Andrews family fits Austin in undergarments at Petticoat Fair

Three generations put the focus on full service at the customer fave.

In 1963, the sitcom “Petticoat Junction” first aired on CBS.

The show about a rustic railroad hotel run by a steadfast matron, her lazy uncle and her three voluptuous daughters ran for seven seasons, yoked in American minds with “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres,” two other shows that riffed on the juncture between rural and urban ways.

In 1964, Petticoat Lane opened on Austin’s Guadalupe Street. The Andrews family, headed by Bob and Betty Sue, were already running two dress shops on the Drag. Their new idea, later redubbed Petticoat Fair, was a full-service boutique selling just women’s undergarments.

It still thrives today, now as a one-of-a-kind shop with extensive dressing rooms in the Northcross Center off West Anderson Lane.

Early on, the sitcom’s insistent theme song — “lots of curves / you bet / even more / when you get / to the junction / Petticoat Junction” — echoed in the ears of their Austin customers.

“It was funny,” Betty Sue says. “Customers would make their checks out to Petticoat Junction.”

Through three generations of leadership, the family has stuck by their original concept, while expanding offerings to include up to 300,000 bras in their inventory.

“People accepted that we had a vision for the total woman,” Betty Sue says. “From head to toe and everything in between. Not since the old, old days in department stores was there someone to really help you. We had a total concept of true service.”

Do their customers — who relish the personal fittings in dressing rooms that look like something out of the classic 1939 movie comedy “The Women” — continue to confuse the name of the shop with the name of the show?

Granddaughter Kali, born 21 years after the sitcom left the air, quickly volunteers: “They still do!”

Three generations in underclothes

Nobody in the Andrews family intended to sell undergarments.

Robert “Bob” Andrews, 90, grew up in small towns on the Great Plains during Dust Bowl days. His parents, who divorced when he was 14, mostly worked in grocery stores. Bob served on a Navy tanker in the Pacific Theater during World War II, then on a destroyer during the Korean War.

Betty Sue, 84, was born in Paint Rock, where her father, devoted to the highway construction business, was building a bridge. Wherever they moved, her mother fed the workers in the construction camps. Their Texas migrations brought them to Austin after Pearl Harbor to build the runways at Bergstrom Air Force Base.

Bob and Betty Sue met in 1950 at UT, where she studied business administration and he business and accounting.

“It was supposedly a blind date,” Betty Sue says, “but we checked each other out ahead of time.”

They had three children: Mark, 62; Susan, recently deceased; and Kirk, 56, who took over Petticoat Fair when his father retired.

Born at the old Seton Hospital on West 26 Street, Kirk grew up in Tarrytown, where the Andrews family moved in 1958 after living in modest postwar houses in Cameron Village and Allandale.

Some of Kirk’s earliest memories involve Petticoat Fair.

“The store was my babysitter,” he says. “I’d just come and hang out there.”

At UT, he ended up studying petroleum engineering, but not before whiling away too much time on fraternity life and working for his uncle in the highway construction business.

“After three years of that, I was ready to go back to school,” he smiles. “I fell off a bridge in Katy.”

After college, he worked overseas for nearly nine years, testing offshore rigs. He married in 1990, but is now divorced.

Because of her father’s job, Kali, 25, grew up in West Africa, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Then Allandale. After high school here, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to do interior design,” she says. “It’s now a hobby.”

Kali returned to Austin in 2012, and after a couple of months she picked up shifts at the family store, where she had started as a cashier at age 16. Since then she has helped redesign and update the place. Kali is now Petticoat Fair’s chief buyer as well.

Kristi, 23, takes classes at Austin Community College. She is also a fitting specialist, having served previously as a Petticoat Fair freight checker and a cashier.

“We still have a lot to learn,” Kristi says. “I always wanted to do something that helps people, like therapy or nursing. But when I saw what we do for women here …”

Behind the petticoats

In 1958, the owner of the CoEd Shop at West 24th and Guadalupe streets in the Varsity Theater building, wanted to sell. Bob Andrews had grown tired of nomadic construction work, and his mind turned toward local business.

“There was a lot of traffic and a lot of girls on that corner,” Bob says. “There also was a men’s store down the block for sale. But guys don’t buy that much. Girls shop.”

He borrowed capital from Austin National Bank and hired students from the UT fashion program to serve as clerks. A former German soldier, “a mature lady,” managed the place.

The Andrews family then purchased the Colony, another dress shop in the 2300 block of Guadalupe, in 1961, followed by the debut of Petticoat Lane three years later in the 2500 block. The idea behind the store was to combine the fractured market for foundations, shapewear, bras, sleepwear and other undergarments.

“We had no manager at first,” Betty Sue says. “I thought it was great. It was the first time I had access to everything I wanted. I even got to pick them out. I was 100 percent for being in business ourselves.”

Bob went into this sector of the business with incomplete knowledge of the subject.

“I told Betty Sue I had an idea,” he says. “She liked it and made it work. I didn’t know about girls’ understuff. I didn’t know what went on there. Or how important it was how their bodies were shaped. I was amazed how quickly it caught on.”

“It took off right away,” Betty Sue agrees. One day they received a legal letter from a Kansas City-based man who operated Petticoat Lane stores across the country, so they changed theirs to Petticoat Fair. By 1972, they had planted a colony in Highland Mall.

In the 1970s, as business shifted away from the Drag, they closed all three of their outlets there. They moved permanently to Northcross Center in 1991.

Bob retired in 1996. Betty Sue still comes in, although not as often as she once did.

Their son, Kirk, is one reason the Northcross Petticoat Fair has expanded from 1,250 square feet to 8,850 square feet. While Kirk was working overseas in the 1990s, he followed from a distance the saga of Petticoat Fair’s potential closure once the elder Andrews couple slowed down.

“Customers were saying: ‘You can’t do this. Where are we going shop?’” Kirk recalls. “The girls were getting older. And it sounded like a pretty good business if customers were begging you not to shut down.”

So enough with the oil business for Kirk, who took time to absorb his parents’ customer care strategy.

“All I did is take what they did and introduce energy and risk,” Kirk says. “More advertising, more events. I didn’t do anything without going to Dad. He gave me a good price on the store.”

Well, Kirk did more than that. He dramatically increased the size of the store, and added swimwear and sleepwear. In 2015, the shop won a top honor in the lingerie industry as a store others might want to emulate.

It helped that, in some ways, lingerie is not a trendy business.

“In some French-branded lingerie stores, it is about the fashion,” Kirk says, “But what we do is not really like the fashion business, when one week it’s pants, next week it’s something else.”

What pulled his daughters into the game?

“At first, it was a job when I couldn’t find one,” Kali admits. “I was working in the back first. Then working up front, seeing the change when you fit a women properly. Seeing the excitement. People need us. I like making people happy.”

“We mostly focus on everyday basics, foundations,” Kristi says. “I mean, everybody likes a pretty bra, but …”

“It depends on what a person wants,” Kali says. “Each person is different. It’s so specific, and it’s so close to you. That’s why they call it intimate apparel. In bras and girdles, it’s about the technology. Sleepwear a little more fashion-oriented.”

A few years ago, Petticoat Fair faced a 21st-century challenge when a fitting clerk offended a transgender customer, which was widely reported in the media. The family brought in local leaders to provide sensitivity training.

More often than not, however, the Andrews family reports that customers are amazed — to the point of tears — finally to find undergarments that fit.

“You’ve got to look at the construction, why it fits this way and that way,” Betty Sue says. “You’re not buying something because it’s pretty and fluffy.”

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