Debbie Ratner, owner of Bossa Nova Clothing at 11 Throckmorton Ave., credits her father Gerry, a Madison Avenue ad man straight out of “Mad Men,” whose dapper attire – and love for the languid, sensual Brazilian music – instilled in her a love for gorgeous clothing.
“He was impeccably dressed, and his father had owned a clothing store, so my dad grew up in the store and was always perfectly put out and done up and he got me into it as well,” Ratner says. “And every Sunday, he would make a bowl of popcorn, put on some bossa nova and dance with me and my sisters. It was fantastic.”
While Ratner drew inspiration and love of clothing from Gerry, the distinctive style of Bossa Nova stems from her three-plus decades in the retail clothing industry, including 10 years as vice president of sales for Babette, the famed San Francisco retailer that closed in 2016 after nearly 50 years in business.
To Ratner, bossa nova, which means “new style” in Portuguese, means the kind of clean modern fashion that she and others want to wear, and each season she brings in new collections that explore the fun and creative passion that is the best of fashion.
“I believe that clothing stores are very intimate places,” Ratner says. “You go in there to be dressed and you need someone to help you. We’re seeing a real backlash right now against stores like Banana Republic and Nordstroms where it’s the same store and same merchandise in any city across America.”
“There’s nothing in my store that you’ll see in a department store, and three-quarters of the lines are not even sold online,” she adds, pointing to small lines from places like Italy and Scandinavia. “And there are U.S. designers who are not big enough to have a national brand presence but who are innovative incredible designers.”
Ratner’s clothing philosophy is distinct: that you should spend the most money on the clothes you wear every day, that you should have clothes that are on trend but that everybody needs a very small wardrobe that they feel great in every week.
“We specialize in working with customers to identify that wardrobe,” she says.
Despite her young ties to the fashion world, Ratner didn’t expect to end up with a career in the industry. She moved to California after two years at community college with the hopes of establishing residency and going to college.
“I got a job selling shoes in very expensive shoe store and within a few months was extreely successful at it and was making $65,000 a year selling shoes,” she says with a laugh. “Needless to say, I did not go back to college. All my friends were struggling and living on top ramen and I was buying my first house.”
Ratner’s total of 17 years at Babette, where she opened several retail stores, included many years on the road. Bossa Nova is Ratner’s second go-round on her own. She had a Bossa Nova store in Berkeley for five years, as well as a store named Rodeo.
In 2013, she returned to running her own retail shop and opened Bossa Nova in downtown Sonoma. Residents there quickly gravitated to her shop.
“The thing I love the most is the multi-tasking,” says Ratner, who lived in Mill Valley for many years and now resides in San Rafael. “To be the buyer and the HR person and the psychologist. Every single season, it’s my job to look at what’s new and lead my customer into a way that will work for her but still has that newness.”
With Bossa Nova in Sonoma a success, Ratner began looking for a place to open a second shop. Drawing on the success of her store on Berkeley’s Vine Street, where she was surrounded by other clothing retailers, she says she knew Mill Valley was the best fit.
“Mill Valley is a real destination shopping downtown,” she says. “You can park your car and go to 15 great stores in a few blocks. Mill Valley has the synchronicity and the saturation.”
“And the retailers here are really careful to have a distinctive voice and a carefully curated customer base so that we are not all competing for the same customer – it’s a wonderful situation.”