WORDS Jyssica Yales PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden
In the heart of Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, there’s a place where a cat is a woman’s best shopping companion, Abba anthems abound, and you leave feeling lighter than you did walking in. The latter is JoEllen Newton’s philosophy when it comes to her shop Coco and Toulouse.
The company turns seventeen in July, but the shop wasn’t always a retail space. For those who believe in manifestation, Newton’s story is a classic one of ‘ask and you shall receive.’ She knew what she wanted and exactly where she wanted it.
“My husband and I used to eat at Caprelles restaurant next to Stars, where my store is now,” Newton told me. “We’d have date night and I just loved it there. I thought, ‘if I had a store, I’d want it to be this corner.”
So how did Coco and Toulouse begin?
It started because I did jewelry and had a sales rep in Seattle who did the West Coast. We did the San Francisco and Seattle markets two times year. He has two stores up in Seattle. We wrote up orders together, and he prompted me to open a store.
It was me in my studio all by myself all day at that point, so I loved the idea. The landlord pointed me to this space in that back parking lot and I said okay. The rent was reasonable, and I’d work there and go from there. And it took off!
And you eventually expanded from that one location, right? How did that happen?
Caprelles left two years into it, and the landlord asked me if I wanted the additional space next to Starbucks and I said yes! I took it and decided to do clothing. That was my business plan, ‘I think I’ll do clothing.’
So, I went to the markets and learned to buy clothes. I went to LA showrooms and opened the door. We eventually combined the two locations, and we’ve been open at the combined location for six years now.
Who is the Coco & Toulouse shopper? How would you
She is fun, adventurous, generous, and most any age. They’re mostly women who are not afraid of other people’s opinions, are bright, caring, and have a great sense of humor!
And I’ve got to ask, where did the name come from?
I used to have a cat named Toulouse. My friend used to call me CoCo, and my grandchildren call me CoCo.
What inspires the jewelry you make?
I am inspired by any kind of art, even music. Paintings, things I see in nature. I also love assemblage. Geometric shapes, stripes, polka dots.
What is the environment like when you make your jewelry?
I can sit at my stool at my studio for hours making my jewelry. I don’t take my phone and I listen to Mumford and Sons, or monks chanting, and Abba Gold, Gimme Gimme Gimme a Man After Midnight. It’s not like I live high, but I love what I do, and making people happy in this way.
You said, “If you don’t love it, don’t do it,” and that one of your shop girls calls this your ministry. What do you mean by this?
Often when someone is trying on clothes, they will have to make a choice to buy it or not. Our mantra is if you are unsure about a piece, don’t get it. I don’t want our ladies to have a closet full of our clothes that they aren’t comfortable wearing! I want them to be excited about each piece of clothing, jewelry, handbag, and scarf.
I think the ministry part is that we want you to have a good experience in the shop. To feel better when you leave than when you arrive. To take the time to connect. We had a customer just come in who said, “I was having a bad day, and I knew I’d feel better if I came in.”
You have two fashion shows a year at your shop. Tell us more about those!
They are so fun! Each one is a benefit for a local charity. We use our customers of all ages and sizes for the models, serve some bubbly and snacks. It’s a grand time in the spring and fall.
We even had an 81-year old woman, her daughter who was in her late 50s, and her granddaughter in her late twenties, model for a show. In our first fashion show, we had the grandmother and granddaughter come out in the same outfit — a funny scrunchy denim skirt and a black leatherette jacket. One of them had it with high boots, one with leggings. The exact same thing. You don’t have to be of a certain age to shop here – most of our stuff is not age specific.
What is the most unique item you carry at the shop?
French candles, English candles. We have candles from the Queens Chandler from London that come in a black glass. One of the scents was the one burnt in the cathedral that Megan and Harry got married in. Post nine-eleven it’s harder to get liquid soaps, but we still have French candles. They come in for all the things we carry that can be gifts.
What do your shoppers always come back for more of?
Clothing, gifts for friends, handbags, fragrances, candles, accessories, and sometimes just for a smile!
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in 17 years of owning Coco + Toulouse?
While we may all look different, have very different lives, we are all so much alike and lovable. We all share many of the same fears, joys, poor self-images, needs, and dreams. Our customers quickly become friends. I’ve always believed in the goodness of people, but even more now.
What are you loving style-wise at this very moment?
I love colors. I’m loving green especially right now. We just got black velvet and purple velvet frames for readers. We want you to have fun, you know, have a giggle!