As 2015 draws to a close and a new year begins, with reflections and resolutions in the air, we thought it opportune to talk fashion with two of Washington’s grande dames of the industry—Maxine and Renee Rizik—who are Rizik’s current leaders and the daughters of its co-founder. Raised on style and merchandising, as well as a commitment to family, they have built careers of a lifetime, both in terms of longevity and vision.
Working with a team of family members and other colleagues, Maxine and Renee deftly maintained the level of elegance their father and uncle established at Rizik Brothers, Inc., as the women’s boutique was originally known, while staying in the vanguard of evolving trends and designers. Throughout our conversation, Rizik’s customer-centric business practice was evident. From the collections they offer to the styles they recommend for each individual, Maxine and Renee prioritize their roles as liaisons between customers and the larger fashion world, keeping an eye toward making selections that clients will like, rather than curating Rizik’s to showcase their own personal tastes.
Maxine said, “You have to think about what Rizik’s exemplifies. Hopefully we represent quality, fashion-forward style, service and history of two generations.” By both honoring tradition and looking to the future, being ambitious in practice while humble in manner, and all the while maintaining a sense of humor, Maxine and Renee embody inspiration for the new year.
How do you describe your personal style?
MR: Conservative, tailored, well-accessorized.
RR: I like things that are coordinated. For business, I wear black.
Why is fashion important?
MR: For me, it is a way of life. It’s an evolution of taste and a sign of beauty.
RR: Fashion is a trendsetter and being in the business, we need to keep up with the times and the styles.
Rizik’s is a family-run business in its second generation. What motivated your father and uncle to open a clothing boutique in 1908? What are your strongest memories of Rizik Brothers, Inc. when they were at the helm?
MR: When I look back, they were great merchants. They established their business at a time when Washington needed fashion-forward clothes. It was the most important capitol in the world and women needed direction on how to dress for occasions and these two Rizik brothers set the themes. They immigrated to this country from Lebanon as young boys with no profession, they saw a need and filled it. They were great creators. In those days, Paris was the center of style. They went to Europe to study the fashions each season and selected which pieces to import for Washington. They developed their eyes over time.
You have been business partners for over sixty years. When did each of you begin working at Rizik’s and when did you become its leaders?
MR: Since I could walk. All of the children worked at Rizik’s in some capacity, from the youngest to the oldest. There were five girls and two boys. Our brother Michael managed the store after our father, until 1987. I never was in charge; I’m here to work with everyone. No one is in charge.
RR: After college, I went to business school at George Washington University, and my father encouraged me to join the family business. He said that if I wanted to learn, I should do it while he was still here to teach me.
Along with its inherent advantages, does working with family present unique challenges?
MR: The biggest advantage is that you can learn from the experiences of those before you. There are no disadvantages.
RR: It’s a great asset. It provides a sense of teamwork, wherein you can share ideas and responsibilities. Everyone contributes something special.
How has the Washington, D.C. fashion scene evolved over the years?
MR: Washington has been the capitol of the U.S. since the late 1700s. The White House sets the tone—it has become more casual and so have women’s lifestyles.
Who are some of the designers you most enjoyed working with? Will you share a story about your first meeting with a particular designer?
MR: There were so many; they were great artists. Geoffrey Beene, Adele Simpson, Carolina Herrera, Peter Langner, Lourdes Chavez, Carmen Marc Valvo, Koos Van Den Akker, Bill Blass, Carolyne Roehm, Pauline Trigère.
We were the first to represent many designers. Peter Langner came to Rizik’s unknown and asked to show me some dresses. Now, he is famous for couture, based in Milan.
Koos Van Den Akker was just starting out when we met him in New York. We invited him to do several trunk shows and he was a hit. He would sit in the store and we’d bring him a sewing machine because he didn’t want to sit and do nothing. Customers would watch him design. He didn’t follow a pattern; he’d sit with the fabric and the needle and create suits, jackets, coats, dresses. He became famous for his collage of fabric. No one can touch a finger to him.
RR: Bill Blass, Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Roberto Quaglia. I’m drawn to high fashion, quality clothes with beautiful styling and fabrics that make you feel elegant when you put them on.
Are there certain qualities you look for when deciding to bring a collection to Rizik’s?
MR: We go to New York Fashion Week in September and February and also to The New York Market, at least four times a year, for each season, concentrating on visiting European and American designers. When you review all the latest collections, you study the new styles, fabrics, shapes and see what is available. You approach it with an open mind while also considering your customers. The Market shows you the future of fashion for the next season and a fashion-forward store must have new styles, even if you don’t love them. My taste has nothing to do with it.
RR: Style, color, price, something that will appeal to the clientele.
In addition to your work at Rizik’s, both of you reared children and had long and happy marriages. How did you balance professional and personal responsibilities?
MR: Ask that to any working girl. You have to have a job and a private life. Being a mother is a profession. You have to do both today.
RR: It’s organization—if you are organized, you can do both. Family comes first and work intertwines with it.
What counsel do you have for young entrepreneurs?
RR: Find your passion, something you truly enjoy and will pursue. Don't take a job to please others or to fill your time.
When recommending clothes to a client, what are some of the questions you ask them and other factors you consider?
MR: Over time, you get to know their needs and way of life, as well as what flatters their figure. When you learn a customer’s personality, you learn how she wants to dress and how to dress her. We’ve been successful at keeping customers. With wedding gowns, for example, some women bring their daughters, saying that they found their wedding dress at Rizik’s and they want their daughter to as well. We’ve dressed several generations of brides, I think we’re on the third or fourth generation.
RR: Find out what they are interested in—whether it’s for a special occasion or work or travel—and accommodate their requests.
Rizik’s has a history of serving the leading women of official Washington. Can you name prominent political women who shop at Rizik’s?
MR: When Rizik’s opened in 1908, we were the first ready-to-wear store in D.C. We clothed cabinet members’ wives, congressmen’s wives and families and First Ladies, including Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Eisenhower, as well as many women with their own important careers such as Marjorie Merriweather Post. In addition, numerous officials trusted our staff to help select gifts for their loved ones. Our current clientele includes women in political office but, out of respect for their privacy, I won’t name them.
What is your best fashion advice?
RR: There’s no single advice for everyone. It depends on what each woman wants and needs. No two people are the same.
You are still working, traveling, entertaining—what’s your secret?
MR: I don’t have a secret. I take what comes my way and live by it. I have my own principles and guidelines and try to stay within them.
RR: Good health, good genes!
This interview has been condensed and edited.