Druid Chic. Kick that description around in your head a moment. Does it evoke images of a hipster hobbit? Maybe you imagine a Natalie Dormer-type, half-elf supermodel gving you the cold stare as she steps out of a predawn dungeon to sneak a cigarette with her gorgeous and sullen squad.
Just because you move in circles of sorcery or mysticism doesn't mean you can't look fucking great as you celebrate Beltane or cast runes, right? That was the question on my mind as I stepped into a Royal Peasantry event in Plaza Midwood on a rainy night in July.
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Royal Peasantry, if you don't know, is a boutique and art salon dedicated to keeping Charlotte weird. On August 20, the shop will put on a free, all-day event called "It's a Phase," in honor of the coming total eclipse of the sun.
DJs will provide music and LaDavius Carson will hold a new age salon to honor paradigmn shifts. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon will serve as the soundtrack for a yoga class. And there will be much more, including a hula-hoop workshop, aerial acrobatics and lots of free art, all crammed in between 3 and 10 p.m. Two days later, the shop will hold its regular Royal Peasantry Ritual Photography Night, where you can go in, dress like an archteype, have your picture snapped, and party like it's 1599.
But back to that rainy night in July, when I attended my first Ritual Photography Night.
The storm had come quickly, like my ex-wife's temper. The sky outside the village of Belmont when I started out earlier in the afternoon had been cloudy but friendly, lit hot pink by a beautiful Carolina dusk. As I got on I-85 and headed toward the city, though, it was instantly evident something darker was coming. The Charlotte skyline stood against a charcoal horizon, puncuated by slashes of lightning touching the ground like the spit of dueling wizards. Sensing the approaching drama, the radio station played that old Doors song about breaking on through to the other side.
It felt like I was about to do just that.
By the time I reached Plaza Midwood, the neighborhood was barely visible out the window, which had turned into a living Patrick Glover painting, squishing together the street with the brake lights on the car in front of me like a river. A tree fell in front of me, and I narrowly missed it, dodging fallen construction cones to try to keep it between the lines.
When I finally stepped into Royal Peasantry, everyone inside seemed oblivious to the apocalypse outside. Folks milled about, glasses of red wine in hand, admiring each other's fab, fantasy-inspired gear. I made my way around the party, eventually meeting Royal Peasantry's 38-year-old owner Danielle Miller, who's also the mastermind behind the store's parent company, More Than Mammal.
Miller started the company when she was just 19, combining her desire to protect endagered animals with her love of mythology, tarot and the fantasy fiction of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series. Miller has designed clothing since she was a child, and formed her company to give all of her passions one cozy home. She opened the first Royal Peasantry in Asheville in 2007, but didn't want to call it More Than Mammal.
"Royal Peasantry was just a better name for a boutique store — More Than Mammal sounded like a pet shop," she told me.
RAISED IN in western Pennsylvania, Miller remembers designing clothes as early as fourth grade. "I learned how to sew at 4H — that's how country I grew up," she said with a laugh. Her first costume was an olive drab catsuit, inspired by SyFy Channel weirdness, and by 19 she had started More Than Mammal as a vehicle for her creativity and activism. In her mid-20s, she found herself in New Mexico, where she taught sewing to locals at a community center and had a daughter, Sophia, and son, Gyan.
In 2006, though, tragedy changed Miller's life. Her son's father, Stevie McLaurin, died in a car accident on Thanksgiving Day. She was distraught and more than a little lost. The following year, on March 16, she had a vision. McLaurin appeared to Miller in a dream and told her to take the kids and go to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her relationship with mysticism had always been something Miller could rely on, so she wasn't about to ignore this message.
Within six weeks, Miller was in Asheville, and it was the perfect move. "I've never been more blessed." she said.
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At that point, More than Mammals had to become more than a vanity project or teenage ideal. So, with help from a few investors that remain healvily involved in the company, Royal Peasantry was conceived as a boutique, performance space and safe haven for artists and designers. It became an art collective that would design much of its couture from found materials and not waste a single scrap of leather or cloth. Ultimately, it was a place where Miller's passion for clothing design, environmental activist and arcetypical fantasy all could thrive.
By early 2017, the success of Royal Peasantry in Asheville gave Miller the cache to expand her enterprise to a new new location, and she chose Plaza Midwood in Charlotte. The local store opened in April, with further plans for a "mobile boutique" also in the works.
Patti Byrd, the manager of the Charlotte store, began working at the Asheville location on a whim. "I started as a production assistant," said Byrd, 35, her face wreathed in feather dreamcatch earrings "I came in one afternoon and thought, 'This place is too cool.'"
It was Byrd, 35, who recommended the move to Plaza Midwood.
It was a smart move. At Royal Peasantry's July Ritual Photography event, Byrd led me through beaded curtains, past some folks stylishly sporting horns, and into a main room where DJ Collectr, who spins at Snug Harbor, was cranking Hall and Oates. There, other party denizens lounged about in leather jerkins, looking like Canterbury Tales by way of Common Market.
Through some more beads, into a small, well-lit photo studio, 24-year-old performance artist Victoria Jane posed in full forest fairy mode, looking like she could hold her own against a band of thieves or a lecherous friar.
Miller turned to me: "So you're gonna take some pictures right?"
She does not strike me as someone who takes no for an answer, so how could I refuse?
A few minutes later, decked out in leather pouches and a headress that evoked the Arabian Nights, I stood in front of the camera. For effect, I asked for a feather from the shelf and used it as a makeshift quill.
The transformation was complete: I was no longer a writer — I was the writer. Perhaps I would be penning prophecy, a la Gibran, or simply meditating on the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Miller quietly directed me to look into the lens as she snapped a few photos. I slipped into character — how could you not? — gazing into the azure curtain of a Mediterranean night, and watching horses run into the moon.
When I stepped out of the studio, a couple smoothboys dressed as birds danced to Collectr, who was spinning the Bjork song "Bachelorette," in which the Icelandic nymph sings, "I'm a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl." A guy named Brock, straight out of central casting as the "Strapping Dude" emerged from the dressing room, looking like Alan Quartermain blended with House Lannister, and sporting a blunderbuss, as though he was going to protect Forest Fairy from a gaggle of screaming pygmy's in a Frank Frazetta painting.
"Where do I go?" he asked someone.
You're at Royal Peasantry, dude. You can go anywhere you want.