How one ByWard Market business and its owner Pat Phythian became a ‘soul-saving’ community hub

Pat Phythian is the owner of Frou Frou by Pat, a boutique and, apparently, community drop-in hub in the Byward Market. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane
Pat Phythian is the owner of Frou Frou by Pat, a boutique and, apparently, community drop-in hub in the Byward Market. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

Forget selling clothes; if you ask Pat Phythian, she’s in the business of “saving souls.”

In the ByWard Market, nestled behind the old trees on York Street, sits a yellow house with a crooked staircase and a smiling, curly-haired woman waiting to greet you at the door. 

The house is home to a women’s clothing store, but after spending an afternoon there, I learned that it is much, much more.

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Frou Frou by Pat is located at 159 York St. in the ByWard Market. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

As a longtime resident and business owner in the Market, Pat knows the area’s history and culture better than most. Turns out, she’s a treasure trove of knowledge. 

I walked into Frou Frou by Pat last week on a sunny afternoon for a local event. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, Pat spotted me admiring a sundress on the clothing rack.

“Isn’t that gorgeous? I just got it in yesterday,” she said, pulling it from the rack. “It’s your colour.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely, with your hair,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s your size, too.”

I snuck a peek at the tag — she was right.

I found myself at Frou Frou for the first time that day at the invitation of Stéphanie Plante, city councillor for Rideau-Vanier Ward, who was recognizing Pat and her contributions to the community in honour of International Small Business Day on June 27.

To mark the occasion, Pat invited some friends to come celebrate. Before I had a chance to identify myself as a reporter — and even after — I was welcomed as one of them.

Frou Frou owner Pat Phythian found herself surrounded by loved ones on June 27 to mark International Small Business Day. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

Between chatting with her friends, helping customers and organizing clothes, Pat found time to pop over and tell me about herself, about the business, and about the Market, and dropped anecdotes and jokes faster than I could take notes.

Frou Frou prides itself on carrying ethically- and locally-made clothes and accessories. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

Pat has worked in the Market for a long time — and lived there even longer. She managed the local craft store Sassy Bead from 1994 until it closed in 2014. That’s when she began working at Frou Frou, and when the owner wanted to sell the business in 2018, Pat bought it. 

“I was 65. I was thinking, what am I going to do, go work at Nordstrom? No,” Pat laughed. “So I took the leap. At a time when people were retiring, I was buying a business.

“But I love it. I love the people, and I love the work. How could I not?” she said, still laughing.

Frou Frou has an open-door policy, letting in the summer breeze and drawing pedestrians in with a mixed tape of Nirvana, Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift. 

Pat took over the boutique at what she admitted was probably the worst time. She soon faced the pandemic, followed by the “Freedom Convoy,” and is still grappling with ongoing safety and security concerns in the downtown core.

In September 2018, a woman entered the shop and cornered Pat, demanding money and issuing threats. 

“I tried to run and my hand got shut in the door. Then she hit me in the face with a stapler,” recalled Pat. “Remember how bad it looked after?” she reminisced with a friend.

But if you ask if she’d ever considered leaving the neighbourhood, you’d think you asked her to give you a kidney; she’d probably be more willing to donate an organ than leave. 

“I’ve worked in the Market a long time. There are so many good things,” she explained, shrugging. “There are bad things everywhere, but not enough for me to give up the good.”

Among the good things are cupcakes from nearby Cupcake Lounge, which Councillor Plante brought to the celebration. To mark International Small Business Day, Plante wanted to recognize Pat for more than 30 years of customer service and community involvement in retail in downtown Ottawa.

We were able to convince Pat to pose for a few grip-and-grin photos to commemorate her big day. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

The framed certificate recognizing Pat and her contribution to the neighbourhood brought a tear to Pat’s eye before she was reluctantly pulled into photos. 

Passersby ducked their heads through the open door at the sounds of laughter, music and applause as Pat and Plante gripped and grinned, and Pat soon began dressing her friends and the councillor.

The city councillor is also a big fan of the boutique. She picked out a graphic tee of the Notorious B.I.G., laughing that her legging collection was “getting to be too expansive.”

But for Plante, Frou Frou is about much more than the clothes. “I live close by, I know Pat personally, and I just wanted to recognize her for the fantastic work she does,” she explained.

Councillor Plante said she was excited to celebrate Pat both as a business owner and a friend. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

Plante met Pat in 2021 when the Byward Market District Authority was formed. The district’s boundaries did not reach far enough to include Frou Frou. 

“I knew these businesses were just far enough to be excluded (from the district authority’s plans) and with three shelters nearby, the injection sites, and all the other issues going on, I wanted to make sure Pat was being supported,” Plante explained.

“It’s a women-owned business, so I really wanted to make sure she didn’t feel unsafe,” she continued. “But then I came in and saw the store and I just love it. I never come in when it isn’t busy.”

It was certainly busy on the day I was there. And good for business — Pat’s friends and community are walking catalogues of her stock.

The certificate meant that much more coming from a friend, said Pat. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

“Look at Marge! Marge is wearing those new jeans I got this week,” Pat pointed out as her friend posed. “Oh, let me show you the new jumpsuits. Perfect for festival season.

“What’s that festival where they don’t wear any clothes?”

“Escapade,” a friend said knowingly. 

It was hard to keep up with the quick and friendly banter that echoed through the small boutique.

The boutique is housed in an old home in the Market, but it shows its age only in the crooked staircase that leads upstairs to the consignment racks. Otherwise, the building is full of life with bright paint, a variety of Pat’s favourite tunes, decor from local artists, bold patterns and colours, quirky light fixtures and, of course, the sound of laughter and conversation among friends.

And Pat considers everyone to be a friend, it seems. A local stylist came to celebrate and brought with her a friend and her daughter, Charlie. After the “formal” part of the celebration, Charlie, 3, helped her mom pick out some clothes to try on.

Moonpie, a four-year-old Newfoundland dog, also popped by and was more than happy to pose for photos and sit for pats. At about 100 lbs, Moonpie was the runt of her litter, her owner said. She speaks — or rather, understands — French, was very intrigued by the cupcakes, and is apparently a Frou Frou regular.

Moonpie, a Newfoundland, was particularly interested in the treats from the Cupcake Lounge. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

So is Eve Anders. Anders, 83, lives a few steps away and comes to Frou Frou about three times a week, she said. She’s lived in the Market for 23 years. A retired parliamentary translator, Anders said she came to Pat looking to find her style at a time she was “looking to reinvent” herself.

“It’s not just the clothes, it’s Pat’s eye,” said Anders. She stopped by on her way to get a coffee to congratulate Pat and see if there was anything new in stock and, upon hearing there was a reporter in the house, she sought me out to “make sure I had a good sense of Pat.”

She was wearing head-to-toe Frou Frou, from her denim skirt and bright top to her colourful bandana. Even her hair was dyed red on Pat’s recommendation, and she can point out every item of clothing that she owns. Unsurprisingly, she has almost every garment.

Eve Anders, 83, is a walking catalogue for Frou Frou by Pat. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

“She truly knows what she’s doing,” Anders told me. “For older women, she can steer me. I’m 83, I’m not dead, and I don’t want to wear sweats. She’s the one who pushed me from my comfort zone, told me what I would look good in, and I’m a new person.

“There’s something for various ages, various sizes. I have those pants,” she pointed. “I wear them with a matching blouse. They are dynamite. It’s just such fun.”

For Pat, that’s what it’s all about: love of fashion, love of people, love for the Market. At Frou Frou, she can combine it all.

“I worked at Le Chateau in the Market years ago,” she said.

“When was that?” I asked. 

“When? When Christ was a cowboy,” she responded. 

“I’ve worked and lived here a long time. People are always bitching about it. But it’s beautiful. There’s so much history, so much beauty, it’s incredible,” Pat said. “It would be nice to hear some good stuff.”

She’s now 70 – which garnered exclamations of “no way!” from her friends and Plante — and said the secret to aging gracefully is “just happiness.”

“It isn’t eye cream or pilates or any of that sh*t,” she laughed. “Just as long as you’re happy, it will be fine.”

Charlie, 3, popped in and was baited into some shopping time with her mom using a caramel cupcake. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane
“How cool is that? Look at my name!” Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

And she says she has plenty of happiness to go around — all thanks to the Byward Market and its community.

“Women come in to get away from their husbands, people come in for some social interaction, tourists pop in,” she said. “They’re always popping in.

“Women in their 90s come in and compliment something but say, ‘Oh no, I could never wear that!’” Pat continued. “I once had a woman come in and I told her to go try something on and she resisted, but when she came out she was six inches taller and said ‘My friends won’t recognize me!’”

“It’s not about selling clothes — I’m saving souls over here.”

Pat proudly showed off her certificate to friends and customers who stopped in. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

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