Between two shuttered storefronts on downtown's Cleveland Street, an Italian fashion designer sees glamor. There will be runway shows in Matteo Perin's boutique, ROMA-N.Y.C., which opened Dec. 15. Lanky models, hand-picked by a Tampa talent agency, will strut across the concrete floor in faux fur jackets, sequined mini-dresses and 5-inch heels. A fete, maybe in February, will bridge Italian style and an American eagerness to buy it.
But first, people must find out the place exists.
"I'm not sure if Clearwater is ready for some of this," said Perin, who spikes his salt-and-pepper hair and wears silver skulls on his neck, wrists and fingers.
ROMA-N.Y.C. sells clothes, jewelry, shoes, purses and lingerie imported from Italy. A pink ostrich bag, hanging from the ceiling, goes for $3,900. A Ke$ha song plays: Wake up in the morning feelin' like P-Diddy.
Perin hung $7,000 burlap paintings (also for sale), placed the December issue of Vogue on a lounge table and offers one-on-one, in-store styling sessions.
He's not worried that many downtown Clearwater retail spaces are abandoned, with broken furniture and old baby dolls behind glass windows.
"People are coming from all over," he said, "And they're happy to see a place like this here."
Perin, who says he's 29, left his hometown, Verona, Italy, when he finished school at age 14 to stay with family friends in Pasadena, Calif.
Since then, he's lived in New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles. He paid rent on a Hollywood Boulevard apartment in part by painting and ripping clients' jeans.
"I find my inspiration when I'm moving and traveling," said Perin, adding he's driven across the country three times, often stopping to sketch. "The Grand Canyon inspired the shade on the walls."
Perin, who has eight other stores around Verona, settled in Clearwater about seven months ago. He chose the location for ROMA-N.Y.C., 410 Cleveland St., because, he said, it's near his condo and he likes the brick walls. He declined to say whether he is a Scientologist.
The Cleveland Street boutique is his guinea pig — his "concept store" in the United States. He wants to see how Americans respond to his Italian styles and sizes before ordering more merchandise and opening another shop "somewhere bigger."
Paula Cadman, who owned the Blue Dahlia Marketplace boutique before the Capitol Theatre took over her space on Nov. 1 for the theater expansion, is running ROMA-N.Y.C. while Perin is in Italy through January, designing a spring men's clothing line and meeting with a business partner who controls the finances.
"We needed Matteo's shop here," Cadman said, straightening a rack of blouses on a recent Thursday afternoon. "That's what it takes to get other business owners to invest in this area."
Cadman, who also lives in Clearwater, met Perin months ago when he brought his line of leather bags into her boutique. She immediately loved them and agreed to sell them. A friendship formed.
Now, before she finds a new place for Blue Dahlia, Cadman is sending Perin's fliers to hotels on the beaches.
"I'm helping him because he's helping us all by being here," said Cadman, a member of the Downtown Clearwater Merchant's Association. "He's helping to revitalize downtown."
Kwynn Kirkhuff, 24, visited ROMA-N.Y.C. on Wednesday at the urging of her mother, Harriett, who lives in Belleair.
"We've been waiting for this, to be honest," Kirkhuff said. "It's nice having it right in your back yard."
She browsed through racks of sheer dresses, lace shirts and oversized sweaters. She picked up a black clutch with a gold clasp.
"Oh. I could use something like this."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.