DESIGNING DIVAS

Byline: Georgia Lee / Rebecca Kleinman

To The Max
Women’s Contemporary
Mari Max, St. Simons, Ga.
A relative newcomer to St. Simons, Mari Max has gained enough momentum since 1994 to win a DIVA retail award this year.
Owner Mary McMillon McKenzie, a former buyer wholesale sales rep, is clear about what lead to her success, and what will maintain it.
“Specialty retail is all about unique,” said McKenzie, whose motto is, “Need has nothing to do with it.” But exciting consumers with must-have items and impulse buys is not as easy as it looks. Timing is key to easing customers into trends, along with interpretation and education. Fit is imperative, as is superb customer service that makes it all easy for the customer.
McKenzie has to love what she buys, and be willing to wear it, to sell it wholeheartedly. The store’s look is more forward than other stores here, slightly pushing, but never tearing, the envelope. McKenzie scours the media, keeps trend notebooks and uses a buying office to keep abreast of fashion. The most important aspect of building a loyal following lies in listening to the customer, she said.
The 2,200-square-foot freestanding white building in True Oaks shopping center, resembles a cottage. Wood fixtures, ceiling fans, neutral colors and antique furniture inside carry out an inviting, homey ambience.
Concentrating on sportswear with core lines such as Yansi Fugel, Work Order, & Trousers and Margaret M., she also adds unique resources and novelty finds from Atlanta and New York. For spring, she’s excited about French toile and striped textured prints. For fall, Paula Lishman’s politically correct knit fur jackets and vests have been strong, as well as denim lines, from Cambio, for a more mature customer, to the hip Paper Denim & Cloth.
Prints have come on strong this year, from florals to conversational retro prints. She doesn’t carry Lilly Pulitzer, but offers sophisticated resort-style prints from CJ Lang and Tibi. Australian line Walking Art offers vintage-inspired and novelty looks, such as jeans printed with famous doors of Spain.
Accessories, which grew to 30 percent of sales as she phased out social occasion, get the same novel treatment. She carries Leslie Fendig exclusively, a local jewelry semiprecious stones and freshwater pearl pieces, as well as Rachel Abrams’s vintage bead bracelets.
McKenzie sells oversized bags with bamboo handles by Clever Carriage, leathers by Monsac and printed duffel bags , cosmetics cases and hangers by Small Beginnings. She recently added shoes and loungewear, with around 10 shoe lines including Anne Klein, Audley and Robert Clergerie. Loungewear and pajamas, from Loungerie, Lounge Act and P.J. Salvage, are displayed on a bed. Twice yearly, she has an in-store skin care clinic hosted by her mother, a skin-care specialist.
With a newly launched Web site, she markets and promotes with e-mail photos of new merchandise, and plans to eventually sell over the Internet. With sales increases each of the past four years, business is now established and steady. But for McKenzie, complacency isn’t an option.
“It’s much more work today than it used to be when you could just drop money and wait for business. We have a constant challenge to stay unique, and communicate more with,” she said. “If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t do it, because it is such hard work.”

Hometown Girl
Rising Star category
Kristi, Knoxville, Tenn.
Like many wide-eyed, young Southerners, retailer Kristi Ogle moved to Atlanta from Knoxville, Tenn., with the agenda of learning big-city ways and business.
After attending a few fashion design classes in Atlanta, Ogle did something atypical for most transients: She went back home. “I guess I was a little homesick,” she said. “I was so inspired by Atlanta’s great stores, like Mitzi & Romano and Rexer-Parkes, that I wanted to bring that kind of shopping home.”
In the spring of 1998, she opened Kristi, a 1,500-square-foot contemporary store in Knoxville. Equipped only with a degree in fashion merchandising and design from the University of Tennessee and many years working as an assistant manager and buyer at a frame shop, she headed to her first market trip in Atlanta.
She buys item-driven lines — including Three Dots, Easel and Seven — as well as collection-oriented lines like Tahari, BCBG Max Azria, Laundry by Shelli Segal, Trina Turk, Jenne Maag, Milly, Poleci and Chaiken.
The store also occasionally carries Kay Unger, Phoebe and Vivienne Tam. To dress up a window, Ogle also picks up Pamela Dennis gowns.
Accessories lines the store carries are Arteffects, Lee Angel jewelry and Tracy Watts. Over time, Ogle’s confidence has increased, evident in annual sales gains, including a 30 percent jump in 2000.
Ogle and a partner opened a shoe store, Pumps, next door, in August 2000. The store’s vendors include Sigerson Morrison, Stuart Weitzman, Claudia Cuiti and Kate Spade.

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