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Shirley, the button pusher

'Seinfeld's' soup Nazi could learn a thing from the way she rules her domain at F&S Fabrics.

August 18, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

F&S Fabrics is an L.A. institution and an anomaly, an independent dry goods store that has occupied the same corner of Pico Boulevard near Rancho Park for almost 50 years. Shirley Savoy has ruled the button counter at F&S for as long as most of her customers can remember -- since the late '80s, in fact. A thin and strong and unfailingly energetic woman, she stopped counting birthdays after her 39th, and her coyness has made speculating on her true age a running gag among her co-workers. Her brown eyes roll when the subject of how old she is comes up. "Oh, honey," she says, "what you want to know that for?"

Buttons, ribbon and other notions have always been sold at F&S, but the epoch of Shirley has been marked by expansion, buttons spreading over the shop's front room like kudzu. Now hundreds of narrow, deep cardboard boxes are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling, their sample-studded ends facing out, forming a mad mosaic. The buttons are made of horn and wood, crystal, rhinestone, jet, metal, tortoiseshell, velvet, leather or silk cord. A display of knots of twisted gold in four sizes rests just above a school of colored resin fish perfect for a child's sweater. One shelf down and five boxes to the left, light bounces off delicate balls of etched glass that could help a mundane jacket masquerade as a vintage treasure.

Boxes continue around a corner, threatening to take over the adjacent wall. Soon they will, Savoy says, as if the manifest destiny of her button empire cannot be denied. For she isn't just the button queen of West Los Angeles, the button maven or a mere button tyrant. She's the button Nazi, able to inspire the same sort of fear and awe as the soup Nazi, the merciless chowder and mulligatawny despot made famous in a memorable "Seinfeld" episode. His customers either followed strict ordering procedures or they were told, "No soup for you!"

Like the soup Nazi, Savoy has her rules. If you're looking for buttons for a jacket or a hand-knitted sweater, for example, bring it in with you, for heaven's sake, or she might send you home to fetch it. "I spend so much time helping people, and if they don't have the garment with them, they're going to get home and the buttons won't look right," she explains. "I knooow they're not going to look right." When Savoy makes a point, she often strings her syllables out for emphasis, the way she does when she purrs about how cree-ay-tive she can be if you will just trust her.

Replacements needed

I accept the premise that is central to Savoy's art: Buttons matter. That's why I've come to F&S on a sunny Saturday, toting a beautiful orchid wool coat, a gift from a friend with an EBay habit and the misplaced confidence that a Moschino size 8 will not emerge from its UPS box as skimpy as a 4. The coat's shawl collar, hem and sleeves are edged with wool fringe, revealing Chanelesque leanings. But its buttons disappoint. I want to replace the four shiny, flat lavender discs with domes of dull nickel, thereby echoing Marc Jacobs' recent homage to Chanel.

Before I can take Savoy on the tour of designer references that has brought me to her, my cellphone rings. I leave the coat on the counter and step out to the parking lot to take the call. When I return, I see four swirls of antiqued copper atop the coat's buttonholes. Savoy has made her selection. It is an adventurous choice, one that avoids the obvious and the tyranny of color-matching. But this is not the style of button I have in mind, nor am I sold on the effect. So my eyes roam the columns of boxes, seeking an alternative. "Could I see that button, please?"

Savoy climbs a library ladder, reaches up and says, "That's no good. You don't want that button." Box in hand, she lands back on the floor with the speed of a superhero, pointing to the button she's picked for me. "That's your button, darlin'. That's the button you need for that coat."

Yes, but I spot another one with a vaguely Marc Jacobean air. I want to try it out. Before my latest candidate is even out of the box and at rest on a meadow of pinkish boucle, Savoy has rejected it. "No, no, no," she says. "Why you confusing yourself, girl? I already got you the perfect button."

Savoy doesn't read fashion magazines, finding inspiration instead in what she calls "my own creative mind" and a sense of design she believes is innate. She grew up in foster homes in Opelousas, La., and always thought of herself as "a very unusual, nice lady from another planet." She moved to California in the late '70s. Louis Woznicki, the former owner of F&S, discovered her working at a drycleaner's down the street and recruited her to sell buttons, even though she doesn't sew. "She's outrageous, but in a very friendly and caring way," he says. "Customers who don't know her don't really get her. Once they get to know her, they realize she's a unique specimen. They almost always come around."

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