Like good couture, styling a business requires good design and creative use of resources. But most of all, success comes from repeated “fittings” and adjustments to the original pattern.
Annette Wallander has learned the parallels between clothing design and business planning in her four years as owner of The Garment District, a custom clothing boutique in Hyde Park.
Ms. Wallander brought years of experience in design and merchandising to her business venture. She started sewing as a child and by age 11 could make complete outfits. As an adult, she worked for retailers such as Macy’s, Dillard’s and Liz Claiborne, gaining experience both in purchasing and sales.
When she moved to Cincinnati in 1997, Ms. Wallander decided the time was right to launch her own business. She shopped various neighborhoods to find the right spot, and settled on storefront space on Edwards Road, less than a block from Erie Avenue.
“This was clearly the best location,” she said. “The building co-tenants are really good, and the traffic on Edwards is great.”
The entrepreneur also found a kindred soul to work with her. Charlotte Storms, who manages production of The Garment District’s orders, has more than 30 years of sewing experience and has supervised custom-clothing manufacturing.
“I’ve been in just about every phase of the business,” she said. “I’ve made ball gowns, cheerleader outfits, military uniforms and tailored, high-end clothing.”
The Garment District’s second-year sales increased about 70 percent, and each succeeding year, the business has posted generous double-digit gains. Its core clientele: hard-to-fit women who cannot find what they want in department stores, and women who want one-of-a kind garments.
Said Ms. Wallander: “Many women feel they have to go out of town to find the clothing they want; but often, they return unsatisfied from their shopping experience. With The Garment District, there’s no need to leave Cincinnati.”
Ms. Wallander and Ms. Storms work with clients to design a garment to suit them, in their choice of color and fabric. The women say their prices are comparable with those of designer clothes available in department stores.
“We have hundreds of designs and thousands of fabrics, so there are — what? — a million possibilities,” Ms. Wallander said.
And just as she stresses the importance of adjustment to make each garment a perfect fit, she has learned that course alteration is essential to a small business.
“We’re the biggest example of figuring things out as you go along,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, you have an idea of the way you want your business set up; but certain things just don’t end up going according to plan. You can say, “This isn’t going to work’; or you can find a way around obstacles and make them work to your benefit.”
The designing women have chosen the latter course. Their first major challenge was finding enough experienced individuals to make the clothing. Forced to look outside the Cincinnati area, the women found two companies that had networks of seamstresses all over the country. The discovery proved a boon.
“It forced us to make our process more efficient, which was an advantage to our customers in time and cost,” she said. “We send off the pattern, instructions and fabric, and it is put together by a seamstress. When the garment is returned, it is fitted to the client, and all the finishing is done locally. Quality is key.”
Computers have played a large role in streamlining The Garment District’s pattern design procedure. At first, clients were measured and a “muslin” was created by hand to serve as the pattern. The process was time-intensive, both for client and couturiere.
“We have embraced technology,” Ms. Wallander said. “Now we take about 25 different body measurements and then generate a custom pattern using a proprietary software program. Since we don’t make a muslin, it’s one less time they have to come in. Customers love it.”
To create the software program, Ms. Wallander and Ms. Storms modified an existing product. It took about a year to fine-tune and install the program.
The pattern-generating software and national network of manufacturers make it more likely that Ms. Wallander can achieve her next goal of expanding to other cities. Already her clients come from Dayton, Indianapolis, Louisville and Lexington. About half are repeat clients; others come through word-of-mouth advertising.
While many clients order garments for special occasions, at least 50 percent of the boutique’s clothing is designed for day wear.
“You shouldn’t wait for a special occasion to have something that fits you and feels right,” Ms. Storms said.
By Jenny Callison