A YANKEE MAKES GOOD
FORMERLY MALIGNED AS OUT OF TOUCH WITH SOUTHERN BUYERS, MICHELLE HARRISON HAS DONE HER HOMEWORK — AND IT’S PAID OFF.
Byline: Georgia Lee
Sales representative Michelle Harrison has come a long way from the days of being labeled a “Yankee New Yorker,” out of touch with Southern buyers. After numerous expansions and meticulous regional research, she has emerged as one of AmericasMart’s go-getters.
The modest, five-line business that bowed in 1993 has grown to a current 26-line package. In October, Harrison moved into a new 4,000-square-foot showroom, 10S114.
The new showroom, an open, loft-style space, is “high tech, yet comfortable,” said Harrison. A huge red wall with a brushed silver Michelle Harrison logo greets buyers. Wooden fixtures and a separate seating area offer a cozy ambience.
Along with massive direct mail, telemarketing and relationship-building efforts to build business, the newly remodeled space has paid off. In October, the first show in the new space, sales increased 62 percent. Traffic increased 8 percent, and Harrison opened 41 new accounts.
A former schoolteacher in Brooklyn, Harrison left education when she found herself “more of a disciplinarian than a teacher,” she said. In 1977, she left teaching, taking a receptionist job with manufacturer M.J. Originals in order to learn the apparel business from the ground up. After six months, she was running a division. Harrison went on to become regional sales rep for Leslie Fay, opening a corporate showroom in the Atlanta mart. When Leslie Fay went bankrupt in the early Nineties, Harrison branched out on her own.
Originally focusing on special occasion, she has since dabbled in sportswear and expanded into day-into-evening and related separates. Her specialty is building new lines and supporting those that are reorganizing with new backers after bankruptcies or closings.
“We like to pioneer new lines, build them and guide them as they grow,” said Harrison. “In the apparel industry, like the stock market, uncertainty is the nature of the business, but the upside is that it’s very exciting.”
Recent new lines include August Silk Dress, a one-year-old division of August Silk. Also a year old, Zola Evening, a social occasion line owned by Kenny Zimmerman, former owner of Kenar, is designed by David Minka, the former designer of the now-defunct Black Tie line.
Bread-and-butter lines include Bob Mackie Boutique and Jovani, a four-division special occasion line. Adrianna Papell, a blouse and dress line that was part of Harrison’s original package, is still her biggest performer. Contrary to many showrooms’ strategy, Harrison’s lines offer a wide range of prices, from moderate to better, with gowns that wholesale up to $800.
Harrison has branched out into niche areas, such as special sizes, which Southern buyers increasingly demand. Beau Paris, a Texas-based suit line specializes in “interview suits” for pageant contestants. Pageant is a big business in the South, and pageant gowns and suits represent 25 percent of sales.
Harrison has made a concerted effort to research and understand the mind-set of the Southern buyer.
“I was called a Yankee who didn’t understand this area, and not in a very affectionate manner, either,” said Harrison, who visits stores three to four times a year to learn the nuances of business, Southern style.
Among the lessons learned: “Southern customers are not all business — they’re more social, are very loyal, and they expect loyalty in return,” she said.