THRIVING AGAINST THE TRENDS

Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON--Jackie Chalkley, who began her career as a potter, has a nontraditional approach to retailing that sets her three boutiques in the Washington area apart from other stores.
"She doesn't pay any attention to what's going on in the market; she pays attention to what's going on for her," said Terry Ventre, owner of the Terry Ventre Showroom in New York, who has worked with Chalkley for about 12 years.
Chalkley, for example, "doesn't believe in denim for her customers, and it doesn't matter if denim's hot or not that season," Ventre said. "That is what makes her successful. There are plenty of retailers that go with the trends--that's their business."
Ann Kasper, executive vice president of Eileen Fisher Inc., New York, Chalkley's biggest supplier, said the Chalkley stores reflect their owner's sense of style.
"She has a wonderfully simple, sophisticated look," said Kasper, adding that the Eileen Fisher lines, like others, are presented in an appealing and artistic way.
Chalkey's women's specialty stores, which average 1,500 square feet, are in Chevy Chase, Md., Georgetown and the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington. Last year, they generated a total volume of $2.3 million.
In an interview in her Chevy Chase office, Chalkley described her inventory as "very design-oriented clothing with an art-to-wear twist."
"Many pieces are one of a kind or limited editions. If not, they're generally very well designed, simple, and easy-to-wear basics [that complement the art pieces]," she said.
Novelty is the goal for many of the sweaters, dresses and jackets she carries. Many are handwoven, hand-dyed, or feature patchwork or appliquA designs.
Chalkley opened her first store in 1978. A potter at the time, she began selling "artist-designed" apparel to complement her ceramics.
Seventeen years later, Chalkley has learned the rules of retail, but chooses to ignore many of them when making merchandising decisions. In addition to bypassing fashion trends, she pays little attention to price points; shoppers can find anything from a $14 pair of earrings to a $1,500 one-of-a-kind, handwoven jacket in her stores.
Chalkley, who holds degrees in art history and fine arts from Brown and Columbia, also sells tabletop ceramics that are scattered throughout the stores in cubbyholes, or on stacking boxes along with rows of sweaters.
Another way Chalkley differs from most retailers is that she holds just two sales a year, rather than bowing to pressure to put up sales racks or offer specials when traffic is light --even before Christmas. Shoppers are rewarded with a New Year's Eve everything-on-sale promotion, for which Chalkley fans line up on the sidewalk well before the doors open at 9 a.m.
"The customers really love it--they try on clothes in the back room, in my office, they share dressing rooms and help each other by giving opinions. We have waiters in black tie serving champagne."
The New Year's blowouts, which end at 5 p.m., do their job.
"We sell out almost everything," she said.
The three Chalkley shops feature soft lighting, plain white walls and jewelry displayed on pedestals under acrylic boxes. The dressing rooms are decorated with sconce light fixtures, dried-flower arrangements and post-Frank Lloyd Wright chairs.
The garments also have a unified look.
"Color really drives each season," Chalkley said. "Almost everything in the store in a given season can be worn together."
Chalkley and her top aide, district manager Lisa Williams, put together a new color palette each season, and work with vendors to derive a selection of garments that fit into the scheme and can be worn together.
The three Chalkley stores combined carry as many as 8,200 items at the peak of each season. Vendors range from well-known names such as Tomatsu and Eileen Fisher to small concerns Chalkley comes across at craft markets. All are sold with Jackie Chalkley labels, although some vendors, such as Eileen Fisher, are sold with both labels.
Eileen Fisher makes up between 15 and 20 percent of Chalkley's merchandise at any given time, Chalkley said. According to Kasper, the Chalkley stores are one of Eileen Fisher's 10 largest accounts. The two companies have been doing business for between six and eight years, Kasper said.
Currently, vests and dresses are the hottest categories, while chenille is the most popular fabric.
"We've sold thousands of chenille sweaters," Chalkley said. Crinkled rayon is also big.
Black is a mainstay because it goes so well with more complicated pieces. Overall, apparel accounts for about 70 percent of sales and accessories about 25 percent. Five percent comes from home decorative items.
Chalkley describes her customer this way: "We have a real mix, but in general we have a very educated, somewhat intellectual clientele. They're pretty individualistic in the way they put themselves together."
Even with her well-heeled clientele, Chalkley has not been immune to the downturn in apparel demand in the last few years. So far, this year has been "very bumpy," although warm weather strengthened April sales, she said. She expects this year's sales to come in somewhere between flat and up 5 percent against last year, or $400 to $600 per square foot. "If I do better than that, I'll be delighted," she said.
Most of her jackets retail for between $200 and $300, tops generally range between $50 and $200, dresses sell for $100 to $300 and most pants and skirts go for $50 to $200. But it is not unusual for garments to sell for much more or much less than that.
Asked how she's survived the difficult retail environment, Chalkley said, "It's tough. Having a niche that's very definite is very important, but I wonder when times are tough if I should compromise [by offering more promotions]."
She has tried to combat waning apparel demand with increased customer services, such as sending sales associates to customers' offices with clothes for them to try on. Associates continually update shopper profiles with purchasing information, and they get on the phone when something comes in that seems right for a customer.
"For special events in our customers' lives, we'll send a note, flowers or a gift certificate," Chalkley said.
"We also communicate with vendors if we have a tight cash-flow situation. You need to be honest and you can work things out. We all need to draw together during tough times."
Two vendors interviewed said they've never had a tardy payment from Chalkley. Kasper, though, said Chalkley has sometimes called to let them know a payment would be late.
"We have a long-standing relationship with [Chalkley]," Kasper said. "We support her and she supports us, and you know she's always done a really good job in presenting the collection, and I think that's very important."
As for expansion plans, Chalkley said they are "not imminent.
"It's something I wouldn't rule out," she said, "but right now I'm in a wait-and-see about where this whole climate is going."

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