Richard Parsakian: Entrepreneur. Artist. Humanitarian.

Photo courtesy of Richard Parsakian, via Facebook

If you’ve traveled down Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside over the last 35 years, you’ve undoubtedly passed Eons Fashion Antique. Eons Fashion Antique is a charming vintage mecca with over one hundred years of fashion nestled in an artistic utopia amid the brick-and-mortar of Shadyside’s business district.

Eons Fashion Antique is an experience from the moment you walk through the door. You’ll encounter a plethora of locally sourced vintage clothing, accessories, jewelry and more. You must be intentional with your time while shopping at Eons, as it’s easy to get lost while perusing the eclectic apparel, as well as being mesmerized by the diligence in the decor.

Eons Fashion Antique, via Facebook

In addition to local clientele, Eons Fashion Antique has been a costume resource for film, television, theater, dance, local artists and drag performers. Over the years, clients have included Jodie Foster, Debra Messing, Karen Finley, Patricia Ward Kelly, Helen Mirren, and Pittsburgh’s own Billy Porter.

Hidden within the vast collection of unique garb and displays is perhaps the most treasured find inside the store; its owner, Richard Parsakian.

While many of us in the LGBTQ+ community may know the name Richard Parsakian, not all truly know the man. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down and talking to Richard and discovered there’s so much more to him than just his store.

Parsakian moved to Pittsburgh from Upstate New York in 1971 as a VISTA volunteer with the Pittsburgh Architect’s Workshop, which provided free design services to low-income

families and non-profits. His specialty of creating playgrounds from recycled materials was a feature for the children’s experience at the Three Rivers Arts Festivals in 1972, ‘73, and ‘74. Richard and his roommate, Tim Hare, published the first LGBTQ newspaper in Pittsburgh, “The Gay Times,” in 1972, where he photographed Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community.

It was here that he began his many years of activism and service within the LGBTQ Community.

He was a member of the organizing committee with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center (GLCC) that helped bring Pridefest to its first urban space on Ellsworth Avenue. He’s also the creator and caretaker of the historic 30’ x 60’ Pride Flag that has made an appearance at most every Pride March and important political event for over 25 years. Parsakian constructed the flag from fabric he purchased at Jo-Ann Fabric and had a friend who was a fiber artist fabricate it at his studio. He financed it by getting donations from every merchant on Ellsworth.

Photo courtesy of Richard Parsakian, via Facebook

Traditionally, Parsakian’s Pride flag would be right behind the Dykes on Bikes at the beginning of every Pride March. In more recent years, Parsakian said he felt disrespected as the Delta Foundation became more involved in the Pride March and corporations got sponsorship, and those corporations were pushed toward the front and he was pushed to the back of the parade. Delta then purchased its own Pride flag, and that is when Parsakian decided to stop participating in the march. He said there was always an open invitation for him to come back but the disrespect of the history of the flag and the Pride march kept him from doing so. He then tried to work with People’s Pride but they saw his flag as a Delta flag, so they did not want him to march it in that parade.

“I think the power of that flag is that I never made any judgement of who could hold it,” said Parsakian. During the marches, Parsakian would organize a group of 30 or more people for each section to help transport the enormous flag, but would then add people along the way and invite them to take part in carrying the flag along. “It was always an ‘anybody’s flag.’ It was our community flag, and I was very proud in that way.”

Richard is a member of the Advisory Board of The Pittsburgh Dance Council, the Fund Development Committee for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh LGBTQIA+ Commission, the Pittsburgh Art Commission, the board of Pittsburgh Earth Day, and the board of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

He has been involved in the Pittsburgh LGBTQIA+ community for over 45 years, donating his time to many special events, benefits and fundraisers for Persad Center, Shepherd Wellness Community, and Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force (PATF), now Allies for Health + Wellbeing. He also served on the PATF board of directors for eight years. Richard proudly mentors many young artists by connecting them to opportunities to explore their truth and providing feedback on their work.

Photo courtesy of Richard Parsakian, via Facebook

He created and curated the annual Ellsworth Avenue Music, Dance, & Arts Showcase from 2010 to 2014, where a very popular performance event, the “Divas of Drag,” brought thousands to Shadyside. Since then, he has brought the art of drag to public events, and as a result has created a demand and acceptance of drag performers for many Pittsburgh’s premiere fundraisers. He is one of the many sponsors for the annual Fire Island Dance Festival, which raised $657,000 in 2019 for Dancers Responding to AIDS, a division of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

I asked if he sees himself as a humanitarian.

“I’ve been a survivor. I don’t see myself as the head of anything, I’m one of those people who help wherever anybody needs help. I’m a constant volunteer. I’ve paid my dues in that way, but I still do a lot of events and my reward is helping the community. I think things need to get done, I just hate when people put up roadblocks.” 

That’s why he especially honors the Drag community, noting during the middle of the AIDS crisis they were the people raising money to help.. “The Regan administration ignored our community, there was no research, no money, so a lot of us died across the world.”

He became emotional, reflecting back to that time and the friends he’s lost.

“I think it’s important for us as a community to recognize those heroes. Without them the allies wouldn’t be here.”

He added, “We’re standing on the shoulders of our elders. Our elders have to have some respect and be elevated within our community. It’s fun being able to go into the bars and drink but we need to remember why we can do that. And to understand why places like 5801 can now have windows you can walk by and actually look into.”

Parsakian attributes much of the success of his store for the past 35 years to his consistent connection to the community. “I always tell people when you walk into my store, it’s more like a social experience because I like to yak, and I draw people into my social justice causes. Most of my customers are very socially aware.”

Parsakian says he initiates conversations with everyone who enters his store and notes his customers appreciate that. “They enjoy being treated not just as a customer, but as a human being. You’re interacting with their minds also, not just the dollar, and that’s important.”

He also feels the store has been and continues to be a safe space for everybody in the LGBTQ+ community. “When the mother of a trans child comes into my store, they feel comfortable sharing with me.”

There was a sadness when he expressed not coming out to his parents and of never being able to share his life with them.

“I applaud a mother who comes in and is so loving. How wonderful to have somebody like that as a support. I pride myself in being a very open space. My statement is how my store looks and the content of it is more than a piece of jewelry, a dress, or a shirt. The content is the environment I’m creating.”

Thank you, Richard Parsakian.

Chrissy Costa is a local comedian known for her dry wit, satirical style of comedy, and big earrings. Before doing stand-up she studied sketch comedy at Chicago’s famed Second City. You can follow her on Instragram and Facebook. (She / Her / Hers)