I just got shit on for them. I got so badly teased.
PN: I totally get that.
SB: I tried wearing clothes that were "cool," but that didn't work either. So, I'm just really happy to be able to create an event in a space for all of these people to come to and meet up and hang out, because I never had that growing up.
PN: You want to make what you wish you had?
SB: Exactly. I want to create what I wish I had been able to experience.
PN: I feel like the best satisfaction is seeing some like 16-year-olds come in and take a look around.
SB: The last shop, there was this one moment where four late teens or very early twenties kids came in. I was sitting at my desk and they were looking down like, "How can we be in the shop?" They were asking all these things with wide eyes. And I was just like...
PN: Is this real? It's like a surreal moment.
SB: It's all surreal!!! Like I said, I didn't grow up as a cool kid in Hawaii at all. So, I definitely never thought that people would like what I'm doing. I always just accepted that I do things a little different and that's how it is. I didn't know that there were so many people out here in NYC having it like that too.
PN: Based on the first and second time, I'm assuming you were like, "Holy shit. People are like-
SB: I was like, people are here!!!
PN: People are liking this!!! (Laughs)
SB: I know! I only had like 27 designers. The first shop was still like pretty fucking insane. I was overwhelmed and then I realized that this could actually work. People show up for stuff out here. People are interested in this. I just think people don't care as much about clothes in other places. I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that we're always on the street. When I'm running around the city, I run into so many people. I could never not be dressed well!
PN: (laughs) I know right! I was just talking about this with my friends. We all felt that we finally hit the moment where we live in New York where we go outside and we see like seven people you know. You have like 50 plus designers here, right? How do you find most of them?
SB: The street, Instagram, and through friends. Friends will definitely suggest stuff. I also have that make stuff too. Even through just the shop now. There's this one designer I have, Bone, who I found because one of the customers from the first shop was wearing a top by her. I was like, "Wait, who made that top? I love that top." Then I reached out to them to be in the next shop and now she is part her family.
PN: How nice is that experience of being able to walk around the streets of New York and being like, “Oh my God. People are wearing like really cool shit, all the time!”
SB: It's so cool. It's still so surreal to me when I see people wearing stuff from the store.
PN: Yeah. Like what's that, what's that feeling like?
SB: It's the best feeling. I can only imagine that the only better feeling would be like, if I made the stuff and they were wearing it. (Laughs) You just like knowing that somebody supports what you do.
PN: What's next for Retail Pharmacy. Bigger space? Bigger event? I heard that you and Parkmart are doing something soon...
SB: So yeeeeeah! We're planning on trying to do something huge. We want a space that can accommodate it because we don't wanna half-ass it, you know?
PN: What are some things that you really want to do in a year or in the future?
SB: I want to be able to quit my day job and pay myself with this, just so I can dedicate more time to it. I don't know. I'm definitely the no expectations, no disappointments, kind of person. Every shop, I tell myself: “No one's gonna come. I'm not gonna make any sales. Oh my God. I'm gonna have to send everything back.” I just want to keep doing more events. The last one where I had a runway and stuff.
PN: Is there gonna be a fashion show here today?
SB: Canceled sadly. I was bummed because I didn't have time to plan something else. I was gonna plan a poetry reading last minute and I hit up my friend. She's like, “Sophia, there's three other poetry readings on Thursday night. I was like, “Nevermind.”
PN: Seems like you want to have more events happening than just runways?
SB: Yeah. I loved how I had that 10-day popup. I want to do longer ones and be able to have different things going on throughout the week. Maybe even a month-long one. I'm actually planning something in August that is going to involve events that are either reading, poetry-based, or performance art. A lot of the designers in the shop have multiple disciplines. Whether they're poets, painters, performance artists, or even musicians.
PN: They're all multifaceted
SB: Yeah. A lot of them are multifaceted. I'm just trying to figure out what different ways I can showcase those other skills that they have.
Follow Retail Pharmacy on Instagram.