Byline: Rebecca Kleinman

When independent sales rep Steve Ettinger isn’t working, he’s working out. This bare-bones lifestyle may seem rather strict, even pious — unless you love what you do, in which case, it’s fun.
As a third-generation rep, the boy’s simply got retail in his blood. Spending some 40 weeks a year on the road, developing close, long-term relationships with retailers, trying to figure out his next direction — these are the things that keep him going, satisfied, while the rest of us are just awaiting the next episode of “The Sopranos.”
A “Lone Ranger” of sorts, Ettinger works for himself and by himself, though during the Chicago markets, he does employ two assistants and his wife (whose sole duty is to bake much-revered, chocolate chip cookies).
“I prefer to do all the work myself; there’s no replacement. I’ve tried it before, and it’s not worth it,” he said.
To makes things slightly more manageable, he limits his approximately 300 active accounts to Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
It also helps to look at his showroom, located on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart, as a home where friends — as he describes 90 percent of his customers — drop in. Over the years, they’ve gotten the routine down pat. Ettinger sends out a monthly planner with information on show dates. When he calls far in advance for a show appointment, they say, “Hold on” and go grab it.
His well-oiled system of doing things owes much to a few decades’ worth of experience. At the age of 20, he dove head-first into the industry at Ship N’ Shore, the New York blouse company at which his father and grandfather had worked. In 1975, he transferred to Cincinnati, where he lives now, and began attending Chicago markets in the late Seventies.
During the preppy Eighties, Ettinger experienced a “terrific” nine-year run with J.G. Hook, until opening his own multiline showroom in 1989.
“I saw the consolidation of major stores and lines coming, plus the shrinking of marketing centers meant less need for regional showrooms. So the future was left mostly to independent reps like me,” he said.
That successful decision was just the beginning of a constant goal to reinvent himself within a cyclical market. Nowhere is this more evident than in his direction. Ettinger used to carry only “country classic” labels, whereas 50 percent of his inventory is now devoted to updated bridge, or contemporary lines with a misses’ fit.
“There’s still good business in my former direction, but this new trend is where the growth in my business is coming from,” he said, citing Burns as an excellent example of a “hipper, youthful-looking line without the daughter’s fit.”
Of his other lines, including Bushwacker, Chava and Bowdon, only South Cotton/South Wool is original to the showroom’s founding. To the delight of retailers who complain about not finding enough dresses, Ettinger added a day dress line this year. A division of Paris Star, O. Suzzane features upper moderate, day and evening dresses in European fabrics and styling. A better outerwear line, Four Seasons-London, also made its debut recently.
Ettinger has moved around quite a bit too. His third and current showroom of a little more than 600 square feet sits on the back hall of the 12th floor. Though its six work stations are very busy, he loved participating in October’s first StyleMax for the high visibility alone.
“I felt an excitement from the buyers that I haven’t felt in Chicago in a long, long time. I signed up for the March show right afterward,” he said.

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