by April Lisante
Voltaire Blain has loved fashion since he was a child. But it wasn’t until his early 20s that fate stepped in and made it his lifelong passion. Blain was studying to be a dental hygienist when he answered an ad looking for a shoe salesman, and the rest became history.
“My first job taught me a lot, about fitting and shoes,” said Blain, 44. “The man I worked for was like a mentor to me. I learned so much from the owner.”
After more than two decades working in shoe stores throughout New York, Blain realized his dream last month when he chose a quaint corner spot on Germantown Avenue to open the first high-end shoe store of his own, Style By Blain. It marks a continuation of the ongoing fashion Renaissance that is transforming the Avenue into a retail destination for fashion lovers and creating true competition for Rittenhouse Square and Walnut Street.
Blain’s venture comes as the Hill welcomes other new fashion boutiques, including Artistic Eyewear, 8513 Germantown Ave. and Serendipity Shops, 8506 Germantown Ave. With his head-turning shoe selections, he also complements mens’ clothing favorites like Joseph A. Bank, Greene Street and J. McLaughlin locally.
Blain’s shop, at 8433 Germantown Ave., was the former home of the chic, eclectic Style Camp, which has since moved to a larger location on West Highland Avenue. He started looking for a property earlier this year, and fell in love with the cozy space as soon as he saw it.
“He is a fantastic addition to our menswear in Chestnut Hill,” said Kathie Meadows, director of business development for the Chestnut Hill Business District. “He just has a presence. I think fashion has always been a biggie here … we have things you won’t find in a mall.”
Stepping into Style By Blain feels like stepping into a well-appointed living room. There are no shelves lined with shoes or boxes stacked on the floor. His selections are displayed on wood accent tables, flanked by a fireplace, cozy leather and tweed chairs and a pool table. Yes, he’s proud of his full-size pool table which is covered in, you guessed it, shoes.
“I had this pool table idea like six or seven years ago,” said Blain, looking dapper in a plaid tweed blazer, lavender pocket handkerchief and of course, leather boots. “I wanted to be the first to do it.”
The store is a labor of love for Blain, who was born in Haiti but grew up in Brooklyn, NY, the son of two very fashion-conscious parents.
“My dad and mom were always into fashion, and my mom took good care of herself” he said. “Sure, I had sneakers, but when we went to a family party, we didn’t wear sneakers.”
His love of shoes became real in his early twenties, when he was studying dental hygiene at the New York Technical School, and he saw an ad for a shoe store looking for part-time help. After working there for some time, he packed in his dental career plans and made shoes his full-time gig.
But it wasn’t until he met his wife, who grew up in Chestnut Hill, that he said goodbye to New York and decided to live in Philadelphia full time. Now, with a 20-month-old son, he is here to stay.
“I am a New Yorker but I feel that Philadelphia is becoming more me,” Blain said. “I put family first and that’s the reason I am here.”
What will make his shop a success is a following of locals who are not only fashion-conscious, but, frankly, can appreciate a really well-made shoe. He has seen a lot of foot traffic – no pun intended – in the past three weeks since opening, comprised of both locals and out-of-town visitors.
He is hoping Chestnut Hill will embrace an appreciation for finer shoes, and most specifically, for the buying experience. Customers can come in, be perfectly fitted for the shoes, then choose from a selection Blain has specially curated. Some are his own designs, others are from world-renowned shoe makers like the French Paraboot as well as Alden shoes of Middleborough, Mass. Shoes range in price from $300 to $800.
Men can choose from a variety of loafers, Oxfords and both low and high cut boots. Shoes are made of suede and leather, but it is the craftsmanship Blain is most excited about. He carries several women’s styles in Paraboot as well. Most styles will be on hand, though he says he will assess inventory demand as the holidays approach. Several of his own shoe designs are being manufactured right now.
“This is not a typical shoe store,” Blain said. “I want people to feel at home. I want to create that spot where a gentleman who cares about his footwear will stop in and doesn’t have to go to Center City to get them.”