Capitol, the 6,000-square-foot luxury retailer in Charlotte, N.C., on April 27 will celebrate its 20th anniversary, its longevity a testament to founder Laura Vinroot Poole’s Southern charm, insistence on elevated service and sophisticated eye — not without an appreciation for whimsy.
As a Southerner, Vinroot Poole, has a healthy respect for tradition, but she’s not stuck in a mint julep haze. “Fashion is changing so quickly,” she said. “It’s fun to be a part of the change. But if you’re not changing with fashion and actively participating in it, you’re dying.”
Each season, Vinroot Poole and her team see about 300 collections in the world’s fashion capitals, searching for items that will inspire her clients to part with their money. She rarely makes mistakes because she knows them intimately. “We edit better than anybody else,” Vinroot Poole claimed. “Department stores don’t edit anymore, they buy the whole collection. Clients don’t like that.”
A lot has changed about the fashion industry, with collections beamed across the Internet for consumers’ consumption, but the fact that Vinroot Poole’s clients have early access to the runways hasn’t hampered sales. “For a great merchant, it doesn’t matter if a customer has seen the product a lot, a great merchant can make the client fall in love with the product,” she said.
“Otherworldly” is how Vinroot Poole describes Capitol, with its well-appointed rooms punctuated with touches of bright color, fresh floral arrangements and natural light streaming through windows that frame a view of the spacious courtyard with a vegetal wall created by the French botanist Patrick Blanc.
Vinroot Poole has infused Capitol with the Southern flair for hospitality. “The client comes first,” she said. “Our store is very instantly friendly.” Brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Oscar de la Renta and Etro are mixed with promising young designers such as Horror Vacui, Saks Potts, The Vampire’s Wife, Wandler and Leur Logette. Fine jewelry by Marie-Hélène de Taillac, Irene Neuwirth and The Gem Palace and shoes by Nicholas Kirkwood, Aquazzura and Sophia Webster round out the assortment.
“Dries [Van Noten] is always our bestseller,” Vinroot Poole said. “It always sells out and we sell it out of the box. Valentino, Balenciaga, Céline and Dolce & Gabbana are the best-selling heritage brands for spring. We just picked up Carolina Herrera and it’s doing very well under Wes Gordon,” who consulted with the brand for spring and fall before being named Herrera’s successor as creative director, with his first solo collection due for spring 2019.
Capitol’s annual sales volume is just under $2,000 a square foot and it’s been growing at a rate of 10 percent a year since the recession.
Reflecting on Capitol’s history, Vinroot Poole cited the Great Recession as one of the business’ most difficult times. “Honestly, to have gotten through the recession is a big deal,” she said. “We’re a banking town. Wachovia was based here. Bank of America is here. It crushed us. It wasn’t just that we had some inventory in an empty store. There wasn’t a reason to dress. The biggest reason I got through the recession was the kindness of my vendors. They allowed me leeway and trusted me that I was going to pay them back.”
E-commerce was a challenge in the beginning when department stores were losing sales to the Internet and “slashed prices when they shouldn’t have,” said Vinroot Poole, who wanted to be part of the new economy, and developed House Account, an e-commerce site and app for boutiques. “We asked other retailers to join us. I believed in it,” she said, noting that House Account, which features just under 100 stores, is profitable. “It’s been really helpful. We also have a really great relationship with Farfetch.”
Launching Capitol itself was no walk in the garden. “I’m totally self-taught,” Vinroot Poole said. “I was an art major at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We were in 800 square feet and just made it up as we went along. I had no business experience. It was really successful from the get go. Prior to the recession, people were buying like mad.”
Vinroot Poole in 2015 launched a 3,000-square-foot men’s store, Tabor, with her husband Perry. Tabor sells Saint Laurent, The Elder Statesman, Ralph Lauren, Thom Browne and Saturdays, among other labels.
“The next thing is for the men’s and women’s stores to be in one space together,” she said. “We’d have to find a whole new space.” Aside from that change, Vinroot Poole is content with the size of the business. “I’m really happy with where we are and what we’ve done,” she said. “It’s kind of manageable. I don’t have any grand plans. I don’t think I’d be able to serve my clients the way I want to at a larger scale.
“A bigger mission for me is working with young women and helping them reach their career goals,” said Vinroot Poole. “Capitol is mostly women. We start with interns at age 15 and have a variety of different ages. I’ve been working to understand how to motivate Millennials.”
An anniversary capsule collection of limited-edition pieces created by 20 designers will be available via Farfetch, with a selection of accessories sold at Capitol. There’s The Elder Statesman’s Greg Chait’s black sweater festooned with bright charms; Novis’ Jackson vest rendered in pale pink mink; Peter Pilotto’s runway dress transformed with the addition of a sleeve; Rosie Assoulin’s cotton tie-dye maxidress, and Harley Viera-Newton’s HVN shirt-dress updated with a botanical print.
“The capsule was fun to do and the designers really enjoyed it,” Vinroot Poole said. “What made it successful is that I’m not a designer. I let them be creative and think outside of their comfort zones.”
Vinroot Poole will fete clients and designers with a down-home party on April 27 at the North Corner Haven Plantation. “It’ll be a real Southern fly-fishing, skeet-shooting, flower crown-making pig roast and moonshine bar with entertainment. We’ll also have an oyster bar,” she said, adding that guests will include Neuwirth, Assolin, Pilotto and Harley Viera Newton.
The following day, the group will go to Tabor for Bloody Marys and hot dogs. In the evening, Vinroot Poole will co-chair with Perry the Mint Museum’s annual gala, which will be attended by Alex and Eliza Bolen [of Oscar de la Renta]. “The Mint is the oldest museum in North Carolina,” she said. “I was a trustee for seven or eight years. We’re introducing a fund-raising effort in costumes.”