Billie Steese is rarely at a loss for words when it comes to women’s fashion and style, having devoted more than three decades to helping people look and feel their best. However, the co-owner of Lady Victorian paused when asked how she would describe the longtime Duck boutique to the uninitiated.
“That’s a tough question,” Steese says with a chuckle. “I don’t think I can do it in 25 words or less.”
Her reaction was understandable. For her and her husband and partner Jim Steese, it’s like trying to quickly sum up a family member or loved one.
Lady Victorian quickly evolved from a business venture by a pair of Maryland transplants into a passion project that reflects their style, their taste, their desire to provide women with an outlet to express themselves.
From humble beginnings, Lady Victorian is in its 32nd year and now occupies 4,000 square feet in the Wee Winks Square in the heart of Duck. It’s open year-round, though just four days a week for a stretch of January and February when the Steeses decompress a bit and tend to their space.
Calling Lady Victorian a “clothing store” doesn’t begin to do it justice. It’s chock full of antique pieces — wardrobes, tables, chairs, fixtures. An old wood-and-glass candy counter displays jewelry. An antique, four-footed bathtub is full of toiletries and bath items. Clothing runs from casual to career to evening wear, from a variety of vendors and suppliers. There is an ample selection of shoes and accessories, as well.
“We hear from some people when they walk in that it can be kind of overwhelming,” Steese says. “That’s why the staff and I talk to people about what they’re looking for, so we can narrow their search.”
Plenty of customers remark that various antique pieces or decorative touches remind them of pieces that their parents or grandparents owned. Part of the Steeses’ aim was to create a comfortable space for visitors to browse as quickly or as leisurely as they wish. It’s not uncommon to have three or four generations in their shop. Women who roamed the store as young girls now return with their own children.
“It’s like having company,” Billie Steese says. “It’s not just about furniture, it’s about people and their stories.”
The Steeses’ story began in the northwest Maryland town of Cumberland. Jim Steese began vacationing on the Outer Banks in 1973, and he and Billie came to the area regularly after marrying in 1977. He worked at the Kelly Springfield tire plant in town for 13 years, while she worked in retail. They both saw businesses and factories shutter during an economic downturn in the region in the ’70s and ’80s.
“We knew we wanted to do something different, and we wanted to try our hand at our own business,” Jim Steese says. “We didn’t want to be sitting in rocking chairs in retirement wondering if we could have done something like this.”
They spoke to Outer Banks business officials and believed that the area would grow. They settled on starting a clothing business and began collecting antiques to decorate their space. They sold their home in Cumberland and funneled money from the sale into their business. When they moved here in 1986, Billie Steese says that the moving truck looked like the Clampetts from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” with pieces strapped to the top and sides and double the recommended weight limit.
“A leap of faith,” Billie Steese says. “Failure was not an option. We poured blood, sweat and tears into it. We give 100 percent every day.”
Billie’s mother suggested the name, Lady Victorian. Though clothes and merchandise were contemporary, the antique and lace décor suggested an earlier era. Her mother thought the name novel and a bit mysterious, which might also attract customers.
The original Lady Victorian was in a 900-square-foot space in Loblolly Pines Shopping Center in Duck. In 1988, they opened a bridal shop in Nags Head. They dissolved the bridal shop three years later, donating the $40,000 inventory to the military. In 1989, they nearly doubled the size of their Duck store when they moved into one space in Wee Winks Square. A decade later, they took over an adjoining space, and had no trouble filling it.
The Steeses don’t appear to have an exit strategy. Jim is 65, Billie 62, and they recently signed a five-year lease extension. Their experience, along with an able staff that includes valued assistant Libby Snearer, creates a smooth and successful operation. Billie Steese jokes that if she no longer had the store to come to, she’d probably station herself at the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge and welcome back visitors.
“It’s exciting,” she says. “I live vicariously through my ladies who are going on vacations or trips or special events or occasions. It’s kind of like being there with them.”