The Cuckoo's Nest- A History Of Portland's Original Bohemian Boutique

Renee Ehmann modeling a handmade natural cotton prairie dress & apron by Regina Thompson Wilkins in the early 1970's in front of The Cuckoo's Nest at 217 Northwest Second Avenue in Portland, Oregon

Julie behind the counter at her shop. Note the antique cuckoo clock.

Jody Sterne (who now lives in the woods near Mt. Hood and is, according to Julie, an amazingly skilled herbalist) modeling a handmade cotton patchwork dress by Regina Thompson Wilkins

(All three of the above signs were made by Roger McKay)

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade wool dress by Nita Ludwig

Diana modeling a handmade silk skirt and jacket trimmed in velvet

A few months ago I received the sweetest message addressed to Sasha and I from a Facebook friend on Violet Folklore's profile. Here are some snippets:

I discovered Violet Folklore while searching for vintage clothing for my daughters. When I saw some of your AMAZING photographs I was awestruck. You are such creative fashion stylists and photographers and I hope you truly realize your talent. You are “spot on” for the mid 60’s and early 70’s. I know because I lived it. Later, in the mid 70’s early 80’s I worked in the haute couture fashion business in Manhattan and collaborated with many fashion stylists and photographers. To me, your work reflects the brilliance of Deborah Turbeville.

With admiration, Julie Aitken

Needless to say, I was flattered beyond belief. Especially when I followed the link Julie gave me to a photo album of a shop that she opened in Portland, Oregon in 1969 named The Cuckoo's Nest. The clothes that she and her friends made and sold, and the entire aesthetic of the shop and the photographs they took, were exactly what inspired the creation of Violet Folklore. Here she was saying all these wonderfully admiring and supportive things about what my friends and I do, when we are just aspiring toward what she originated and seems to have done better than anyone else!

I knew immediately that I needed to share the story of The Cuckoo's Nest, and that it was high time these photos were seen by a new generation of clothing and vintage lovers.

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade natural cotton peasant dress by Regina Thompson Wilkins

Allow me to begin by quoting lengthily from Julie's friend James A. Kiehle:

"The truth of the matter is The Cuckoo’s Nest was the finest, most unique store ever created in Portland, the crème de la crème of any establishment. Julie opened the boutique in October 1969 just before her eighteenth birthday. She selected her location from land developer Bill Naito, and there was only one other business in the area not catering to the Muscatel set [meaning men that did nothing but drink all day]. Being bohemian at heart, her creative eye could see the possibilities and hidden historic charm. Her intuition told her the area had growth potential, so with the financial help of her parents she soon converted what legend holds a brothel, complete with cockroaches, into a stunning retail store. From the grand opening onward, it was a success as far as the customers were concerned. Prior to its existence few people had the nerve to drive into the area, let alone walk.

There it was: The Cuckoo’s Nest. And in time, Julie kept fluffing her nest and the overall look continually changed and enriched. The merchandise became increasingly extraordinary; the clientele grew, and so did the neighborhood.

Shops and boutiques sprang up like mushrooms in the rain. Imitators and competitors gradually emerged, turning what had previously been a prime skid row into “Old Town Portland.”  But none could compete with The Cuckoo’s Nest. Under Julie’s reign; it was the central diamond in the crown...

Sarah Page modeling a handmade denim skirt and halter top with studded jewels

The store exterior was warm and welcoming. You entered through an iron gate above which suspended a charming hand carved sign saying “The Cuckoo’s Nest.” To the right was an oil painting of a woman with long flowing hair, holding a cuckoo bird. The brick facade had four arched beautifully displayed windows, and underneath each one was a window box full of seasonal flowers. The antique dark oak doors had beveled glass windows and the feeling that something pleasant awaited you inside.

Indeed there was. One was greeted with an antique Victorian wicker table with matching chairs; centered above that hung a hand-carved European cuckoo clock. As your eyes followed the room, the merchandise was purely magical.

The custom clothing, created from only natural fibers, was made with exquisite taste. Julie would treasure hunt at local thrift stores for unusual antique lace, buttons and embroidered linens to include in her designs. These one of a kind dresses were sublime, made unique by their extraordinary attention to detail. They would transform the dowdiest suburban housewife into a Georgetown cause celebre. The custom-made exclusive men’s western shirts became so trendy that famous rock & roll stars placed their orders while performing in Portland. She also purchased used Levi Strauss jeans and jackets and transformed them into works of art by adding embellishments of patchwork and embroidery. Julie also included a few ready-to-wear lines in the mix; Alley Cat by Betsey Johnson, Gunne Sax by Jessica McClintock, Young Edwardian by Arpeja (Sue Wong), and India Imports...

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade silk velvet dress trimed in antique victorian lace by Regina Thompson Wilkins

The fact is Julie was a trendsetter with fine tuned intuition as to what would sell. Long before it was considered commercially acceptable (and thus, the norm), The Cuckoo’s Nest was employing naturalness before it was a marketable commodity.

The Cuckoo’s Nest was less a store and more a home for loveliness. Anything that made it look nice — no, feel nice — was included, was displayed, was left out to touch and admire. It was a shelter from the grey world outside and from the city streets with their canyons of shade. It was a constant validation for the goodness of the human spirit."

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade natural linen dress, hand embroidered by Minnie Jardine

It seems to me that the truth of James's words shine through these photos. After reading them, I sent Julie some questions about the shop and her life then. Here are her responses:

Please tell me about the history of The Cuckoo's Nest.

The Cuckoo’s Nest was in existence prior to me purchasing the name. It opened as a “beatnik” boutique in the 1960’s and was located next to Portland State University. I sewed for the shop throughout high school creating a mix of dresses for the different styles back then. For some I used solid dark colored fabric adorned with hand carved wooden buckles and buttons and for others I used Lanz of Salsburg cotton print fabric accented with antique Victorian lace and mother of pearl buttons. I also made fringed leather handbags and hair accessories. In 1969 the city block in which The Cuckoo’s Nest was located sold. The timing was perfect; I bought the name and reopened The Cuckoo’s Nest in Old Town Portland in a space a dozen times larger than the original boutique.

What was your inspiration for opening the shop?

After I graduated from high school my trip to Europe inspired me to open a boutique.

Who were the most important people in your life?

My maternal grandmother, my parents, Bill Naito (landlord and mentor) and my fabulous assortment of eccentric friends.

Jody Sterne & Warren modeling handmade silk western wear with hand embroidered opium poppies by Georgia Drummond

Where did the name come from?

Legend has it the name of the store was influenced by Ken Kesey (who wrote the book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962). Ken was the pop culture star of Oregon and grew up in Springfield and attended the University of Oregon in Eugene. He started The Merry Pranksters in 1964 and had a commune in Oregon and another California. Ken frequented the campus and park blocks of Portland State, that’s were I met him. What a colorful character. It seemed everyone in our circle of friends knew Ken, he was awesome. In addition the folk song, The Cuckoo, was a popular song back then. Everyone from Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley to the Grateful Dead recorded it, so I loved the name.

Did you sew for the shop, or were you just the lady who brought the town's best seamstresses together?

My maternal grandmother and mother taught me to sew when I was 5 and I love to sew. However, after I opened the store I became too busy to continue. I had a wonderful group of creative ladies making clothing. Some worked at home and others worked in the design studio/sewing room located in the basement on premises.

Sarah Page modeling a handmade silk dress Nita Ludwig and Phil Page modeling a handmade silk shirt by Georgia Drummond

You scoured thrift stores for material for the clothes you guys were churning out. Did you also buy vintage pieces to sell?

No vintage clothing, but I did purchase antique/vintage lace, buckles, buttons, trims, braids, embroidered table cloths and fabrics to create unique merchandise.

Was vintage a desirable thing for the hip young folks back then?

Yes, very much so. We all loved Victorian to 1930’s styles back then. My friends, Arthur and Maryalice Chessman owned the most fabulous vintage clothing store, Phantasmagoria. There was nothing like it. They had an incredible assortment of merchandise. Arthur has since passed away but Maryalice and their son, Simon now own Avalon Antiques & Vintage Clothes in Portland.

The shop only sold clothes made with natural fibers, why was that?

I thought they were visually more appealing and healthier to put next to your skin than synthetics. In addition, “Natural & organic” was the theme of The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Warren modeling a handmade silk shirt by Georgia Drummond and Jody Sterne modeling a handmade silk skirt & jacket by Nita Ludwig

Alongside the handmade goods, you also sold the ready-to-wear lines, what were they?

I sold four different ready to wear lines:

Gunne Sax by Jessica McClintock- Jessica McClintock purchased Gunne Sax in 1969 and took it to another level, sort of “prairie-revival” using pinafores, gingham checks, and calico prints. She later went to "renaissance" and “medieval” looks; empire waistlines, and leg o'mutton sleeves, dresses that laced up like a corset, all were fabulous. Needless to say her clothing sold incredibly well.

Alley Cat by Betsy Johnson- I met Betsy in San Francisco the early 1970’s when she presented her clothing line; Alley Cat. She opened a boutique the same year I did in 1969 in Manhattan, Betsey Bunki Nini. She was and is still such an amazing talent. I sold many of her drop waist dresses and fabulous sweaters.

Young Edwardian by Arpeja- Sue Wong was the designer and incredible! Her other lines back then were Young Innocent, Young Victorian and Organically Grown. Her latest Alice in Wonderland collection is beautiful.

India Imports- This line just flew off the racks. It was so reasonably priced casual cotton clothing you could just wash and wear.

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade cotton farm dress by Regina Thompson Wilkins

Did the style of these brands influence the clothes you were making?

No. We could not keep up the demand so I had to fill in with a few “ready to wear” lines. Our designs were unique and were sought after. We had a delightful clientele from the entire west coast.

Can you name any of the "rock n roll stars" who purchased your western shirts?

Jackson Browne, Three Dog Night, Tower of Power, The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Poco to name a few.

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade silk dress by Nita Ludwig

(Can I just pause here to point out a few coincidences? One is the mention of the folk song The Cuckoo, which our friend Alela- who lives in Portland and who we were just hanging out with the other day and who has modeled for Violet Folklore- has also recorded. Another is the reference to Lanz of Salsburg- Jasbir just found a beautiful nightgown made by them that we photographed yesterday and will be available in the shop soon. And the other is the Farm Girls photo shoot that Jasbir and I just did that very much echoes these photos!)

Did you make money?

Yes.

Did everyone who was putting time and energy into the shop make money?

Yes.

Where is the hand-carved European cuckoo clock now?

It’s hanging on the wall of my garden house.

Why did you leave Portland?

I desired a new adventure.

What was the ultimate fate of The Cuckoo's Nest?

I sold the store in 1974 and it later closed in 1978. A restaurant and bar is now in the location.

You live just outside of Portland now. How had the city changed since the early 70s?

Of course Portland has grown in the past 40 years, yet it still has its eccentric charm. We have a saying here “Keep Portland Weird”.

Jody Sterne modeling a handmade silk dress by Regina Thompson Wilkins

Can you tell me more about the neighborhood the store was in, and how it has evolved?

The Cuckoo’s Nest was in the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District which borders on the Pearl District. I would credit two men, Sam and Bill Naito, for the development of these areas. Most locals know of the Naito brothers, they even have a thoroughfare named after them- Naito Parkway. Bill, a brilliant businessman and visually creative, was my landlord and a mentor. He would often ride his old bicycle (as he chewed a cigar) to The Cuckoo’s Nest to visit. We seemed to be kindred spirits and shared ideas.  He discussed a dream with me about building a Chinese garden in the neighborhood. Some people thought the idea was crazy but I thought it was exceptional. Being a tea fanatic I suggested a tea room and he loved the idea. His dream was built in Old Town Portland but, sadly, it was from his deathbed. The Portland Classic Chinese Garden made Portland proud. And the tea room is lovely.

Jody Sterne modeling an INCREDIBLE hand crocheted feather dress by Blythe Whitely. Julie recalls that this dress caused a scandal at a Portland fashion show attended by society ladies as Jody was braless and exposed her underarm hair(!!!)

What did you learn from your experience with The Cuckoo's Nest?

I owned and ran the store for five years so it was like a college education. I learned so much and made some lifelong friends. Owning the store opened new doors. My career that followed: Buyer for Nordstrom (Portland, Oregon stores), manager for Coty Award winning designer, Clifton Nicholson, Jr. (5th Avenue, NYC), manager for haute couture designer, Guy LaRoche (57th & Madison Avenue, NYC), manager for haute couture designer, Emanuel Ungaro (Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills).

What have you been up to since you loved back to Oregon?

Since 1990 I have lived on a 75 acre ranch in the farming community of Scholls Oregon. We raise Alpacas. 1991 to 2001 I owned Northwest Alpacas Country Store on our property located in the 100 year old dairy barn we renovated. It was the first store to exclusively carry Alpaca products; from raw fleece to full fashion.

I closed the store in 2001 to care for my elderly parents until they passed away and in addition wanted to keep a closer eye on our four growing teenagers. In the past few years I have become interested in gardening and took the Master Gardener class. My goal is to figure out what my next adventure will be; one thought is opening a Bohemian Tearoom. I promised myself I would figure it out by October 2011 when I turn 60. My maternal grandmother lived until she was 98, so I figure I have some time left.

You now have four grown children, have they inherited your aesthetic?

My two sons... no, not so much.

My two daughters... yes, absolutely!

(And to prove it...)

Julie recently wrote to tell me that with all this Cuckoo's Nest energy being brought back into her life one of the shop's original pieces from 1971 had resurfaced.  And she had her absolutely beautiful daughter Katie model it.

It is a natural muslin cotton sundress with a bodice made from a vintage embroidered table cloth and an apron made of hand crocheted lace.

She had a local florist make the sort of floral headpiece that she and her friends and co-creators used to wear. Isn't it lovely? And doesn't it just capture the spirit of this time, these beautiful clothes, these lovely people, and these amazing photographs?

One more story I must tell before concluding is that Julie and Katie were just leaving on a trip to Sedona, Arizona when Julie read my post about the accident Mycelia and I were in earlier this spring. While there, they did some healing work for us at a sacred vortex point in the red rocks. I am certain that it contributed to our quick recovery and renewed sense of vitality, and am awed and grateful at the kindness and concern that they showed for us (people they have never even met in "real life").

Thank you Julie! For the wonderful correspondence that has unfolded between us over the last few months, for allowing me and my readers into your life, and for being a leading force in an aesthetic revolution which is still very much influencing and inspiring folks forty years later and will, I am sure, well into the future...

I will also be posting photographs of the inside of the shop- including the clothing racks, jewelry, and body care products they carried- sometime in the near future (this post is so laden with gorgeous images and fascinating information, I don't want to overwhelm anyone- especially myself!)

I encourage you to share this link in all your favorite nooks & crannies of the internet. I know that there are many, many more folks than just those who read my blog who would love to know about The Cuckoo's Nest and so see these images. Please, share the love!

And hey, I did add pictures from the inside of the shop a while after this was posted, check out Inside The Cuckoo's Nest.