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These Mother-Daughter Shop Owners Bring Global Artifacts to El Paseo

Written By: Patricia Kemp
Photographed By: Sandra Colbert Thompson Zense Palm Desert

What makes Zense a unique boutique? That depends on who you ask. “You created it,” Melissa Perko nods to her mother. “Yes, but you took over,” Penny Gundry is quick to reply. The mother-daughter duo, business partners and owners of the pillar jewelry and accessory shop on El Paseo in Palm Desert share an inherited passion for fashion and design that didn’t skip a generation. Penny handles much of the creative merchandise, while daughter Melissa oversees the day-to-day tasks of managing the store. Together, they operate one of El Paseo’s most distinctive treasure troves—a place where community meets an ever-changing gallery of collective adornment. Zense Palm Desert

Roughly eight years ago, Perko came to her mother and said, “I would love to work at Zense!” Surprised and delighted, Gundry brought her daughter to the store—not to work, but to observe. “I wanted her to learn the trade. I told her sit on this bench and absorb everything about the business,” Gundry remembers.

Even with her mom as her boss, Perko didn’t receive special treatment. She sat on that bench, watched her mother’s fluid interaction with shoppers and learned valuable customer service skills. “The hospitality my mother shows…she’s just so inviting to people. It really is what makes her a great success,” Perko says. After about three months of bench time, Gundry gave Perko her first shot at working the showroom floor. Little by little, Perko took on more responsibility. Gundry says Zense has “evolved into this wonderful business that Perko now manages and controls.” 

After years of decorating homes for clients, Gundry craved more creative satisfaction than choosing shades of textured white wallpaper. Driving down El Paseo one day, she noticed a “For Lease” sign in the window of a quaint storefront; it was then that inspiration struck. She had the design chops but knew very little about retail. Determined to make her dream come true, she made the leap from interior decorator to entrepreneur. “I stuck my head in and thought it was perfect. It was just four walls, but I knew I could create a magical space here,” Gundry says—and enchanting it is.

On the walls of Zense, you’ll find wearable art in the form of statement jewelry, designer handbags and eclectic accessories in shades of gray, hues of blue and glimmers of green. Featured pieces are commissioned by Gundry from European artists and designers from her overseas excursions during the desert’s off-season. Now, as an equal business partner, Perko joined her mother on a trip to France and Italy last summer to lend her expertise and design eye in an effort to help stock the shelves with new merchandise that is an amalgam of both their styles.  Zense Palm Desert

“We travel to Europe looking for our inspirations,” Gundry says. “Sometimes, we’re on the same page, and we’ll gravitate towards the same designers that we see. Then there are other times Melissa will say, ‘Oh, this is fabulous!’ and I’ll disagree. And she’ll say, ‘Trust me, this will sell.’” 

“And it does!” Perko points out.

Mother and daughter each have their own interesting insight on the other’s design style. Perko labels her mom as more edgy and “outside-the-box,” mixing materials like meshy metals, rubber and resin, while Gundry says her daughter takes a more “conservative” approach, juxtaposed with bold pops of color. “Melissa tones down my craziness, so it balances pretty well,” Gundry says.

“It just works,” Melissa adds.    

While they differ somewhat on design styles, Gundry and Perko do share a few things in common. Outside of Zense, they spend time shopping (of course!). “We love fashion; we love shopping,” Perko says. They also love dogs. Gundry is the owner of four pooches, including Miss Pearl, an older Labradoodle and retired Zense shop dog. That role is now assumed by Perko’s Shih-poo puppy, Buddy, who comes to work with her every day and greets customers.

The future of the Zense franchise continues to look bright, as Perko and husband Ray opened Zense Home in 2018. Located next door, the fun and colorful home accessory shop is an extension of the Zense empire, which features unique accent pieces from rainbow-splattered ceramic frogs to rubbery glass-like vases. “At Zense, you dress yourself in beautiful, wearable art. At Zense Home, you dress up your home with beautiful, imaginative objects,” Perko explains. 

Both boutiques have an alluring impact on El Paseo that attracts shoppers from around the globe to the ritzy desert shopping district. “People here travel the world, and they get what we’ve got going on here at Zense,” Gundry explains. With her daughter by her side, there is no doubt both Zense stores will continue to thrive. Zense Palm Desert

Zense Collection
73255 El Paseo, Ste 20
Palm Desert, CA 92260
760.773.0789
Zense Home
73255 El Paseo, Ste 3
Palm Desert, CA 92260
760.404.0390