Her parents owned a clothing store in Bisbee so “I knew a little bit about fashion.” In 1931, with a pair of women from Tucson, she opened her first store downtown called The Coed Shop. That name stuck until she changed it to Cele Peterson’s a few years later.
“‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,'” she said of the risky decision. “I never thought that I was getting into something that I couldn’t handle.”
Peterson hit upon an idea that set her business apart – to market not what people could afford to buy but what they wanted to buy. She sized up her market and her customers and set about making a name for herself.
The business grew and expanded with the town. From the original little shop on Stone between Congress and Pennington (and later downtown locations), Peterson moved the business with the times to El Con Mall, Casas Adobes Shopping Center and Foothills Mall before settling at her current Crossroads Festival digs. Her customers ranged from the rich and famous to ordinary folks from Tucson. Any who made a purchase left her shop in style.
Her business took her around the world on buying trips and fashion shows. But Tucson was always home. She cares deeply about this town and isn’t always thrilled with how it’s taking shape.
“I think we have a big battle in Tucson today,” she says. “I think we’re battling between keeping it a unique community as opposed to a metropolis. We’re not trying to be a Phoenix, and yet the developers are trying to make us into a Phoenix,” she said. “People are more friendly here. People are more open. People are giving in this community instead of just taking. Maybe it’s because it’s smaller.”
As she tickles the 100-year mark, Peterson is still an elegant presence in Tucson.
“Fashion is a way of life,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be in clothes. It’s in trends, in houses. It’s in your eyeglasses. It’s in whatever you do. Plants are fashion. Shoes are fashion. Your teeth are fashion. I think of this woman with her gold teeth. I could never take my eyes off of her. Exercise is fashion. And I still say life is what we want it to be.”