After 37 Years, the Women of Brookline’s the Studio Look for Next Generation

Sandy, Ilene, and Marcie created a 'comfort zone' for women, earning local and national acclaim. Now, they're looking to hand it off.

Photo by Olga Khvan

Brawer (left) and Epstein peruse a binder of old newsletters. Photo by Olga Khvan

Identical twins Sandy Gradman and Ilene Epstein and their best friend Marcie Brawer had no idea what they were doing in 1979. They had just moved their fledgling clothing business from Brawer’s home on Winthrop Road in Brookline to a 225-square-foot space on the second floor of an office building on Harvard Street. No bank in town would open a line of credit for a business run by three women. But with a little enterprise, a lot of chutzpah, and not a single MBA between them, they would create a clothing store where women felt comfortable shopping, whether they had an eye f0r fashion or hardly a clue.

Since then, the women of the Studio have outfitted three generations, weathered two recessions, been the subject of a Harvard case study, appeared in Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, and, in Gradman’s case, beat ovarian cancer. Now, they’re looking for someone to lead the Brookline institution into the future.

“We’re at this crossroads. We built this. We want to see it go on,” Brawer says. “We think that this kind of shopping—there’s a place for it in women’s lives. Most young women your age probably never experience coming into a store where you’re treated to a beautifully edited collection and everyone’s helping you.”

“Because we’re here for 37 years, which is a great accomplishment, the other side of it is that our customers are aging,” Epstein says. “I had young kids when we started this thing. Now I’ve got young grandchildren.”

Despite an ever-growing flock that counts seven daughters and former Red Sox and current Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein (“People wanted to come in and throw their daughters at Ilene,” Brawer laughs), everyone’s too busy pursuing their own careers to take the reins. About a year ago, the Studio took out an ad seeking a new generation of management, much to the horror of the shop’s tight-knit community of patrons.

“People came in here crying—crying—saying, ‘You can’t! You can’t!'” Brawer says. “And we kept saying to them, ‘The reason we’re going this is because we want it to continue. We don’t want it to end.'” Though they received initial interest, the women are still looking for their replacements.

Each year—at first quarterly, now biennially—the Studio announces its sales with postcards featuring Brawer, Epstein, and Gradman in any number of poses and outfits, ranging from the serious (chic fashion shoots and a mockup of Botticelli’s Primavera) to the plain ol’ goofy (reindeer costumes and lobster hats). Sales and styles change over the years, but always present is the sense that these women are having a hell of a time.

“You have to have a lot of energy. This isn’t an old woman’s sport anymore,” Brawer says. “Every day, you read in the paper about these young people who’ve worked on Wall Street, made lots of money, and hate every minute of it, and they’re downsizing, and they’re opening bakeries or bed-and-breakfasts in Vermont. I think someone like that, who says, ‘I’ve always had a passion for clothes, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ could do a bang-up job.”

And it certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re a Cubs fan.