Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better | Pittsburgh City Paper

Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better

click to enlarge Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Brigette and Christine Bethea, owners of Argyle Studio in Oakland
Despite being related, Christine and Brigette Bethea are very different. Christine has worked in creative fields, including writing for the fashion, radio, and television industries, before embarking on a multimedia arts career in the 1980s. Her daughter, on the other hand, spent eight years in the United States Army and worked as a project manager for the Pittsburgh Public School district before founding her own business consulting firm, ULEAD.

It’s these differences that allowed them to successfully team up on Argyle Studio, a pop-up gallery and marketplace on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, featuring items from over 30 local artists and makers.

The pop-up serves a dual role as a platform for arts vendors, and as a way to make Oakland’s business district more vibrant.

For a while, the pop-up, which officially launched in May and is slated to continue through March 2022, looked like it might not happen. The pandemic delayed the original opening set for November 2020, just in time for the holiday season.

“Then it was January, then it was February, then it was March,” says Christine, adding that eventually they stopped being so exacting with the opening date. “We decided we're going to go with what the flow of how things were happening, rather than anybody getting frustrated.”
click to enlarge Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
The colorful exterior of Oakland's Argyle Studio
Besides being owned and run by Black women in a city now notorious for neglecting that particular demographic, Argyle also provides a source of visibility and income for working artists whose finances took a hit during the pandemic.

Brigette says that almost 100% of sales go directly back to Argyle’s vendors.

“Most of them are starting from scratch again,” says Christine, an accomplished local fiber artist who helped found the Black artist collective Women of Visions, and has firm roots in the local arts scene. “So this is really important work, and I'm just happy that I can do it.”

Brigette says they took a deliberate approach to choosing vendors, being sure to showcase a wide variety of goods, as well as ages and backgrounds. She explains that Argyle’s set-up is broken down into five sections — Art and Prints, Home and Office, Fun and Leisure, Body and Soul, and Fashion and Jewelry — describing the pop-up as “almost like a mini-department store.”

“It really boiled down to trying to make the space as eclectic as possible,” says Brigette, emphasizing that it was important for Argyle to be “multigenerational” and a place where “all races, ethnicities, and cultures felt comfortable.” This means seasoned vendors are shown along with newcomers, the youngest one being 14 years old.

She adds that over 50% of Argyle’s vendors are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) and include representation from the LGBTQ community.

While the two women had previously worked together on projects, the pop-up allowed their respective talents to shine. As Argyle’s lead strategist, Brigette handles the logistical side of the business, while Christine acts as the creative strategist, tapping into her vast artistic network and overseeing the visual elements of the store.

“It's a great time in my personal career because I feel like I've come full circle, and I can finally use all the really wonderful skills that I've learned over the years,” says Christine.

She also sees Argyle as a way to spotlight the local arts community, believing it never gets the credit or support it deserves.

“My joke is that when Pittsburgh likes their artists the same way they like the Pirates and the Steelers, they will have done something,” laughs Christine. “I know this will sound grandiose, but I literally know hundreds of artists from the 15 to 20 years that I worked in arts administration. There’s this whole city, it's just full of really, really great talent, and a lot of it is unrecognized.”
click to enlarge Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Rell Rushin behind the counter at Argyle Studio in Oakland
It would be a fair assessment to say Oakland has a less vibrant arts scene compared to other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Dominated by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as the medical centers, the area caters more to crowds of students and professionals looking for a quick bite or a laid-back bar to enjoy a beer after work or class.

Organizations like the Oakland Business Improvement District have sought to change that by attracting more creative ventures, boosting public art, and utilizing spaces like Schenley Plaza, which has seen a growing number of live events since more people have become vaccinated.

Brigette says Argyle came about after the Improvement District requested proposals for non-food retail options in Oakland, particularly along the well-trafficked stretch of Forbes Avenue.

Georgia Petropoulos, executive director at the Oakland Business Improvement District, says there was a need for something like Argyle in the neighborhood.

“Argyle Studio is a perfect complement to Oakland's retail district,” says Petropoulos, adding that the pop-up “provides hard to come by, unique opportunities for these entrepreneurs that would not normally have such exposure to Oakland's strong marketplace.”

Unlike many of the chain stores that populate Oakland, Petropoulos says that Argyle’s artists and makers “provide new merchandise offerings not found locally or even throughout the Pittsburgh region.”
click to enlarge Argyle Studio changes up Oakland’s retail scene for the better
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
A customer browses items at Argyle Studios in Oakland.
Christine says that, while Argyle has seen steady business from visitors and people who work in the neighborhood, she looks forward to the return of college students after the pandemic largely kept them away from campus life.

“We haven't seen a lot of students at all,” says Christine. “We’re very curious to see how that's going to change the dynamic when they're full-time and all the universities are running at full tilt.”

She also wants the project to stand out as an example to local foundations and other groups that supporting independent retail concepts are essential to the health of a community. Argyle received help from InnovatePGH, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County Community Infrastructure & Tourism Fund, the city of Pittsburgh, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. UPMC provided their storefront.

“This is really good work, and I hope they do more of it,” says Christine. “It just goes to show what they can do if they all get together and reimagine the city and the landscape and the economic ecosystem, all of that.”
Argyle Studio. 3608 Forbes Ave., Oakland.