There was a time when Linda Bradshaw Allen could be thought of as a human whirlwind — a single mother raising three young children as she carved out a career as an interior designer, relying on her energy, innate good taste and word of mouth. It was a difficult time but nothing like what she would face decades later.
When her children were youngsters, the UCLA and UC Berkeley grad returned to school, enrolling in the California College of Arts and Crafts’ interior design program, working and attending school part-time but intent on getting the formal training she lacked.
The decision may or may not have been prompted by what Allen describes as the “one big mistake” early in her career — designing a large sectional sofa for a bachelor living on the seventh floor of a building on San Francisco’s hilly Green Street.
The sofa, “so masculine, so luxurious,” Allen recalled, wouldn’t fit in the stairwell or the elevator. Her solution was to hire a crane to hoist it up and swing it over the apartment’s balcony. It made it, but only just.
Six units shy of a BFA, Allen was hired by an architecture firm where she worked for several years before striking out on her own, at first with a partner and then alone.
She set up shop in Marin, met and married Tom Allen and was designing for a number of clients in the North Bay including the owner of a restored private railroad car. Her contribution to the restoration earned Allen and her husband a midnight ride in the car, one of a long line of private rail cars traveling from Utica, N.Y., to Montreal, Canada.
Then, after 20 years of schlepping heavy books of carpet, tile and fabric samples, Allen woke up to the realization that she couldn’t do it anymore, it was getting too difficult.
Her husband’s practical response: “Why don’t you quit?”
She ordered a dumpster and before long every dreaded sample book was being carted away.
Which left plenty of room for a long-held dream to take shape — the dream of owning a little shop, maybe in Paris, maybe in New York.
Allen, it seems, is an inveterate shopper, a trait she shared with her late mother.
“My mother loved shopping,” she said. “She didn’t have very much money but she loved to shop and she would take me with her. We had these favorite places. We knew [the owners and sales people] and they knew us, knew what we loved. It was what being a girl was like for me.”
The more she thought about it the more she wanted to open her own shop “for all these women who didn’t want to go to the mall,” she said. “So I started looking for a place and of course I knew nothing. I was looking for a mentor and my friends were saying, ‘Do not do this. It’s such a bad business, it’s so hard. You’ll lose all your money.’”
But Allen was following her heart and eventually found what she was looking for on Larkspur’s Magnolia Avenue, at the former shop of a popular Marin County dressmaker who had decided to move to San Francisco.
Allen threw herself into the project, made the shop as comfortable and intriguing as possible and invented the Pearl Girl who appears on all her business cards, along with the phrase “wonderful clothing.”
Those early days were really hard,” she recalled. “Everyone drove by and didn’t stop. It took a really long time but people started coming in.”
As the clientele grew, so did the Pearl concept.
“The idea is that fashion is not about age or body type but it’s a state of mind,” Allen said, “a personal expression of who you are. You don’t have to be skinny, you don’t have to be young. I wanted Pearl to be a place for all women. My mother, who was 80 at the time, would frequently come in and shop. We also had young girls who would come in for graduation dresses.”
Allen started attending buying shows, attracted by her favorite American designers, picking from the various lines and matching items from other lines. She continued to pore over fashion magazines, but with intent. She began carrying clothing and jewelry by young up-and-comers. Lara Ritch is one. The Australian transplant designs the La Bomba line of clothing. Another is a line of casual wear by Samantha Sung.
Early on Allen was also impressed with the creativity of jewelry designers Robindira Unsworth of Petaluma and Oakland’s Melissa Joy Manning, whose work she has been displaying for nearly 14 years. Allen waited six years for the right to carry Lydia Mondavi’s line of cosmetics.
Until 2006, there were two Pearls — one in Larkspur and (thanks to the encouragement of friend and client Erin Martin) one on St. Helena’s Main Street.
Needless to say, Allen was always on the go — to San Francisco, New York and Paris on the lookout for lines that appealed to her, styles she could mix and match. Her drive and energy earned her the nickname “Jacketta Rabbetta.”
One rainy evening in 2010 she was rushing out the door to a Ralph Lauren event in San Francisco. As usual she was in a hurry and loaded down with a small suitcase and large purse, a jacket flung over her arm and keys in one hand. She stepped out onto the rain-slicked back porch, slipped, went flying and hit her head.
The quick thinking of St. Helena EMTs saved her life, Allen believes. They rushed her to Queen of the Valley Medical Center where she was put on life-support and air-lifted to UC Davis Medical Center.
She was later diagnosed with a brain hematoma and underwent a craniotomy. Another four months was spent in New York for vestibular rehabilitation.
“My injury changed me,” Allen said. “I realize I can’t work as hard as I used to. I can’t be running all the time. I have to move more slowly and deliberately. I have to be more mindful of everything.”
With the help of several local professionals she continues to work on building and maintaining her balance and strength.
“Every day when I wake up I am so very grateful, so happy,” Allen said. “We have an amazing healing community here. I couldn’t have done it without them ... I am very fortunate. I can walk and talk but it is always kind of with you. There is a vulnerability that doesn’t go away; you work your life around it.”
Allen, whose shop this year has earned accolades from the San Francisco Chronicle and Elle magazine, laughed when she explained she no longer multi-tasks.
“If I’m drinking coffee I’m just drinking coffee. If I’m walking, I’m just walking. I’m not walking, talking and drinking coffee, which I used to do. That’s one of my new goals — single task, single task, one foot in front of the other. I hope it gets me to 80.”