Two veteran personal shoppers carve a niche in direct sales of upscale clothing.
Starting today, a stream of stylish women will be seen coming and going from a nondescript office near the AmericInn Lodge and Suites on the strip-mall outskirts of White Bear Lake. In this unlikely locale, they will plan their fall wardrobes in one chic swoop.
The Sherralise Group is a fashion mecca for professional women who need to look put together every day, but either hate to shop or don't have the time. Launched three years ago by former department-store personal shoppers Sherry Walker and Lisa Swan, Sherralise represents the Carlisle and Per Se lines, bridge-priced collections available through by-appointment direct sales four times a year.
Swan and Walker met in the mid-1980s while both were personal shoppers for the FYI (For Your Image) service at Dayton's. After Dayton's became Marshall Field's and then Macy's, the two decided to strike out on their own in 2006.
"The day before the signs switched from Marshall Field's to Macy's, we were out the door," Walker said.
"The store was taking a different path, and we wanted to continue doing what we do best," Swan said.
The result is what Walker calls "girl heaven," an elegant, roomy, yet intimate space where clients can snack on berries and pastries and sip a glass of wine as Walker and Swan pull jackets, pants, tops and skirts, plus matching belts and handbags.
"We try to wait 'til after 5 for the wine," Swan said.
These clothes aren't as expensive as couture, but aren't for the modest budget, either. Their target customers are women in their late 30s to 60s who are either well-paid professionals themselves or married to professionals. Jackets and dresses average $550, skirts and pants $300, which is similar to department-store bridge labels like Ellen Tracy, Max Mara and Dana Buchman. They're more like classics with a trendy twist than all-out trendy, so they may be worn for several seasons. Walker and Swan take a picture of everything that clients buy so they can build wardrobes each season by adding pieces to what they already have in their closets.
Carlisle and Per Se are just two of many clothing lines that have become part of the $30.8 billion total direct-sales market. Doncaster, which has been around for 79 years, Worth, and Nina McLemore are a few others in the same category. Many consultants sell out of their homes, eliminating overhead, and others choose showrooms to provide that in-between feeling of a business setting and a private trunk show. The consultants earn a percentage of sales.
Sherralise is one of the 15 top performers nationwide for the Carlisle and Per Se brands, owned by the Connaught Group and sold in more than 600 cities and suburbs in the United States and abroad. Sales were $600,000 in 2008, Walker said, and in spring 2009 they maintained about the same volume as in spring of last year. Unlike most other reps, they are allowed to keep the clothes in the showroom longer than two weeks.
Customers who can afford these clothes say the direct-sales approach saves them time and has a feeling of exclusivity. The size range is impressive, from 0 up to 18 on many styles. The downsides are fewer pieces to choose from than in a department store, and fewer sales or promotions.
Swan and Walker have a client list of 400, about half of them women who followed them from their previous jobs. One is Christine Zimmer Lonetti, a lobbyist for the Minneapolis law firm Winthrop & Weinstine. She estimates that 90 percent of her wardrobe comes from Carlisle and Per Se.
On this day she wore a muted-fuchsia jacket in textured matka silk over a high-tech black skirt with a front zipper and self-belt. The ensemble was both executive-tasteful and fashionista-distinctive.
"I have to look very professional, but I don't want to be cookie-cutter," she said. "I like a little flair, a little sass."
Lonetti pointed out the details that have kept her coming back, including threaded snaps on tanks that keep bra straps from showing, partially anchored skirt linings that allow for movement without the risk of showing, and a lightly weighted chain on jacket hems that creates a perfect "hang." She also likes the above-and-beyond service.
"Lisa has met me on the Capitol steps and dropped things off at my house," she said.
Mary Vetscher, a client from St. Paul, emerged from a dressing room the size of the average New York City apartment. She was modeling a fitted tunic and pants ensemble in an off-white techno fabric accented with zippers (don't think 1980s pop star; it was very tasteful). Would she wear this to work, managing her husband's accounting office?
"Oh, no, this is way too good for work," she said. She plans to debut it at a social occasion or in San Francisco, where she often travels. She's especially fond, she said, of how well the pants fit, due to a generous seam allowance for individual tailoring, whether it's needed at the waist, hips or thighs.
"Our pants have the construction and fabrication that fine menswear has always had, but women's hasn't, like featherweight wools," Walker said.
Upscale clothing sales have softened during the recession, but the Connaught Group, which also owns a funkier, slightly less expensive direct-sales line called Etcetera, reports that they expect to hold steady with total sales of $170 million this year, same as last. The current economy actually presents an opportunity for direct sales, said David Wolfe, trend analyst for the New York-based Donegar Group.
"People are disenchanted with the idea of shopping for recreation," he said. "They're more serious about what they buy, they want it to last, and they want the kind of knowledgeable salespeople and personal service that most fine department stores can no longer provide."
Part of that kind of service, Lonetti said, is honesty.
"They don't lie if I don't look that great in something I try on," she said. "They'll say ... "
"We can do better!" all four women chorused.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046