DALLAS — A pack of successful female jewelry designers has emerged in North Texas over the past decade, despite economic travails and the highly competitive nature of the business.
They include Stephanie Anne, Sarah Briggs, DeAnna Cochran, Jayshree Dalal, Deborah Gaspar, Natalie Lu of NuNu Designs, Catherine Page, Amanda Sterett, Diane Yang, the sister duo behind Bella Rose, the sibling trio of Three Bishops and Shoshannah Frank and Casey Melton of F Is for Frank.
Dallas is a highly entrepreneurial city, and aspiring designers here have easy access to stones, materials and findings at the Dallas Market Center and from dealers. The region also develops young talent with a network of strong fashion schools and a very active chapter of Fashion Group International, which says the city is home to the nation’s largest fashion career day in the country, with more than 1,200 students and faculty attending annually for 40 years.
Current buzz is about Julie Cohn, whose collection bowed this month, and Shona Gilbert, whose first sales were made in the shop at “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” which closed in February.
Surviving in a tough environment is all about originality, quality, value and innovative marketing, designers said — and an intriguing backstory always helps.
“There is a consumer out there, but she’s a lot pickier and many would rather have a unique item that is U.S.-made, eco-friendly and gives back to charity,” observed Cochran, who typically ships 20 orders a day.
Cochran crafts her bohemian line from reclaimed sterling, gold, bronze, leather and vintage chains and has always channeled some profit to charity.
Similarly, story and authenticity gave sisters Tami Morris and Katy Palermo a hook for Bella Rose. The line originated almost two years ago when Morris discovered a trove of medals that her late mother had collected from holy places during her 26-year struggle with cancer of the pericardium. Morris strung the medallions with mercury glass, rosary and vintage beads to create sparkling, symbolic adornments.
“I didn’t want to design something beautiful that would get thrown in a drawer when it’s out of style,” said Morris, who shows in Brad Hughes’ DMC showroom.
Page started selling jewelry that combined vintage and modern elements five years ago; she soon switched to casting designs in bronze and plating them in 22-karat gold to stymie copycats.
“I’ve got about 60 active stores,” she said. “I’ve been picked up by fine jewelers who need lower-priced [merchandise], and I love being their cheap line.”
Gilbert’s Shona line of statement necklaces mixes vintage elements with pearls and minerals. It caught the eye of Hayley Hightower, designer jewelry manager at Neiman Marcus’ flagship, who tested the collection at a trunk show this month.
“She mixes antique with modern and has a lot of one-of-a-kind and limited-edition items, so she has all the elements that are trending now,” Hightower said.
The designer said sales tallied $24,000 in two days, led by vintage double-loop chain and crystal necklaces.
Cohn, who sold to luxury stores during the 15 years she co-owned Two Women Boxing, is bypassing retail with her jewelry, introduced this month.
“There are too many ways to get to your end user now that don’t involve giving away your profit share,” she said. “There is definitely a model for selling luxury direct.”
Cohn invited friends and associates to shop her organic bronze, pearl and semiprecious designs at her home and was stunned to reap $17,000 in four hours. Now she’s recruiting sales consultants around the country who are “50 to 65, smart, creative and can’t get work — an incredibly experienced group of very savvy grown-ups.”
Gaspar is turning to direct sales via e-commerce after years of intensive travel for trunk shows. “I enjoy selling face-to-face, but I feel like you have to have a Web site,” she said. “Then you have to play games on Facebook and tweet and optimize the Web site, and once it’s up, how will I manage the inventory? It’s a major transition.”
Others think there are still advantages to the retail channel. Elizabeth Showers switched from fashion to fine jewelry in 2007, and sells online but encourages shoppers to buy from stores.
“I understand designers’ frustration, but you have to get creative in working with retailers,” she said. “Who will market you better? It’s harder to do it on your own. If you team up with the retailers, so much is possible.”