Viola Lovely, a boutique with three locations in the Boston area, has been pushing the envelope since its origins in 2006. The boutiques showcase indie designers from across the globe, bringing minimalist but statement-making items to an adoring group of fans. From Isabel Marant to Golden Goose, pieces on offer are painstakingly curated, going beyond here-today, gone-tomorrow trends; and it’s all the brainchild of one woman, Lisa Cancelli, who’s taken a long, winding path to her career in fashion.
Cancelli grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of a self-taught professional jazz guitarist and a mother who “can pretty much do anything creatively.” In virtually all her free time, Cancelli was devoted to her first love, figure skating. “I competed for many, many years,” she recalls. “It taught me a lot about discipline, grit, stamina and will.” Her years as a “rink rat” also gave her a bit of experience in fashion. “I’d design all my own skating costumes. I even worked on them myself—I’d be literally attaching the bugle beads with a needle and thread on the way to competitions.” She quit the sport after having trouble with her hip, but the lessons Cancelli learned on the ice stayed with her. “That art form is so much about presentation,” she says. “You become very aware of the way you hold yourself, the way you look. I always loved the way we could convey who we were to the world without having to speak.”
After graduating from college, Cancelli worked at a few art galleries in Boston and Nantucket. She was working assorted freelance jobs when she was offered a temporary stint in the tech world. (“It was the best money I’d ever made, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of nice.’ ”) That gig led to another corporate job, and she ended up spending years in the decidedly un-artsy world of semiconductors. “I almost got my master’s in engineering management, but I realized, ‘This is not what I wanna do.’ ” By that point, she’d identified a need on Boston’s North Shore for a store that would offer uniquely modern fashion. She was willing to do whatever it took to get it off the ground. “I thought, ‘If I have to sell shoes out of my trunk, I’ll do it.’ ” She opened the first Viola Lovely—which is named after her grandmother—in 2006. Additional locations followed in 2008 and 2013. But the initial years weren’t a walk in the park. “In our first location on the North Shore, they were very vocal if they didn’t like something. For a long time I took it very personally, and it was crushing. It’s your point of view; you’re exposing yourself. But since then, I’ve embraced the element of vulnerability.”
At home, Cancelli is supported by her partner, Peter, a pilot who “ends up taking flights at a moment’s notice.” After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, in fact, he ended up coordinating 40 medical-relief flights and helping orphanages that had been affected by the quake. The couple also have two rescued Weimaraners at home, which can make for an occasionally rowdy household. “Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew, I’m not gonna lie,” she laughs.
These days, Cancelli is more focused on connecting with customers than making a quick sale. “People say, ‘I have no style.’ But they understand a lot more than they give themselves credit for. I love working with them, saying, ‘Let’s bring you to your best self.’ ” While running three boutiques sounds like a hectic undertaking, Cancelli doesn’t seem fazed. “I’ve only been doing this for 10 years, which isn’t that long when you think about mastering your craft. But you take everything you learn, and you bring it all together and make sense of it. Hard work ends up looking good, but you gotta do the work.”
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