Pursuing her passions in Westport

When she moved to Weston from New York City and then the pandemic hit, Cristina Villegas decided to reintroduce her children’s/home goods boutique Yoya – and interior design business Casa Yoya – in Westport, a place not unlike the small town she grew up in in her native Colombia.

Tucked into an attic room in Westport’s Sconset Square is the reinvention of the former Manhattan boutique Yoya.

For 20 years, owner Cristina Villegas curated a collection of kid’s clothes and homewares in the West Village. But a move to Connecticut, coupled with the arrival of the pandemic, changed all that.

“I’m only 12 minutes from here,” she says with a gesture toward the retail space, which also serves as the headquarters of her interior design studio, Casa Yoya. “I bought an old barn in Weston. I renovated the barn on my own basically.

“I hired a really good carpenter, I got a good plumber, I had a good electrician, but I didn’t have a contractor. I didn’t have an architect. I did it on my own,” she adds, her lightly accented voice bright. Born and raised in Colombia, Villegas has always done interior design. But when she was living in New York City, she did not have nearly as many opportunities to engage in that aspect of her work. She lacked both the physical space and room in her schedule, owing to the demands of running the Yoya boutique full-time. 

The pace of things in the middle of Fairfield County is a little slower, but Villegas says that she was excited by the move. She did not expect to have as much time to dedicate to the renovations as she did, but then the pandemic and a subsequent rent hike, despite her landlord’s help, forced her to close her Manhattan store for good.

“When I closed the shop in the city, that door closed but then another door opened,” Villegas says, echoing a quote from telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. “People were reaching out, saying, ‘I love your style. Can you help me with my house?’

“That was super-cool, because I was really sad,” she adds. “I took like a year off from retail, even though I had the online store. I didn’t have that much inventory left, so it wasn’t very hard, but I was heartbroken. Like heart broken. I didn’t think I was going to go back into retail.”

Villegas decided for a while that 20 years in business with an internationally known store was a great run. But she had cultivated a following she lightheartedly describes as “kind of cult-y” and was missing out on the relationships with regulars who had sustained her across two decades. And she discovered that focusing on interior design wasn’t enough. 

“I wasn’t thinking I was going to reopen the store, but I really wanted somewhere I could work out of. I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted a space. So I found this space,” Villegas says with another gesture toward the low ceiling and cozy interior. “It’s tiny. Look at it:  It’s not really built for retail. But while I was here doing the interiors, a lot of people kept reaching out, reaching out. So I’m like, ‘You know, maybe I’ll use it a little, maybe open up for retail in like two years when I’m not busy.’ But then I start adding things.”

 A wallpaper pattern was followed by more shelving. That led to a couch and more shelving. Eventually Villegas found herself not just storing her remaining inventory of children’s tops but displaying them. 

“So then here I am,” Villegas says, “I reopened Yoya. Now I have Yoya and Casa Yoya…which is cool. Because it’s not such a big store, it allows me to do both.”

The venue is not the only thing that has changed as a result of the move, though. “In the city I bought super-high fashion. I did a lot of the everyday cool style, but I also did risky, more expensive, more fashion-forward pieces. Whereas here you still have the sense of fashion, but it’s more like fun play clothes.”

Still, Villegas brought her own style to bear. She was happy to speak about importing children’s clothes from European brands while providing a brief tour of the space. She likes the bold patterns of Bobo Choses out of Barcelona, the sophisticated simplicity of Hello Simone, or the funky, surprising use of imagery in Molo. 

Villegas pointed out the $100 Molo Candy Graphic Print dress that features screen-printed photographs of a horse and blooming flowers, delightful for clothes horses and horse girls alike, as a particularly fun item in the collection.

Meanwhile her boy’s collection features a slightly more “surfer-inspired” vibe, exemplified by the Australian brand Munsterkids. “I try to be really careful with the prices for the boys,” Villegas says with a conspiratorial hush, “because, well, you know, boys don’t really take care of their clothes.” 

 After a moment’s reflection, she adds, “I always tell the parents, ‘You gotta pick your battles.’ It’s not always worth it. If you have a kid that loves clothes and wants to dress up, great and if you don’t, you don’t. And the kid will grow and change. Things won’t stay the same.”

Among the things that have changed for Villegas is her motivation for the shop. She opened the original location shortly after the birth of her older daughter, who is currently studying at The American University of Paris, still deciding if she wants to accept an internship working with Villegas at Yoya. Her younger daughter attends Weston High School and is active in sports. 

Villegas says that both of them are a bit more streetwise for having grown up in the city, but the change of setting has for her felt like coming full circle.

“I grew up in a small town in Colombia,” she adds, “probably much like Westport — lots of horses, big houses, but urban — a slower-paced community.”  

Yet despite a different venue, Villegas doesn’t feel disconnected from New York City. It’s only an hour away after all. And she’s glad to be pursuing a passion regardless of the venue.

“This is your life, right? So you gotta do something that you love.”

For more, visit yoyanyc.com.

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