BATAVIA – Fashion runs in Mary Marconi-Popiel's family, so it's not surprising that she now owns the dress and evening wear shop, Special Occasions on the Avenue.
What is surprising, at least to Marconi-Popiel, is that she landed in Batavia, in the same location where her father's business once stood. The Highland Park native said 20 years ago, she never would have imagined running a shop so close to home, because she always envisioned herself being in a big city like New York.
Four years later in Batavia, she said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It comes full circle," she said. "This is where I was always meant to be."
Marconi-Popiel's father, Joe Marconi, was in women's clothing sales, and her aunt was a couture fashion buyer. Her stepmother owns a sister shop around the corner from Special Occasions on the Avenue, called All Occasions Accessories.
Marconi-Popiel has been in fashion since she graduated from college. She started out as a buyer at the now-closed Joseph Spiess Company, which originated in Elgin. Later, she worked as a buyer and general manager for a surf shop.
Her experience also includes running a store for 97.9 The Loop radio station out of Chicago. She also was store manager for Express on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, as well as the Express store at Water Tower Place in Chicago.
Marconi-Popiel now runs her shop out the historic Anderson building, which she remembers visiting often as a child with her father, who also once owned another historic building at 10 E. Wilson St. in Batavia.
"My dad was a huge believer in Batavia," she said.
Now that spring is settling in, prom season has kicked off at Special Occasions. Marconi-Popiel said high school students begin looking for their prom dresses as early as January. She said for her, prom and homecoming seasons are the same as Christmas season for other retail stores.
"Suddenly this week, everyone is looking for mermaid [style] dresses," she said.
Marconi-Popiel said a lot of students will come in with a specific dress or style in mind, but may walk out of the store with a completely different dress. There's no single style or color that tends to be the most popular during any given season, she said, which is why she tries to carry a wide variety.
She said to maintain that variety, she often buys only one dress out of a collection to carry in-store. She added that she can get other sizes if she doesn't have the right one.
Her staff of six, along with an intern from a local high school, strive to make customers feel as comfortable as possible, being careful not to rush anyone through, she said. Special Occasions hosts a "Rock and Shop," where a DJ plays music while people shop, and a makeup artist comes in periodically to assist girls in choosing their makeup colors based on the dress they chose.
"Girls should come here because of the way we treat them," she said. "I think they should shop here because it's a fun experience."