California Drawstrings: Shopping for Spring

For over 36 years, Linda Keenan has offered natural fiber clothing for both women and men looking to beat the New Orleans heat at her boutique on Royal Street.

In 1983, just a year before the World’s Fair, Linda Keenan moved to the French Quarter planning to go into real estate. Initially, just to “have some money coming in,” she decided to try selling men’s and women’s linen clothing at the French Market. “I had seen this line of clothes in North Carolina called California Drawstrings,” says Keenan “I thought, this’ll be great for people coming to the Fair and not understanding the heat and humidity of New Orleans.” She was right. After almost a year of schlepping linen goods from her small apartment on Madison Street to the French Market … and back again … Keenan had enough capital to start renting her shop at 812 Royal Street and has been there ever since.

Anyone who has lived, or even visited New Orleans during the summer months knows the inestimable value of linen clothing. It’s cool to the touch, rapidly absorbs moisture and is just stiff enough that it hangs away from your body. As one of the few retailers in the French Quarter who specialize in flax and cotton clothing, California Drawstrings draws locals and visitors quite regularly. “In what I call ‘the season,’ we sell a ton of flax, because we’re one of the few stores down in New Orleans that still carries it. Specifically a line called Match Point,” explains Keenan. “In the winter time it’s harder. We bring other brands in, but that’s [linen clothing] my bread and butter right there.”

While many boutique shops cater specifically to women, California Drawstrings is split neatly in two with one half being devoted entirely to men. Armed with the knowledge that husbands are frequently towed along while their wives shop in the French Quarter, Keenan offers clothing from Tommy Bahama, Rum Reggae and Tory Richard to appeal to men, as well. “On weekends, we’ll have the football game on or whatever … golf … and it’s always worked,” laughs Keenan. “Sometimes the guys will spend more than the ladies do.”

Deeper into the natural fiber niche, Keenan also makes a sincere effort to offer plus sizes in all of the clothing lines she carries. “I’m a plus size. My brothers are plus sized,” admits Keenan. “I know how hard it is to find interesting styles or cool comfortable clothing.” Though the French Quarter boutique has limited space, California Drawstrings inclusion of plus-sized and big-and-tall offerings has lured star-studded clientele like Rob Ryan, former defensive coach for the New Orleans Saints. “When men come in and they see that we carry 2X or 3X and they’re on vacation, that almost never happens for them unless they go to a big man’s shop” says Keenan.

Over the years, California Drawstrings became so successful that in 2012 Keenan opened a second location in Bay St. Louis. Eight years later, Keenan made plans to retire and sold the Bay St. Louis building to Lauren LeBlanc Haydel, proprietor of the popular Fleurty Girl t-shirt shops, but the pandemic put her retirement plans on hold. “Now I have a little space in the back of LuLu’s on Main Street,” says Keenan. “But a lot of my customers are older and they’re afraid of going out, so it’s been rough.”

The French Quarter location, like every other small business in America, has also experienced hardships due COVID-19. Keenan has had difficulty keeping her star employees because she can’t afford to pay them enough for her store to remain open during her regular hours. These days the shop only throws open its doors on the weekends, and often Keenan finds herself behind the counter. “I have 36 years of hard work put into this business and I want it to continue,” says Keenan. “I would love to see it get back to normal where the Quarter’s got people and the restaurants are open and the bars are open.” Don’t we all?

*Article was originally published in December of 2020 in French Quarter Journal

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