Mary Clayton Carl was sitting on a plane with her future mother-in-law, Cathy Sloss Jones, who developed the Pepper Place Market District. A space at the popular market had recently been vacated by the film crew of TLC’s “Bride By Design,” so Cathy asked culturally savvy Mary Clayton’s opinion. A self-professed champion of emerging designers and artisans of all stripes, Mary Clayton said, “Why not set up a pop-up shop? And while we are dreaming big, why not bring in Southern designers that aren’t in the Birmingham market? If they do well, maybe they will stay and open up their own stores!” And so, Pepper Place Pop-Up was born in February.
Since that conversation, Mary Clayton’s vision of supporting Southern artists has gone from pop-up to permanent. She comes by her big dreams and joie de vivre honestly. As a girl, she dreamed of working for a fashion magazine and ended up in Paris in 1999, working for Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country. “It was very Sabrina-esque. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I couldn’t speak the language, but I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Mary Clayton. “From fashion shows to photo shoots, I was immersed in it all. Thank goodness for being young and too dumb to be scared!” As the Paris fashion sphere swept her into a world that was a little too glitzy for her tastes, she headed home to the South to focus on prop styling and photography.
Though she ditched the runways of Paris, Mary Clayton hasn’t shaken the travel bug. She is a voracious traveler, happily exploring new corners of the world—and their rich cultures—with her partner in crime and fiancé, Paul Jones. “Wandering around, meeting artisans and celebrating their crafts is one of my passions,” says Mary Clayton, who isn’t driven by fashion trends as much as she is by pieces that have a bespoke quality with a bohemian edge. She’s inspired by those who wear their clothes confidently, so she is drawn to designers who capture that sense of poise in their clothing. “I believe in them. It is extremely hard to start something from the ground up,” she says. “I personally seek out makers and develop friendships with them, so, of course, I want to see them succeed. I genuinely love having the opportunity to help grow their business.”
This generosity of spirit is mirrored in the shop’s ever-changing inventory, which shape-shifts from flirty feminine to high fashion to rustic masculine. The ambience is outlaw country meets high fashion, a mash-up of rock and roll and Southern elegance. Cotton, burlap, an aged American flag and a mounted deer are juxtaposed with vibrantly colored and boldly creative screen-printed posters—tempting eye-candy that holds its own against the unique clothing. Sometimes locally made candles or treats are on display, as well as visiting artisans like Mary Clayton’s favorite broom maker. “Music, art, fashion, design and food all make up our culture,” says Mary Clayton. “So it seemed like a natural fit to celebrate all these Southern makers, not just fashion.”
Friendly Southerners as diverse as the inventory often gather in the deconstructed living room in the middle of the shop to catch up, share stories and talk about Birmingham culture. “The enthusiasm for something new and different is the general consensus of most of our clientele. Some people just hang out in the shop; it’s funny how it has created a little community.”
Now that the Pop-Up is a permanent Pepper Place fixture, Mary Clayton intends to keep some designers as constants in the store, but she wants to maintain the “pop-up” vibe by continually introducing new pieces, so people can always come to see the South’s new makers and designers. “Honestly, it’s very selfishly curated,” admits Mary Clayton. “I like to feature people and pieces that I cannot find around town,” she laughs. “But it’s also nice to be in a position to help champion these emerging designers. I think the public has become very conscious of supporting our local makers, and I love that movement. It’s pretty exciting to see this happening all around us.”
Pepper Place Pop-Up is located at 2821 Second Ave. S., Suite K, in Birmingham. Summer hours are currently Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. New designers are introduced on Pepper Place’s First Thursday in an after-hours open house. Beginning in September, the permanent shop will be open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (202) 812-7156 or visit pepperplacepopup.com to learn more.