On a very early and slightly rainy morning, I took three forms of public transportation (BART, Muni Rail, Muni Bus) to Noe Valley in San Francisco. What could possibly make this sloth human get out of bed before 8:00 AM? Why, a gorgeous store of course! I've been following Voila for months on Instagram and loved the concept of the space being not only a store but also a florist and wax + manicure salon. I made a note to visit when I was in San Francisco, but I don't get to the city as often as I like to these days, especially the areas that are far from BART stops. However, I knew that if I interviewed the owner, Aline, I would HAVE to get out there. So that's exactly what I did.
The space is just as I imagined it: minimalist, inviting, and serene. As the rain stopped and the sun peeked through the clouds, the natural lighting was just perfect. Aline greeted me with her great big smile and lovely French accent ready to talk with me about the store, her adventures, and her insightful views on life. It was truly a delightful half hour of conversation, and I hope that you enjoy her stories too.
When did you open the store?
“I got the space last March, a year ago, but we officially opened May 1st. I had a great amazing party to launch, and we had so many neighbors supporting! They all came and said ‘hello, what’s up in here?’. This is actually my second store – I own another store in the Lower Haight called Aline’s Closet and it’s a made-to-order store where you can get your measurements taken and pick your fabric and we’ll make it for you, just the way I was raised. I wasn’t used to going shopping and grabbing a size. So, that’s my first store, and now this is my new store!”
Why the store, flowers, and manicures?
"I already have a fashion store, so why not try something new? With Voila, I wanted a concept store. I didn’t want it to be very generic; I wanted it to be open and airy. I wanted it to be a very multifaceted space known for having a great energy. I was inspired by the space, it’s very open, very light, and it has a serenity when you come in here. It represents what I’m aiming to become as I grow. Growing up as a woman, I wanted to be a talented and artistic woman. So this last year I became a florist. I’ve always loved flowers, who doesn’t love flowers right? But for me it’s more about the composition and the art. So I really wanted to bring that here. It brings the exoticism part that I was really looking for.
Then I thought ‘what can I do to bring people in to make it like a club, a membership, a community?’ and I thought the nail option would be amazing. In Noe Valley, there are many nail salons, but none really stood out to me. I was surprised when I moved here as a resident, I was like 'wow nail salons here are really generic and toxic, the smell isn’t good, it feels a little bit like a factory'. I didn’t see me sitting in there and enjoying it. I wanted this to be a space for people to enjoy the serenity and let them dream a little bit. We carry the highest quality nail brands, and if they’re not toxin free, they have a really high quality standard. It’s a way for me to tell myself that it’s possible to have a nail salon that’s a little bit different and cares about the environment.
And about the fashion, it’s a way for me to show my own designs as well as other designers and just really show my sense of fashion as a curator. The jewelry, the bags, all the clothing, every detail in here has been hand picked by myself. I also wanted to mix my souvenirs of Africa as well because I grew up in Africa and I travel there a lot, so there is a little bit of home décor as well. So, this is how it came to be. It’s something that’s all a girl wants: fashion, flowers, and nails!"
"Of course I speak French, this is my first language. I was born in Benin, West Africa, but I was raised in 12 different countries, mostly in France. I lived in the South of France for four years and Paris for seven years. After opening Aline’s closet, it was such an accomplishment, especially since I’m not from here. So 7 years later to open Voila, it was just another accomplishment. It means ‘here it is, here we go’, it’s an exclamation of surprise, and usually it is a very positive, optimistic expression. So I wanted Voila to be that representation of my accomplishment here."
Are any of the designs here yours?
“Yes! My main piece is my perfect cardigan. This piece made me willing to stay in San Francisco. It’s perfect for the city weather and you can wear it in many ways. Not only has it allowed me to succeed as an entrepreneur, but it’s also allowed me to expand my brand all around the world. I Skype with a client and take their measurements over Skype. Then we ship everywhere – France, Australia, Japan – the most orders have been from France and then Australia. I wear this cardigan everyday. You can wear it as a cardigan, flip it over your head as a poncho, or you can flip it upside down and have a peekaboo back with a little hoodie. It has extra long sleeves to give you a little comfort. I’ve produced more than 500 pieces since 2012, and it’s making me super happy. I do have a seamstress - I can’t sew them all myself! I own two stores, so it’s a full-time job. I take care of my website, social media, sourcing, and customer relationships. The fact that I like and know how to sew is not the thing I enjoy the most anyways."
Aline in her navy blue Perfect Cardigan.
What brought you to San Francisco?
"It’s a long journey! A lot of people think I came straight from Benin or France, but I have lived in 16 different countries and visited 22. At the start of this story I was living in Montreal, and it was very cold. I had experienced two winters there and I really didn’t like it. For me, even San Francisco took me a while to adjust to. I’m a person who likes sunny weather. So I decided to take off to Brazil and seek the sun with no timeline. I quit the job I was doing as a freelance fashion designer, and I told them 'I can’t be at the desk but I can be anywhere and I can still do my job'. So this began my life as a digital nomad, which I think I am. I’m taking vacation all the time and I can still do my work remotely. But, what happened is that I was dating someone at that time who wanted to come from New York to San Francisco to continue his company – he was working in the wine industry. He could take a break, two or three months, to come to Brazil, and I could join if I wanted. After 3 months in Brazil we were done with vacation. It’s fun to be under the sun, but sometimes you want to also accomplish stuff, so we came back to the United States.
I took a chance to come with him. I didn’t know what I would do here. I just thought I’m in love, why not? And it actually worked out for everything else but it didn’t work out for love! We are still friends though. It did give me the opportunity to come to the US, and I wanted to come here. I had visited San Francisco as just a tourist several times because my sister lives in San Jose, but I never got the chance to be local. I wanted to discover that thing that made me willing to stay so many times when I was visiting. So, I just decided to stay. I came in 2009, on my birthday, and I opened Aline’s Closet about a year later. June 2010 exactly. It’s been 7 years. I opened my first store after a year of being here in the US, so I got very lucky.
I don’t think being lucky is really like 'oh you’re just a lucky person', but it’s about being curious. My eyes and my ears were very alert, and if you don’t listen and look around, then luck can’t come knock on your door. You don’t listen, you don’t hear! So I think I was at the right place at the right time with the right person to have this opportunity."
Aline with some signs made for Valentine's Day - in both English and French of course.
Tell me more about how your started your first business?
"From the start, I didn’t think of my passion as a business. It was just my passion, something that I liked to do. My background is actually in stage costume. Designing for stage is different because you have a time period and storyline to follow. I felt it was limiting me, and I wanted to design for real people. So that was the first challenge. Ok, from a background in stage costume, how do I design for the real fashion world? But from my early ages as a fashion student, I didn’t like the cycle of fashion. I thought it was completely nonsense. I thought it was too fast, it didn’t reflect how I was raised. My parents would give me fabrics as a gift, so I just took a trip to the tailor when the fabric was gifted. So my biggest challenge was transitioning from freelancing to having a one-stop destination where I could tell my story.
When I opened my store, it was just vintage finds and whatever I made from the fabric that I found, my designs. But then I realized that sometimes the customer loves it but it’s not their size, or they want a different fabric. So in 2012, after struggle into finding my rhythm, I decided to make all my designs made to order. My limit was within the fact that I couldn’t always offer the right color and the right size. I think we should move towards having unique pieces and really choosing what we want to wear. We shouldn’t have all these pieces in our closet that we just forget to wear. So this is why slow fashion means everything to me, in my lifestyle and the way I envision the world."
What are some of your favorite things in the store?
"I have one thing actually that I want you to see. This is very dear because these used to be passports. They have a story for West Africa and Central Africa and specifically Cameroon. So they’re all hand painted clay, and it represents color from the tribe of your family line. You and me, we would be two different families, and we would carry two different colors. When you’re a nomad and you’re crossing borders, this is how you can actually show your relationship to your tribe or your family. They’re called passports, and they used to be, well, passports. Now they’re just décor, but they’re very dear to my heart. I carry them and I gift them to my friends and tell them that story. It embodies my travels around the world and the fact that we all have a community, we all have a tribe, we all have a home. So this is a mask, a face, of your family."
"Also, these are banana leaf greeting cards. These remind me of my childhood when I was about 6 or 7, I was in Burundi, not too far from Rwanda, and banana leaf greeting cards are typical there. I lived there when I was a little girl, and we used to make them at school. They were like a school project for us. So for me to carry them here at Voila in San Francisco in 2017, it’s a big deal. I really cherish that. It reminds me of how I was raised, where I was raised, and who I am. It’s a very easy gift, so add a little exoticism in your life!"
How are you liking the small business community here in Noe Valley?
"Here I’m still very new as a small business owner in Noe Valley. I will be one year, but I also have Aline’s Closet, so I split my time. I know everybody around the Lower Haight, but here I’m still in discovery mode. But just across the street, the cleaners were very nice in giving me some pins when I needed them. And the yoga studio - they came and introduced themselves, and now I know the owner of the business. La PanotiQ bakery down the street is now my caterer for all my brunches and super supportive of my business. I’m starting to make friends, but like anything else it does take time. I’m less recognizable here as a familiar face. But in the Lower Haight, to throw some flowers on me, I have attained a little local celebrity status. Here I am eager to discover more and meet more friends and just spend more time around Voila! It feels great to be a part of something so big. It’s just a great city and such a great location here, and I feel very fortunate. I’m very grateful that they’re adopting me!"
A funky tilted shelf shows off the store's personality. Aline holding some beautiful handmade bracelets.
I absolutely adored my morning in Noe Valley hanging out in the store with Aline! She's right, the store has a very serene energy and is certainly a place where you can dream a little bit. After our talk, she suggested I go try a croissant from La PaniotiQ. It was amazing and I highly recommend! I'm sure I'll be back soon to relax at the nail salon and pick up a spring bouquet for my bedside. You can give Aline a visit at 1431 Castro Street (or check out Aline's Closet at 101 Pierce Street). Online, you'll find her at voilasf.com, Instagram, and Facebook. Plus, you can find me hanging around on Facebook and Instagram as well ;)
A beautiful antique chandelier hangs from the ceiling at the store.