FROM DESIGNER TO DOWN-HOME
PHILLIP AND SARA MARKEY HAVE PULLED OUT OF THE EUROPEAN DESIGNER STORE BUSINESS AND INSTEAD ARE FOCUSING ON SARA LASIER, A CHAIN OF CONTEMPORARY STORES.
Byline: Holly Haber
Goodbye, European design houses; hello, American contemporary fashions.
That’s the strategy of husband-and-wife team Phillip and Sara Markey, whose company, Houston-based BLT Management, has gotten out of franchised luxury stores and into boutiques specializing in contemporary sportswear and denim. The latest incarnation of the approach is the Sara Lasier boutique in Dallas, which opened Dec. 8 at the new West Village complex of lofts, shops and restaurants in the affluent Uptown area.
Stocked with designers such as Chan Paul and Michelle Mason, Sara Lasier’s slick decor includes polished concrete floors, galvanized steel chairs and rolling fixtures made of steel and blond wood. The 3,000-square-foot store embodies a major shift for the Markeys, who previously had operated a string of franchised stores for Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Max Mara.
“The turning point was about two years ago, when we started to see there would be a change — that designer had peaked and that the designer mode of franchising had changed,” said Phillip Markey. He added that European design houses wanted more control over the stores and operating the franchises became difficult.
The duo sold their six Versace couture and Versace Jeans franchises in Atlanta, Dallas and Houston back to the Versace Group in mid-2001. At the same time, the Markeys chose not to renew their license for their Dolce & Gabbana store at the Galleria in Houston. The pair also sold their two Max Mara franchises in Atlanta and Houston back to the company in 2000.
As they divested the luxury-brand stores, the Markeys launched the Sara Lasier concept in May with a 2,000-square-foot store on Kirby Drive in Houston. The following month, they transformed the former Dolce & Gabbana store at the Houston Galleria into a second Lasier store.
The name “Lasier,” pronounced la-sere, is Sara Markey’s middle name, after the maiden name of her grandmother.
The Markeys believe Sara Lasier will appeal to a group of sophisticated customers who like forward fashion, but don’t want to pay designer prices.
“We found there was a demand for something different, a little bit designer but not couture,” said Sara Markey, during an interview at the Dallas store. “We focused on up-and-coming designers, and we tried to get exclusivity where we could. We work with small companies like Michelle Mason. When I call, she answers the phone, ‘Hello?’ I like that. We get great customer service.”
Sara Markey said she zeroes in on small collections, including Le Gatte for its embellished denim jeans and jackets and Mandalay for its detailed dresses. Larger collections the store carries include Diane Von Furstenberg, Theory and Poleci.
“The market is really driven by young contemporary sportswear right now,” said Phillip Markey, a native of South Africa. “There is some very good stuff coming out of America now, and we are trying our best to be as pro-American as we can. I really think it’s an L.A.-New York moment, but we need to supplement it with a couple of small, not-well-known European lines.”
Among the eye-catching styles in the new Sara Lasier Dallas store are patchwork blouses in organza and brocade by Save the Queen and striped shirts with ruched sides by Ynnub. The Markeys import a private-label collection from Paris, called Bhatti, that produces special items for the store, including a ruched peasant top that retails for less than $75.
Two-thirds of the floor space of Sara Lasier in Dallas is devoted to women’s merchandise, while men’s sportswear — including French Connection, Diesel and Energie — accounts for the remainder.
Phillip Markey said the store’s first-year sales goal is $1 million.
Aside from the Houston Sara Lasier outlets, Phillip Markey said the company is considering opening additional outlets in either the Dallas suburbs or in nearby Fort Worth.
Phillip Markey said he is refining his retail strategies to succeed in a difficult economic climate.
“This is a unique opportunity to do everything better and do your absolute best at service,” he said. “We have narrowed our net to find those shapes and colors and bodies that work best, and we are promoting them harder through visual display.”
The Dallas store is heavily into denim, including styles by Juicy Couture, Paper, Denim & Cloth and Hippie Jeans.
The Houston Sara Lasier stores don’t offer much denim because the Markeys have two stores there called SoHo that specialize in hip jeans labels, including Seven and Frankie B. Also in Houston, is the company’s footwear store, Sergio.
With inspiration from their 18-year-old daughter, Lindsey, the Markeys opened the first SoHo boutique two years ago in Houston and subsequently extended the concept to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., with SoHo Beach and SoHo Home.
“Watching my daughter, I saw a pattern emerging with young contemporary and all these jeans collections,” Phillip Markey reflected.
Retail is a family business for the Markeys. Their sons, Brett and Todd, manage the Dallas and Houston stores, respectively, while Lindsey is studying fashion design and merchandising at Colorado State University.