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Petunia ensures kids are decked out in style

By Peter McDermott

Jill Callan has been seeing her business from different angles in recent times. A designer of children's clothes for 17 years in Manhattan, she opened her own store, Petunia, in Sunnyside, Queens, on Sept. 15 last.

"The merchandising and buying were on the flip side for me," she said.

And since the birth of her daughter 18 months ago, she's been a consumer, too.

"That gives you a whole new perspective," said the storeowner, whose barman husband Brian Callan is a native of County Meath.

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With the rolling layoffs from the big firms, Callan could see the writing on the wall. So she decided on a backup plan that was based on a long-held dream. "I always wanted to work for myself," she said.

However, she hasn't had the time to do much designing herself. She relies instead on a network of contacts, 10 to 15 designers whose work she has come to know and admire over the years. They are based throughout the United States, from the South up to Vermont and across to her native Midwest and beyond.

"I wanted a place where the talented independent had a forum for their work," she said of the store that is on the tree-lined shopping block between 46th and 47th Streets on Skillman Avenue.

There is an emphasis on work that appeals to her, which she defines as "one of a kind, not the usual."

Callan, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., near the border with Canada, has to say "no" sometimes. "For example a lot of people knit, but you can't have a store full of sweaters," she said. "You have to pick and choose."

Petunia has some high-end imports from Spain, France and Australia that can be found in only a few stores in New York. Its owner's ultimate goal is to have stock that is entirely the work of American designers and is unique to her boutique in the five boroughs.

The Central Michigan University graduate believes that the changes brought by computerization haven't all been good.

"It's taken a lot of artistry out of it," said Petunia's owner, who is of Finnish, Polish and Italian heritage. "There's less focus on the actual artist's work, which I definitely want to get back to."

In any case, there is a ready market for quality clothes in neighborhood streets that were heavily Irish from the 1980s onward and have in more recent years attracted young families from a variety of backgrounds. (A Yahoo group called "Sunny Moms" has more than 500 members, Callan reported.)

The average price in the store is $25, she said, and there is a "gently worn" section, which starts at $1.50 and goes up to rather more expensive selections.

Petunia's stock caters for newborn infants through 8-year-olds. "But that depends on the size of the kid," Callan said, with a laugh. Its website says that it "aims to appeal to everyone from the neighborhood's littlest hipsters to tried and true Sunnyside grandmas who are looking for a cute one of a kind gift."

Meanwhile, the Callans' daughter Olivia - middle name Niamh - is getting to the stage where she's picking out her own clothes. Her style tends towards "comfortable," her mother said. "Something that fits over her head."

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