When Jill Wax first saw Ybor City, it was a fright, its streets spotted with cracked windows and hollow storefronts. But Wax saw its grace. Finding beauty in what others have discarded is her business.
Few Tampa neighborhoods have changed their style more often than Ybor. Created more than a century ago as a cigar manufacturing district, it became home to a vibrant immigrant community but declined into half-abandoned decay three decades ago.
"It was a lot quieter" than it is today when Wax, fresh out of high school, opened a tiny used-clothing store on Seventh Avenue in 1972, paying rent of $75 a month and selling funky gowns and recycled jeans to the artists who had begun to move into the area.
Two years later, she migrated across the street, to 1612 Seventh Ave. She adopted the name of the shoe shop that for 39 years had occupied the first floor of the brick building, run by two sisters whose father built the structure in 1908. The shop called La France became the outlet for Wax's passion for vintage clothing and jewelry.
"I was attracted to the quality of the fabrics" in vintage clothes, Wax says. "The needlework was just wonderful. Even their repair work was phenomenal."
Thirty years later, La France is an Ybor institution, nestled against the southeastern shoulder of the flashy new Centro Ybor like a dignified duenna looking out for her charge at a rowdy party.
Beyond its ornate tiled doorstep, the cheerful shop bursts with clothing, hats, shoes, jewelry and other objects from the last 100 years and more.
Presiding over the bustle of preparations recently for La France's 30th anniversary sale, Wax calmly shows a sales clerk how to mark handbags, inspects a newly arrived skirt's fabric for damage and pats an employee's speckled dachshund when it cuddles up to her on an overstuffed chair.
She wears a contemporary outfit of printed cotton shirt over blue capris, but her mane of wavy, graying hair frames her face in a style that suggests a turn-of-the-century Gibson girl. She could probably find the costume to complete the look within a dozen steps.
On La France's racks, delicate Victorian nightgowns hang demurely near richly embroidered Chinese jackets. Prim shirtwaist dresses like Beaver Cleaver's mom wore line up with strapless dance dresses fluffed with crinolines. Saucy hats with little veils, aloha shirts with hula-girl prints, spectator pumps and tuxedos and pink silk bed jackets: The place is a fashion time machine.
It may be hard to imagine anyone wearing that outfit you bought at the mall last week 50 years from now. Wax says, "Today, it's all about disposability. Everyone is so into trends."
But classic styles, fine fabrics and beautiful design keep coming back. "They go in cycles. All of the styles from the turn of the century through the '60s are always repeating."
Her customers, Wax says, range from "6 to 60 and beyond." Many of her regulars have shopped at La France for years. "Lots of people collect certain things. Some of them may not be wearing the clothes now, but they're into the jewelry."
Others are young people looking for something unique. She sells lots of '40s and '50s clothes to swing dancers, Wax says, and many customers are "Krewe ladies."
"We sell tons of hats, tons of jewelry. Hats weren't in for a long time, but they are so in now."
Although Wax started out selling only vintage clothes, these days her stock is about 25 percent new reproductions of vintage styles. "Gradually I found out that you can't find larger sizes in vintage, definitely not enough to meet the demand for them.
"We keep the vintage dresses separate" so customers know what they're getting.
Wax scours flea markets and thrift stores for some of her vintage stock. But, she says, "Most of it comes in the door.
"I buy most of it right around here. I'll go as far as Fort Myers or Jacksonville if someone has bulk. You know, like the mother never threw anything away and the whole house is full of clothes."
Often, vintage clothes come to her as part of someone's estate. She says she has learned it takes sensitivity to deal with the families.
"It can be a really personal, emotional thing for some of the people I buy from. They can't separate the clothes from the person.
"And some people couldn't care less. It's like, take it all, get it out of here."
Wax first started buying and selling vintage clothes after she moved to Tampa from Syracuse, N.Y., where she grew up. She discovered Ybor because she was dating a ceramic artist who lived over his studio in the then-rundown neighborhood.
"I was working as an insurance adjuster, and I started this little shop. I didn't want to work for anybody else; I was still in play mode."
Vintage clothes drew her because she liked their enduring quality. "Things were constantly reused. People didn't throw clothes away when they got a rip, they repaired them.
"I also liked that I could buy things for $5 and sell them for $20."
Most of her customers then were artists and hipsters drawn to Ybor by cheap rents and cool atmosphere. The ranks of the neighborhood's longtime Cuban, Spanish and Italian residents were already thinning.
"So many of the original people that lived here decided not to come back. Not everyone was proud to be the son or daughter of a cigar roller. A lot of them really distanced themselves."
As artists found studios and apartments in the neighborhood, more businesses came in, too, and Wax moved to a bigger space.
"The Marcos sisters ran La France Shoes for 39 years," she says. "They specialized in small feet, because the European women had smaller feet than most American women. They carried shoes down to size 3."
After the sisters died, Wax bought the building in 1978 with a business partner, Herb Wax, who later became her husband. "I think we paid almost $40,000 for it," she says. "We've since put about a half-million into it."
For a while, Wax lived in the shop, in a tiny loft over the dressing rooms. She worked part-time waiting tables at the Don Quixote restaurant next door for several years.
Clothes weren't the only things she recycled. For 10 years, they struggled with the deteriorating building. "No one was making loans down here. It was too risky."
Even without a loan, they had to replace the roof. "Every time it rained, I had buckets all over the store."
Then, in the mid '80s, redevelopment plans for Ybor City began to surface. The Waxes were able to finance a total renovation of the building. They moved the inventory across the street to the small space where Wax started her shop and went to work.
"It was totally gutted, down to brick and dirt. It took eight months for the main rehab and another two to finish up all the details."
The hardest job, she says, was replacing the shop's tin ceiling. "The workers had to be on their backs, like they were painting the Sistine Chapel."
They maintained the shop's 1908 flavor but updated its infrastructure. "Central heat and air is the best."
They also renovated four apartments in the building's upper floors, where the Marcos family had once rented rooms to cigar rollers. Wax says they preserved as much historic detail as possible. "It was like my first child."
The changing face of Ybor at first spurred the artists' community. Wax helped found the Ybor Arts Association in the mid '80s. "It was sort of like a big cocktail party with art."
But the inevitable happened: With gentrification came rising rents. "They did it too fast," she says of redevelopment efforts. "They didn't let the people grow with the area. The artists were pushed out, and so were all the little boutiques.
"The bars were the only ones who could afford the rent. That really dictated what went in here. For a while the council was approving every wet zone that came before it."
Wax, who has served as president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, says the neighborhood's current character isn't what she hoped for. "All along I thought I was in a historic district, and now I'm in an entertainment district.
"You associate respect with a historic district. What's associated with an entertainment district is party time."
She says Centro Ybor and other businesses aimed at bringing in a more diverse group of visitors than the young bar crowd are a good start, but more remains to be done. "Centro Ybor has definitely helped me out. But it doesn't roll down the avenue.
"It brings in tons of people, but they don't venture away from Centro. You have the Columbia down at the end as the other anchor, but there are too many gaps in between."
Still, she says, she can't see herself running her business anyplace else. She did finally move out of the shop. She and Herb, who have been married for 20 years, live in Hyde Park and have raised three sons.
Running La France gave her the flexibility to spend a lot of time with her children. When they were babies, she brought them to work, and when they were older, she could arrange her schedule to be home when they got out of school in the afternoon.
"Now, of course, it's "Don't bother, Mom.' They don't want to see me unless I'm bringing food.
"But none of them wants to take over my business," she says. "Maybe a granddaughter, if one of those comes along."
La France has always been a profitable business, she says, even though she started it as a teenager with no business training.
"I had worked in retail when I was like 16, so I thought I knew what I was doing. But you don't think about those little things like accounting, showing up every day, being committed to the business.
"I must emphasize what I learned by not going to college. Hands-on is good. But going to college for four years would have saved me 12 years learning it in the business."
For about a year and a half, she has been consciously pulling back. For years, she worked 50-hour weeks. But now she relies more on her staff and has cut her work week down to about three days.
"We just bought a place in North Carolina four months ago," she says, and she would like to spend about half her time there. "They have great thrifting and flea marketing around there."
She also enjoys supplying vintage clothes for benefit fashion shows and putting together museum exhibits.
"I did the clothes for the 100-year anniversary show at the Plant Museum" at the University of Tampa. "That was so much fun."
She just agreed to put together a fashion show for a Jan. 22 benefit for the American Cancer Society.
"All of the models will be survivors. We'll have clothes from the turn of the century through the '70s, both vintage and reproduction. Anything for a nonprofit, I'm usually willing to do it."
Although she has had inquiries about selling the property, Wax says, "There's too much of me in it. I'd rather sell out the stock, shut it down."
She doesn't anticipate closing the doors of La France any time soon. "I see myself doing it for another 15 or 20 years. It's treasure hunting. I'm happy to do that."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroftsptimes.com.
La France sells more than clothes. Hat, handbags, jewelry and other accessories are available and about 25 percent of the store's stock is made up of reproductions of vintage styles. "Gradually I found out that you can't find larger sizes in vintage."
La France owner Jill Wax prices clothes in her Ybor City vintage clothing store earlier this month. Wax opened her first store more than 30 years ago and has been witness to Ybor's dramatic changes.