An Interview with Hattie Wolfe. Part 1: How it all Began

This month, we have a very special treat for you! We sat down with a Winter Park legend, Wolfe-Rizor principal Hattie Wolfe. Back in the 1960’s she owned the Hattie’s clothing stores in Orlando and Winter Park before joining her daughter Abby Rizor to found Wolfe-Rizor Interiors.

Q: So, how did you end up as an interior designer?

Hattie: One day, I just woke up and I was an interior design. No, that isn’t really true. I actually started out as a little girl in upstate New York where my mother had dry good stores, where she would sell supplies and food to farmers. It was a farming community in Rockland County, New York. My mother had five stores and I was the youngest of three children, and my favorite things was going to my mother’s stores and hanging out there as a very little girl. As I grew older she took me to New York on buying trips. She was really, really without even realizing it, my mentor. She was a very dynamic little woman and very self-sufficient and taught me everything I know about life. I had a great dad but he died very young and my mother was ambitious: she liked being successful and she was very successful.

Anyway, I grew up in retailing and then I went to college and then I met my husband and he got a job in Central Florida. I realized that fashion wise, the town was really, really behind the times. Colonial Plaza was just becoming a closed mall and I happened to be in a restaurant called Ronny’s. I was sitting there waiting for my husband, who was at the Firestone Tire Company and the man next to me had these blueprints and he said to me, “Young lady, this is going to be the biggest thing that ever hit the southeast. It’s first enclosed air-conditioned mall.”

I said, “How do you get a store there?” He said, “You need a financial statement.” I said, “What is that?” “That tells us how much you’re worth.” Well, of course, I didn’t have any money but I did have … I did notice that it said on the side of the blueprint “Sutical reimbursement.” My mother lived next door to a woman named Helen Sutical. I said to this gentleman, “Is that Helen Sutical?” He said, “Yeah. That’s my mother-in-law.” I went to Miami and I knocked on Mrs. Sutical’s door and I said, “Mrs. Sutical, I want a store put on your plaza in Orlando.” She said, “You know what?” She called her son-in-law and that’s how I got a store there without a financial statement.

My husband still traveled but we worked in the store, building it up and making it beautiful. I was the director and he was the fabricator. We opened a store and it was an instant success. Our store was 25-feet wide and 45-feet long. We did half a million dollars in our first year.

That, today, would be about $6 million. It was written up in Women’s Wear Daily for seven years straight. It was the most successful store per square foot in America. Right here, in Colonial Plaza. It was very good to me and I was very good at it and I loved it. It made me very visible because it was very unusual in those days, especially in the south, to see a very young working woman. I had a long run. 28 years in retailing.

We had a woman named Margo Foster and she was one of my best customers and she came into Colonial Plaza almost every day. One day she said to me, “I have a building on Park Avenue and I want you to buy it.” I said, “Well, they’re all empty stores there!” She said, “If you come there, there won’t be. Other stores will come.”

I said, “Okay. How much is it?” She said, “It’s $34,000.” I said, “Well, I don’t have that kind of money.” She said, “How much money do you have?” I opened up the checkbook and my husband wasn’t there. I said, “We have $5,000 in the checking account.” She said, “I’ll take it and I’ll hold a mortgage because I’m moving to Seattle.” That’s how I started my store here. I had a lot of breaks. People loved my store and it gave me an entree into a lot of different people in town.

I also learned from my mother that you participate and give back to the community and it will make you successful or help you. That’s exactly what I did. I loved it and then Victoria’s Secret came and said, “We want to rent your building.” I said, “Oh, no. No. I’ve been a retailer my whole life. What would I do?” Then they told me how much they would pay in rent and I said, “Maybe it’s time to move on.”

So I got out of that business. I retired from that business and I never missed it. I mean I had a great run but whenever I go into a store I think I can actually merchandise differently to this day. It’s in my blood. I grew up that way. I also had the opportunity to do a lot of interior designing for my salesman who had showrooms in Miami and Atlanta and I loved that and I was very good at that. I knew I was good at it but I never did it for a living. I wanted to do it for a living and my practical mother says, “You need a rich husband to do that.”

Q:  To be an interior designer?

Hattie: Yes. To make a long story short, I never did it but then my daughter … my daughter was working for CNN news and she decided she hated it.

She got a job working at the ADAC Building in Atlanta and she loved it. She worked for Jerry Pair, which is a very high-end store, he carried high-end fabrics and accessories. She cried to me and she said, “Mom, you’ve spent so much money on my education and my master’s degree, but I hate working in television.”

That’s how we started. We started in Abigail’s Library. She called it her library and then Olivia, her oldest little girl at the time was two-and-a-half and she was answering the phone, and it got too noisy. So we rented a space, our first office.  We’ve grown from there. I work with my daughter. I’ve always had a wonderful relationship with my daughter.

I had a great relationship with my mother. I’m very different than either one of them. Abigail is more like my mother. She’s always rigorous as a very little girl. I love people and I’ve had a great, great rapport with so many people. I’ve been very lucky. I love going to Starbucks and just sitting there and talking.

Q: Were you always interested in design?

Hattie: Yes. From the time I was a very little girl, when I was three-years-old, I could identify cars. Of course, there weren’t as many different cars as there are today but, no, I’ve always loved design and I had a lot of freedom with a mother who was always working and very laid back about it, she let me paint my room. She let me rearrange the furniture. I grew up in a great big old house and I always loved design.

Q: Do you remember what was the first room you ever designed?

Hattie: Yes. I do. It was my own room. I was seven, I think. Six or seven. It was very unusual those days to let your children do that. Nowadays, people let their kids design their rooms but my influence, truthfully, in design, was I had an aunt that was very arty. The famous designer Billy Baldwin designed her apartment and I was so taken with that as a little girl. My parents used to drop me off there when they went to the theater. They lived about 55 miles north of New York City.

Not even realizing who he was and that he’d be so famous after that but I was really immersed in my aunt’s sense of creativity. She was very arty like my father’s whole family, but she had wonderful taste and it was kind of bohemian.

I was exposed to a lot of art and artsy people. I had an aunt who lived in New York and she had a gorgeous home. I remember I used to spend a lot of time there over Easter breaks because my parents would go on cruises and she was always decorating and I loved it.

I’d come home and tell my mother, “We’re moving the sofa.” My parents let me do it. I think, now, I don’t know of any parents that would allow their children to do that. I was home a lot with just the housekeeper, it was very boring there, in the winters, especially. I’d move all of the furniture around.

My mother would come home and say, “This looks good. I like this.” So I loved design from a very early age.

So that’s the beginning of Hattie’s story, but there’s so much more! In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing the rest of her interview, and we also have an inside look at the renovations she’s doing, preparing to move from her longtime Winter Park home to a condo off Park Avenue. 

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