Byline: Rebecca Kleinman

Independent sales rep Leslie Haddon’s resume reads like an old-fashioned coming-of-age story, with showroom owners Karin Berger and Steve Levine playing her mentors and some of Chicago’s big-name retailers serving as her playgrounds and finishing schools.
So, it was only fitting that this debutante of sorts should hold her “coming-out” ball for her first showroom, Cole-Haddon Ltd., at the first StyleMax show in October 2000. But Haddon reports she couldn’t have asked for a better launch pad, listing the show’s staff support and organization as dream-like benefits.
“It was so much easier than working at the New York shows,” she said.
Speedy exposure was another major plus. “StyleMax’s set-up allows buyers to walk around and see all the new lines, whereas they might not realize you’re at the [Chicago Apparel] Center because they’re so used to going into the same showrooms,” said Haddon.
By the time she landed in Karin Berger’s showroom in 1998, Haddon had already outgrown her local retail fishbowl, not to mention that working holidays and weekends traveling as a trainer had lost its appeal.
Nonetheless, she credits stints at Bigsby & Kruthers, Club International and Garden Botanica with honing her sales, management and training skills. And she credits her last gig, Fitigues, with giving her that extra push into the business arena.
“They hold an entrepreneurial philosophy, which I liked a lot. I learned how to run my own business that way,” she said.
That independent spirit came in handy during her stint with Karin Berger, who spends a great deal of time on the road. As the showroom manager, Haddon was happy to stay put, concentrating on customer service and the Chicago markets.
Then came the chance to work out of her home for Steve Levine. The only catch was that the position involved traveling to Wisconsin, Illinois and her home state of Ohio.
“Steve is a great teacher. He taught me the travel part of this business and how to organize. I also got to see a lot of my family back home,” she said.
But like many employees with long hours, she concluded it’s best to spend them working for oneself.
Adding a “fairy godfather” element to the tale, it just so happened that an account recommended her as its favorite Chicago rep to a new line around the same time.
“When I told Steve I was leaving, I was flabbergasted at his reaction. I’ve heard of bosses wishing you their best, but he actually went out of his way to recommend other lines looking for reps,” she said. To this day, Levine and Berger act as advisers.
Haddon sees their helpfulness echoed in her up-and-coming peers. She’s pleased to be surrounded by new young reps who support one another in creating a noncompetitive environment.
“We suggest each other’s lines at markets and on the road. I just did a road trip with Sandra Soba, and it worked out great, because we introduced one another to our different accounts,” she said.
The same vibe fills her cozy 600-square-foot permanent showroom on the 13th floor at the Chicago Apparel Center.
“I don’t want anyone to think they can’t come in and walk around. I don’t want to be big and overwhelming,” she said.
Limited space means choosing lines with a quality-over-quantity approach. According to Haddon, Devan, a sportswear line founded in Los Angeles by the former owners of Max Studio, is performing unbelievably. She hails its contemporary bodies with a woman’s fit, excellent price points ($23 to $48 wholesale), wide sizing spectrum and every-15-days delivery schedule.
“One thing I look for in taking on lines is the wonderful people [behind them]. All of my manufacturers want to build a line,” she said. As an example, she cites Body Action Design (BAD), calling their fall jumpsuits “incredible,” while gushing on about their ability to accommodate reorders. “I never have to worry about fill-ins, plus their different items cross over perfectly into misses’ or contemporary markets or both,” said Haddon.
To complete the picture, Montreal-based Kukara’s blends of cashmere, wool and silk hold more of a European flair, while Dallas-based Bentley Arbuckle’s exclusive prints and novelty knits lean more toward traditional looks with a contemporary twist.
Though Kukara is her highest-priced line ($65 to $275 wholesale), Haddon considers it solid fashion at a good value. She also supports Bentley for its reorders, misses’ fit and cotton silk knits.
“It works well because if someone isn’t a prints person, they usually like their sweaters,” she said.
Haddon takes her lines on the road “a ton,” but tries to cut down by participating in the Minneapolis and Beachwood shows. Both are great for those hard-to-reach accounts in upstate Wisconsin and North and South Dakota. For national presence, she hits all the New York shows.
The story wouldn’t be complete without a little romance. (It may even make the other reps a tad jealous.) As a fellow entrepreneur, Haddon’s husband is able to help out one week per month, whatever her desire may be.
“He does all the driving and unloading!” she explained. “Or he’ll come to market if that’s where I need him.”
At the end of each month, she hands “the poor thing” a shoe box of receipts, since he handles the business side, too. It enables her to get out there a focus on what she loves: selling and meeting with customers.