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Bringing home style

Deborah Skyrms scours the streets of Paris, looking for unique items for her South Tampa boutique.

By SUSAN LADIKA
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 26, 2002


MID PENINSULA -- As a young girl, Deborah Skyrms dressed her cat, Smokey, in doll clothes and put cut-off blue jeans on her dog, Snoopy.

By age 11, she was designing her own sundresses, having learned, at the skirt of her grandmother, to treasure any scraps of elegance that came her way.

"We'd make things out of all the pieces of velvet, lace and buttons she had around," Skyrms recalls.

Each year, near Christmas, her artist grandfather would set up a craft shop, and they'd spend hours transforming sequin, glitter and balls into ornaments and gifts.

Today, the 53-year-old Skyrms has turned little-girl playthings into big-girl passions.

Every few months, she goes to Paris to rummage through bins of antique beads or search the streets for unique handiwork. She arranges clothes in a vast palette of color, texture and style at her own boutique, Deborah Kent's.

Her shop is on Dale Mabry Highway, near Plant High School, where her dream once took root.

"I used to be at cheerleading practice across the street at Plant and fantasize about having a store," she says.

Her first stop was Florida State University, where she earned a degree in textile merchandising. She started off as a buyer for Maas Brothers. The job took her to New York, California, Asia and Europe in pursuit of fashion statements.

It opened a world of travel to a young woman who grew up on Jetton Avenue, the second of four kids. Her father owned a tool-and-die company and her mother worked for an interior designer. Vacations meant summers at Indian Rocks Beach, collecting coquina and shark teeth.

In 1980, she opened her own shop.

At first, she focused on American designs, but she felt the need to branch out.

"I used to say that New York was my other neighborhood," she says. "Now I say Paris is my third home. I have to go back every few months just to get an infusion."

She soaks up the architecture, the lights, the people, the artwork.

Like other big buyers, she attends the major fashion shows. But she also wanders through flea markets, looking for unusual designs.

Her latest discovery: a woman who crochets mohair neck scarves.

Never mind that they wouldn't be big sellers in Florida; the woman now crafts hand-dyed stoles from linen yarn for Skyrms.

It's the sort of accent that would naturally find its way into Deborah Kent's, where Skyrms maintains a detente of understated elegance and offbeat accessories.

Women find $30 T-shirts or $1,000 Italian suits.

The fun, for her, is selecting separates and marrying them.

"I love the hunt," she says. "That is, to me, painting the picture. When I'm putting a season together, I see it as a palette. I have to paint the picture and pull all the elements together so that when it comes together, it is a whole puzzle."

The love of design spills into her spare hours.

At home, the rose garden is a riot of color, resplendent with Gold Medal, Belinda's Dream, Princess Grace of Monaco, White Christmas and Madame Violet.

Her herb garden scents the breeze with rosemary, basil and sage. Herbs wind up in her salads and vegetables.

"I think it's just an outlet I need," she says. "Whether it's a flower arrangement or meal, herb garden, needlepoint -- I seem to not be able to sit still without creating something."It's an energizer to me. The more that I'm creating, the more energy I have."

Other passions include her family and her church, Hyde Park United Methodist.

She follows nephews to the ballfields of Plant High, cheering their games as she once cheered for fellow students.

She headed up her church's Carpool for Christ program, which provides rides to church for shut-ins. Each Christmas, her shop holds a food and toy drive for the Spring, a shelter for battered women.

That caring for others carries over into her boutique, where many of her customers have come for years.

When the door opens, she sees faces she has known all her life -- Marie Preston and Leslie Osterweil, Brenda Williams and Hope Cohen-Barnett, among others.

Her mother, now 80, drops in daily.

"People like -- maybe more than ever -- to go somewhere where the people know their name," Skyrms says.

She knows whose kids are graduating from Plant.

She knows which ones have babies on the way.

She's grateful for those relationships, and her ability to pursue her first love.

"How many people are blessed to do something they love," she wonders, "and make a living at it?"

* * *

NAME: Deborah Skyrms

  • OCCUPATION: Owner, Deborah Kent's, a women's clothing boutique
  • KENT? Her middle name.
  • AGE: 53
  • FAVORITE OUTFIT, DRESSY: Black skirt and cashmere sweater.
  • FAVORITE OUTFIT, CASUAL: T-shirts and cotton pants.
  • FAVORITE PARISIAN HOTEL: Hotel Luxembourg Parc. "It's like staying in someone's home."
  • FAVORITE PARISIAN FLEA MARKET: Clingancourt
  • FRENCH: "I can speak enough to get myself out of trouble, and I understand it a little bit more."
  • EARLY FASHION EXPERIENCE: Started designing and making clothes for herself at age 11. "One summer I made a sundress every day or two."
  • FAMILY: Mother, brother, two sisters, seven nephews, niece; plus two cats, Josephine Baker and Colette.
  • DREAM VACATION: A summer in Tuscany or Provence taking cooking or gardening classes.

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