Feb. 12, 1996

Dressed for sex-cess

These women "love" their business

by Gil Zohar

Sex sells, big time.

And Valentine's Day is the busiest time of all for Toronto erotica boutiques like Lovecraft on Yorkville Avenue and Dundas East in Mississauga, and the He and She Clothing Gallery on Queen Street East.

Both are owned by women entrepreneurs who have been discriminated against because of gender, both sell libidinal lifters and both enjoy healthy sales - respectively $1.1 million and $240,000 last year. But there the similarity ends.

When erotica pioneer Anne Amitay opened the original Lovecraft in 1972, Toronto could still claim moral outrage. The German-born former nursery school teacher, now 49, and her business partner Mary Sutherland, 60, had been in London, U.K. the previous year investigating importing equipment for the physically and mentally challenged.

Instead what caught Sutherland's eye was the Anne Summers store selling erotic merchandise. Amitay's initial reaction was "Oh, my God. You mean I'm going to sell vibrators?," she recalled. Overcoming her shock, she realized no such outlets existed in Canada. Yorkville was then in transition from wilted flower power to ne plus ultra chic, and they picked a location there because of the area's lively streetscape.

Afraid of being busted, the two consulted lawyers before opening their 72 sq. m store - which they financed with their minimal savings. Metro Police charged them that first year with having obscene material for sale. Relocating down the street in 1977 to their present 360 sq. m flagship store, they were charged again. In the first case, the judge directed the jury to find a verdict of not guilty. The second time the Crown dropped the charges for lack of evidence.

Another difficulty the two women faced was in obtaining financing to expand. Though both were their family's primary breadwinner, they needed their husband's signature to obtain a bank loan. The memory still rankles Amitay.

Today Sutherland has gone on to other interests, but Amitay remains choosy about what she stocks. "We have to be comfortable with what we are selling. We don't carry anything off the back of women - or that smacks of male bashing either." She won't carry explicit videos, girlie magazines or products that could be construed as pornographic. "Though I always say, 'pornography is a matter of geography.'"

That leaves a lot of non-exploitative territory, however she smiled. Lovecraft's perennial best seller for Valentine's Day is edible undies selling for $6.98. Available in mens and womens styles - one size fits all with adjustable licorice string straps - the briefs come in flavours like merry cherry, pina colada, pink champagne and strawberry chocolate.

If nibbling underwear isn't to your taste, the store has a wide selection of revealing lingerie, form-fitting polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and leather clothing, sex toys and aids, novelty items, body paints (including Belgian chocolate) and emotion lotion - a water-soluble, flavoured body oil that turns warm when applied and hot when blown on.

"I believe people are taking ownership of their sexuality," Amitay said of her clientele, who are typically university educated and range from in age 30 to 50. Women constitute 60 per of customers. "Things can get boring and mundane [in a long-term monogamous relationship]. People want a little titillation. If someone comes home with a jar of raspberry flavoured emotion lotion, he's not planning to put it on his toast in the morning.

"Our products are catalysts giving people permission to go home and experiment, to broaden the horizons of their sexuality."

Amitay has remained faithful to her original interest in serving the handicapped for whom she produces a special needs sex brochure. But she stopped issuing a general catalog more than a decade ago because it wasn't cost effective.

If Lovecraft offers safe middle-of-the-road products for the broad market, the He and She Gallery specializes in a decidedly raunchy and kinky niche. The difference is apparent even before one walks in the door. Lovecraft has a neutral sign in Times Roman - the same business-like typeface favoured by the Bank of Nova Scotia; He and She parks a mannequin on the sidewalk suggestively perched atop a ladder and dressed in a fetish outfit.

He and She owner Mary Lou Patchell opened her 90 sq. m emporium at Queen and Sherbourne in 1989. Last year she more than doubled her floor space taking over the lease next door. "I do this as my hobby 'cause it's fun," explained the self-described shopaholic. "It was a moment of madness."

Patchell first came to Toronto from Saint John, N.B. to study at the National School of Ballet. She ended up in a different dance medium - striptease, which she continues to perform for private parties. Still foxy at forty-something, she started her business by refinancing her house telling her bank manager she was going to use the money to renovate. She wouldn't have been eligible for a business loan, she added with an angry edge in her voice.

For the first few years, the store barely broke even. Over time, a loyal following developed and the business became profitable. Patchell has since found a silent partner.

He and She specializes in dress-up fetish clothing. A risque head-to-toe outfit, including stiletto heel boots, leather or PVC lingerie, gloves, collar, cuffs, a leather cap and a whip costs $1,000. Besides off the rack items, the store makes made-to-measure custom fantasy clothing. Like Henry Ford's 1920s model-T, the preferred colours are black, black and black.

Clients are divided equally by gender and vary in age from 20 up. Some men are shopping for their girlfriends; others are cross dressers looking for a nice outfit for themselves. "The customers I have are looking for something unique, sophisticated, exotic and sexy. They want to be ravishing and ravished," Patchell explained.

"The success of any business is listening to your customers and giving them what they want." Last year she commissioned an ironmonger to create prison cells to serve as changing rooms after clients repeatedly expressed an interest in her oversize bird cage.

Another He and She feature is a computerized mistress / bridal registry. The store recently began selling the more conventional sex toys and aids Lovecraft has specialized in. Unlike Amitay's business which peaks in February, Patchell finds Cupid's bow barely budges her sales. "It's dress-up erotic time year round," she said.

She does, however, stage an annual fetish night ball and fashion show before Valentine's Day. In past years she hired professional models. Now costumers are so keen to flaunt and pirouette that she relies on volunteers exclusively. This year's gala, held last Saturday in the ballroom of the Primrose Hotel at Carlton and Jarvis, attracted 2,000 fetish aficionados.

Though He and She serves a few bona fide sex trade pros - dominatrixes, peelers and prostitutes - most clients are part of the trendy Queen Street art and film crowd. A surprising number are upscale Rosedale and Forest Hill matrons, she added, who come in toting their Holt Renfrew bags. They evidently share Patchell's sentiment "Too much politically correct stuff can be sickening."

Illustrating her premise of never judging what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms, Patchell recalled that just before Christmas 1991 her store window was smashed. The female police officer who responded to the alarm has been a regular customer ever since. While some people take a dim view of bondage and domination, and sadism and masochism, Patchell sees it as a innocent play between consenting adults.

"There's a lot of fear in the public mentality of B&D; and S&M.; People make this association with the insane, like Paul Bernardo. However, I have found being in the fetish clothing business that the typical male who is interested in such toys as wrist and ankle restraints is dying to wear them himself. A lot of these guys don't even have partners. They're tying themselves up for entertainment."

What of the future? Lovecraft's sales peaked at $1.5 million in 1981, and the recession caused the store to cut back floor staff from five to three. In a sense the veteran boutique is a casualty of its own success in trailblazing a market for its competitors, including mail order catalogues. Amitay said she is currently investigating marketing through an Internet home page, as is Patchell.

He and She also faces competition as mainstream businesses copy their inventory. With a tinge of indignity, Patchell the credit card junkie said she recently saw skin-tight PVC mini-skirts for sale at Eaton's.

Now that's outrageous.