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Alice Parnis – Trendsetter of Embellishments

The young girl who felt she never fit in opened Pleasant Pheasant, an accessories store that became a beacon of style.

The girl who felt she never fit in — built a store that became a beacon of style

NameAlice Helen Mary ParnisBirthAugust 15, 1956BirthplaceParry Sound, OntarioEthnic OriginCaribbean and French Canadian (Mixed)OccupationsStore Fixture Planner, Accessories Retailer, Event Design & ManagementShare

When we walk into the Grenadier Restaurant, a café tucked away in the heart of Toronto’s High Park, Alice Parnis in her fabulous leather jacket and gold hoop earrings immediately stands out. That she should have great fashion style comes as no surprise. Parnis and her former partner, Ruth Fox, ran Pleasant Pheasant, a favourite accessories store for Toronto’s fashion-forward shoppers, designers and stylists in the eighties.  Over coffee and pie she shared fascinating stories about her childhood and her transition into the fashion industry

Alice Parnis photo shoot, courtesy of Alice Parnis
Alice Parnis with short hair modelling white belted shirt. Photo courtesy of Parnis

Early Life and Career

Parnis grew up in Richvale, a suburb about a forty-minute drive from downtown Toronto. By the time she was in high school, her interest in fashion was no secret.“I’ve always been different, standing out,” she gestures to herself. “For one thing I’m darker skinned than most other white people,” she laughs.”Also, I would purposely dress to be noticed, not for my skin colour, but because of my outfits,” says Parnis.

(She didn’t know she was mixed race until a revealing and surprising 2017 ancestry DNA test confirmed that her father was Black).

She recalls making the trip to downtown Toronto, to shop at The Rag Market, one of the only second hand stores in Toronto at the time. “Even in home economics class, because I could sew, I would go for the brightest colours and really interesting patterns. The interest in fashion and design was already definitely there,” she adds.

Parnis graduated from Langstaff High School at just sixteen, followed by a year studying fashion merchandising at Humber College. She then landed a full time job at William Prager Limited, a display company specializing in decor and fixtures for both small retailers and national department stores.

 

 

This special section creates a spread of 2 photos that will jut out into the side margin.

 

 

Pleasant Pheasant store, Photo courtesy of Alice Parnis
Alice Parnis of Pleasant Pheasant, Photo courtesy Alice of Parnis

A day unfolded
like no other
and this was what I was told

your daddy is black
your mama is white
this makes you a
Mixed up girl
right

Plagued by low self-esteem from childhood, Parnis tells us that around this time, she decided to take a self-improvement modelling class. She admits she hated everything about her looks. “It was very difficult for me,“ she recalls. “By age 20, I wanted to hide everything,” she says, gesturing to her face. “I hated my freckles, my curly hair, thought my legs were too skinny and I was too skinny,” she adds, rolling her eyes in embarrassment of her younger self.

Yet, in the next breath, she tells us that, at some point, she did think she might make a good model because she was skinny.  Laughing, she shows us a large, framed photograph of herself posing in a white bathing suit and a floppy hat. “It’s my favourite,” she admits.

In the end, though, modelling didn’t work out. “They were looking for white models with no freckles, so they covered my freckles and my dark skin with paler makeup, so I’d look more like a white model,” explains Parnis. “After a year of going to the few jobs they would send me to, I realized ‘nah, this isn’t what I want to do,’” she shrugs. She’s never used foundation since.

Nonetheless, she does believe her modelling days have been a good learning experience. “I walked away with confidence, seeing and appreciating myself for who I am and the dream of having a store of my own was taking shape,” she says.

A Mixed Girl

This is a story
told many times before
Feeling out of sorts
This time
its about a mixed girls identity
Yes me

A girl
raised in a small urban town
So small in fact
its not on a map
no more
to be found

A girl
ridiculed for
why she did not know
Looked different
perhaps
feeling all alone

the sticks
the stones
the names hurt more
but more then that
she did not know
the unknown

Ever wonder
who you really are
inside or out
looking in the mirror
shouting out

Labeled
categorized
defined
Owning your identity
is mighty
Is it a game changer
you bet
forever in your favour

A day unfolded
like no other
and this was what I was told
your daddy is black
your mama is white
this make you a
Mixed up girl
right

Ya that is me
a Mixed girl
And happy as can be
Hmmm
a mixed girl
this is me

So hey girl I say
how does it feel
to know roots finally
Back at you mirror
I am proud to say
I
am a Mixed girl
Ya look at me
hmmmm

You see
no matter what you be
the power is in you
to tell your truths
no more lies
Just stand tall
proud
and own the you

So loud and clear
I say
to you
I
am a Mixed girl
Proud to know it
proud to say it
Yea
I am Mixed
this is me
in the mirror
Happy happy as can be
To be me

Mixed Girl

by Alice Parnis
March 28, 2023

Breaking Barriers

In 1980, after being recruited from William Prager Limited by another display company, Parnis moved to Vancouver, and it was there, she tells us, inspiration struck.  “One day, while out with my friend Margaret, I said to her, ‘you have to promise you won’t tell anybody; no one has this idea and I’m going to draw it on a napkin for you.’” Parnis mimics scribbling on her unused pie napkin. “What I’m envisioning is a shop in a house with different merchandise on each floor. But what makes this different is every item is an accessory of some kind,” she explained to Margaret.  Parnis had always loved embellishments and there were no all-accessories stores back then.

“This is my dream,” Parnis told Margaret. “One day, when I have the money, I will do this. I see it and I believe in it.” A year later her dream became a reality.  Alice and her business partner, Ruth Fox, ran Pleasant Pheasant out of Toronto’s Queen’s Quay Terminal from 1983 to 1991.

“If it was hot and trendy, we carried it,” Parnis assures us. That’s why they quickly became the go-to spot for magazine and newspaper editors, stylists and everybody who was anybody in the world of fashion. “They’d come to the store to borrow accessories and we’d get editorial credits,” she explains.

It wasn’t that long before the talented duo opened a second store in a house on prestigious Hazelton Avenue, literally making Parnis’ dream come alive.

“Believe it or not, one of our busiest times was when Woodbine hosted The Queen’s Plate races,” she recalls. “Either the Queen herself, or another member of the Royal family would attend, always wearing fabulous big hats. It was fun because our clients would come to see us and bring their gowns. I’d help them choose the perfect gloves and hats, keeping protocol in mind of course,” she explains.

Press Release, Pleasant Pheasant Opens Store Number Two, Pg 1, Courtesy of Alice Parnis
Press Release, Pleasant Pheasant Opens Store Number Two, Pg 2, Courtesy of Alice Parnis

Influence and Legacy

Since she and Fox went their own separate ways, Parnis has spent the last 28 years working in the event planning industry. Thinking back on her time at Pleasant Pheasant, Parnis has no regrets, “I still have my accessories, continue to wear them and recall those years as a fun time in my life,” she says.

“I’m so blessed,” Alice is quick to point out. “In my more than 30-plus years in business, I’ve had not one, but two businesses, both of which I’ve loved. A lot of people go to work, but not everyone enjoys it the way I did. I didn’t have jobs, what I did was a true labour of love,” she reflects.

Parnis and Fox provided their clients with an easy and fun way to develop and hone their personal style while, at the same time, making Pleasant Pheasant one of very few fashion retailers considered a beacon of style. They were instrumental in the growth of Toronto’s fashion identity.

Her final thoughts? “If anyone had told me I’d be an entrepreneur for this much of my life, I wouldn’t have believed them,” she says. Then laughing, she asks “Who? Little me?”              

Alice Parnis models accessories from Pleasant Pheasant, Photo courtesy Alice of Parnis

“If it was hot and trendy, we carried it,” Alice assures us. That’s why they quickly became the go-to spot for magazine and newspaper editors, stylists and everybody who was anybody in the world of fashion.

About the authors:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

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Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

About the author:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

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