Mill Road is, without exception, the most diverse and cosmopolitan road in Cambridge with its lion’s share of eclectic independent shops and restaurants. Many stand out, but one that I think takes center stage is Fantasia; it’s a vibrant pop-up boutique that lights up Mill Road with an eye wateringly beautiful display of colour, fabrics and designs that spill onto the pavement.
I meet Pam Wesson, the owner of Fantasia, to find out more about this exciting and carefree shop that popped up on Mill Road in June and proudly sells unusual and unnecessary items.
Spending time with Pam is an education. In the 1950s and 60s Pam and her family lived in Japan. Her American parents were journalists and lived a glamorous ex-pat life, and she and her two brothers were brought up on imaginative Japanese ghost and fantasy stories. Her journalist parents also had an active interest in amateur journalism and were regular correspondents with people such as the posthumously famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Fanzines were a publishing genre of the 1950s and her mother wrote her own science fiction edition, called Fantasia. Pam said: “We were a family that did letterpress press printing for fun” so it is no surprise that her career and interests are rooted in the world of journalism, printing and art, and have a strong Japanese influence.
In 1962 the family moved to New York. Pam said “We left Japan with little British accents before adding a further East Coast New Jersey layer.”
Cambridge with love
Equipped with a Princeton history of art degree Pam went on to live in Paris for about 26 years. There she had several successful careers: as an art director for an international cosmetics journal, for a multi-national in marketing communications, and as an independent designer working on everything from perfume to office furniture. Changes in her personal circumstances precipitated her next move.
Having developed a strong affinity with the city over several previous visits, Cambridge was settled on as her next home. Pam said: “I was a city girl at heart and I didn’t want to give up on that so the proviso was that the move could only be to the Mill Road area where there is so much diversity and so many wonderful characters.”
An Aladdin’s cave of treasures
Fantasia opened in 2013 in Hope Street Yard, initially set up as a place to sell off all the items Pam acquired from her mother. Pam said, “My mother was a huge collector and had marvellous things from the 1950s and 60s. Being a period when people use to dress up to go out, mom had beautiful and intricate dresses made by her seamstress.” Here Pam points out two on display, the first an incredible steel grey cocktail dress made from Japanese silk kimono fabric with a matching overcoat with what looks like polka dots but on closer inspection are 100s of rhinestones. Pam tells me each one would have been sew on individually by hand. The other is a full length fitted dress, also of splendid kimono fabric, that has a floor length concertina train and once again the obligatory matching overcoat, reminiscent of any 1950s model – Doris Day springs to mind.
Fantasia was met with lots of endorsements and quickly built a faithful following. Pam extended her collection of clothes to include things from her days in Paris, items from her mother’s Japanese ceramics and other collectibles, — and then people soon started bringing things for her to sell.
With Pam’s excellent eye, the shop is an Aladdin’s Cave with treasures such as the fabulous Micky Mouse telephone alongside a top hat in the store window, the latter 150 yrs. old with original box. Beautiful hand drawn pictures of women warriors played by kabuki actors sit cheek by jowl with amazing silk kimonos, which Pam says are “just fun to wear” (she wears her own with considerable elegance).
After 18 months in Hope Street Yard, Fantasia set up as a pop-up shop on Mill Road. First in 2013/14 then again in 2015/16 – each time for a short-term lease. Now, thanks to the support of other traders in the Mill Road network, Fantasia has a 12-month contract. Pam said: “Working here would have been impossible without the support of the other traders. It’s a fantastic community and within 24 hours of making an application the deal was done. I also share the costs with three other great businesses, who share the premises. It’s just a great business model because as a pop-up the terms and conditions are more favourable for us and I work with three wonderful and creative women.”
Sharing the space
Sharing the space with Pam is Susan Dix (Dixie’s) who has been at the Cambridge Market for 40 plus years. “She’s an institution and we love her sharing this place” says Pam. Dixie brings in jewellery and other small things that she knows will sell well such as necklaces, earrings and jewelled masks. She has the most amazing collection of dresses (I’m a fan of her 50s-inspired tea-style dresses). Pam says, “We get on so well and she’s a goldmine of information and very creative.”
The back of the room is occupied by Romsey Retro, run by Clair Milligan, who has fantastic, often Scandinavian retro pieces, clothes and a “very good eye for quality’. The third associate is Susanne Collins who has an enviable collection of Poole pottery.
A new lease on life
The success of the shop is its uniqueness to Cambridge. And of Cambridge, Pam now says: “Of all the places I have lived, I love Cambridge the most, I would never move back to Paris, and certainly not back to the US”.
Flair, style and artistic talent are evident in everything we see in Fantasia. The truly personal history behind a lot of what is for sale gives Fantasia a richness that is impossible to create in anything other than a genuine independent establishment. Pam gets real satisfaction from seeing items cherished within her family being given a new lease of life with others.
Although so much is second hand, everything is hand-picked by experts who know what works and what sells. To emphasise the point, as the interview comes to an end, someone enters the shop with a large bag of clothes and asks Pam if she would be interested in taking anything. She asks if she should leave the bag to give Pam time to sort through. Pam replies, “not necessary” as she rummages through the bag and less than a couple of minutes later she’s done. She knows exactly what she is looking for.
Fantasia is open
Tuesday through Saturday 11 – 6, Sunday 12 – 5, closed Mondays. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday between 5pm – 6-ish pm, drop by to say hello, shop, browse, hang-out and share in a drink and nibbles.
To find out more visit here
Pam was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit: scuseme