FORT WORTH WOMEN USED TO DRIVE TO DALLAS FOR THE LATEST LOOKS, BUT LOCAL RETAILERS HAVE WORKED HARD TO KEEP THEM SHOPPING IN THEIR HOMETOWN.
Byline: Kathryn Hopper
Famous for its unique blend of western heritage and world-class culture, Fort Worth is a place where cowboy boots and jeans mingle with designer duds at the opening of a Picasso exhibition or a performance of La Boheme.
Known as “Where the West Begins,” the city is home to more than 530,000 people, and a million more live in the surrounding towns, including Arlington, Grapevine and Southlake. The city has grown and prospered in recent years, enticing Dallas retailers to open Fort Worth locations, and last year downtown stores survived damage from a tornado that wrecked skyscrapers.
This year, boutique owners are girding for a sales slowdown, given falling consumer confidence and layoffs at major employers, including Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which trimmed its flight schedule by 20 percent following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“With consumer confidence going down, I’m sure spending will too,” said Amy Hooper Trott, owner of Fort Worth retailer A. Hooper & Co. In response, Trott is paring back on special occasion offerings and planning to move to another location that will give her better visibility.
Before the national economic slowdown and terrorist attacks, the city was enjoying a strong economy thanks in part to the millions of tourists drawn each year to rustic spots such as The Stockyards, once part of the Chisholm Trail and now home to cowboy events and country music played at Billy Bob’s Texas, which bills itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk. To help live up to its Cowtown nickname, the city holds daily cattle drives from the Stockyards to the banks of the Trinity River north of downtown.
Visitors also come for cultural events at the Kimbell Art Museum, a small but renowned institution, and the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, which hosts the world-famous Van Cliburn piano competition. Sundance Square, a downtown development with movie theaters, restaurants and retail shops, gives the city a vibrant nightlife.
Despite its size, the city’s tight social circles can make it feel like a small town. Boutique owners have to meet their customers demands for exclusivity by limiting stock and even keeping a detailed list of who is wearing what to specific events so clients won’t run into a duplicate outfit.
In the past, Fort Worth shoppers have headed to Dallas when they are ready to do some serious shopping. Lester Melnick and Del Ann’s of Dallas have made the commute for their customers, opening up Cowtown locations of their better specialty stores. The city has long been home to a Neiman Marcus unit in Ridgmar Mall and about year ago welcomed a Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue in an expansion of North East Mall in nearby Hurst.
But longtime local retailers said they don’t mind the increased competition.
“Fort Worth used to be the city that no one noticed,” said B.J. Wilson, owner of the upscale Westside boutique Dressoir who also operates a personal wardrobe consulting service. “But it’s growing, and people are discovering it’s a very attractive city.”
Here is a sampling of Fort Worth boutiques:
A. Hooper & Co.
When Texas Christian University students want a hip dress for a homecoming, they head to this small boutique operated by TCU alum Amy Hooper Trott. Aerosmith is blaring from the store’s stereo system as shoppers peruse racks filled with contemporary designs priced at $25 to $300 by vendors, including Michael Stars, Free People and Trina Turk.
“My customers are young women in their 20s and hip moms,” said Trott, who is 29 and about to be a mom herself. Her own pregnancy inspired her to add maternity and baby clothes to the store’s mix, and both have sold well.
“A lot of children’s stores here have closed,” she said, “We wanted to offer one-stop shopping. You can buy something for yourself and pick up a shower gift for a friend.”
Trott decided to open her store when she went to a sorority party where six of her friends showed up in the same red Ann Taylor dress. She saw a demand for upscale, contemporary fashions that weren’t cookie-cutter looks.
Now she keeps a detailed list of who bought what and where they will be wearing it so her clients aren’t embarrassed by running into a clothing clone. She also travels to Dallas, New York and Los Angeles markets to find new and different lines.
“If someone buys a jacket, they don’t want to see someone else in the same thing the next night at Joe T. Garcia’s,” she said, referring to the huge Mexican eatery in the Stockyards that is a popular weekend watering hole. “That can very easily happen here. I try to target things that are special.”‘
Trott is moving from her spot on Seventh Street near the Kimbell Art Museum to a new location in Chapel Hill shopping center on Hulen Street just south of Interstate 30. The center will also house Central Market, a state-of-the-art grocery store that offers gourmet goods and prepared meals.
“I think it will bring in a lot of new business,” she said of the new 2,400-square-foot location, which is slightly smaller than her current store but has the same amount of selling space. “My customers have busy lives. They’ll be the ones who will stop to see what’s new before picking up a prepared entree at Central Market.”
Camp Bowie Boulevard has become boutique row thanks to its proximity to the city’s upscale neighborhoods, and Burgundies has been a fixture there since opening 19 years ago. While the store recently moved across the street to a more visible location, owners Raye Travis and Kay Cresswell continue to cater to their core customers: women aged 30 and up who want a classic wardrobe punctuated by a few trendier pieces.
Travis said finding clothes for her customers who are typically size 10, 12 and 14, can be a challenge because so many new looks are geared to thin teens and twentysomethings.
“There is a real void in the market now for that customer who wants to look fashionable, not frumpy and old,” said. “I’m 64 and still want to look fashionable, updated.”
Travis travels to New York and Las Vegas shows as well as the Dallas market to discover new lines. Her store currently stocks lines, including David Brooks, Howard Wolf Escape and Central Falls. She says her clients like knits, silks and other soft fabrics that travel well.
“The women of Fort Worth are the most active people I know,” she said. “They’re social, they volunteer. They travel a lot and need clothes they can travel in and work in. They are real conscious of fashion.”
Like Trott, Travis knows her clients don’t want to see the clothes they purchased on everyone else in town. On a recent morning, she spotted a client walking by her store and quickly slipped off the black and white print jacket she was wearing.
“I just sold her this same jacket and I don’t want her to know I’ve duplicated,” Travis said. “It’s especially important to the Fort Worth customer to have something unique. This is a small town.”
Travis hopes that her sales won’t fall given consumer uncertainty. She said her store, which offers apparel priced at $49 to $800, has had sales gains since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
“We’ve had brisk business,” she said. “I’m surprised, but delighted. People are getting on with their lives.”
Del Ann’s owner Phyllis Walker decided to open a Fort Worth store two years ago after a couple of longtime Fort Worth retailers, Mary McCauley and Clothes Horse, closed. Manufacturers who supplied the stores told Walker they needed a new retail outlet in the city.
Her store carries sportswear lines, including Lafayette 148 and eveningwear by Rose Taft Couture plus an assortment of accessories. She describes her clientele as “sophisticated and involved in the community” ages 35 to 105.
Walker, 55, started out in retail as a part-time salesperson at Talbots. After learning the trade, she decided to purchase Del Ann’s in Dallas in 1995. She said the keys to opening up the Fort Worth store were finding the right salespeople and the right location. She found a spot on Camp Bowie Boulevard and opened there in February 1998.
“We don’t do a large volume because we’re only in 800 square feet, but we are seeing double-digit sales growth,” she said. Walker said she isn’t worried that consumer fears will dampen her sales this fall and isn’t shy about reminding consumers they should do their part to boost the economy.
“People are not going to stop going to weddings, they are not going to stop going to church, they are not going into hibernation,” said Walker.
Walker said her Fort Worth customers aren’t the same as her Dallas clients. She alters her mix of gowns and sportswear to cater to their needs.
“In Fort Worth the customer is not as frequent in purchasing,” she said. “They will make an outfit last versus Dallas customers’ need for something new.”
Walker also tries to be an active part of the Fort Worth community because her customers, even those who occasionally shop in Dallas, want to boost their hometown. Walker’s store is involved in local fund-raisers such as the Dress to the Nines event benefiting the downtown YWCA Child Care Center.
“In Fort Worth, the customer wants to know you, they want to know you are part of the community,” Walker said.
Dressoir and B.J. Wilson & Associates
For the most part, Fort Worth is a conservative town and retailers don’t get avant-garde, but B.J. Wilson, owner of the upscale Dressoir boutique and a wardrobe consulting service, said women here also want to be in step with the latest looks. The store carries lines such as Nicole Miller, Elliot Lauren and Donna Degnan.
This fall she is seeing interest in fishnets, tall boots and short skirts. She pointed out that Fort Worth’s cowboy heritage is also reflected in many clients’ closets.
“Of course there’s a big western influence here and it just so happens that western is big in New York too, just look at what Madonna’s wearing — cowboy boots and jeans. That connects with Fort Worth.”
Wilson opened the boutique in 1997 in part to help provide clothes for her growing wardrobe-consulting business, which opened in 1983 and now serves more than 400 clients. The offices of the wardrobe service, called B.J. Wilson & Associates, have large rooms where Wilson can lay out a complete wardrobe with matching accessories for each client.
Her services include wardrobe consultation, which runs $150 an hour; personal shopping, $50 an hour, and providing a computer printout and wardrobe photo book that details wardrobe combinations, which costs $25.
On one recent morning, she had prepared a flexible wardrobe of two dozen or so items complete with accessories for a client who was traveling to the California wine country. She also recently put together a wardrobe for Suzanne Schieffer, the wife of former Texas Rangers owner Tom Schieffer, who was appointed ambassador to Australia by President George W. Bush.
Wilson said many busy women are looking for a helping hand to coordinate the best of what is already in their closets with new items that reflect the latest trends. While Wilson admits that the sagging economy may hurt sales of her retail store, she isn’t seeing a drop in demand on the consulting side.
Like other Cowtown retailers, Wilson is active in charity events including an annual benefit for the Tarrant County Crime Prevention Resource Center. Wilson said that even though the competition among women’s specialty stores has heated up in recent years, Fort Worth shoppers still prefer the service offered by independent retailers.
“I see a big interest in people wanting smaller stores,” Wilson said. “People want that personal attention you can’t get at the mall.”
The bubble-blowing machine is going full blast outside of this Camp Bowie Boulevard store, enticing shoppers to come in and check out the latest in funky gifts and chunky jewelry.
Inside shoppers find T-shirts that read “You Looked Better in the Chatroom,” and “Just Researching My Novel.” There’s an assortment of Dirty Girl bath products and lamps shaped like Volkswagen bugs.
Earth Bones owner Martha Gensheimer describes the store’s merchandise mix as home furnishings, gifts and jewelry, but has a harder time coming up with her customer base.
“We get everyone from teenagers to 90-year-olds,” she said. “Most of our shoppers are women, but we get some men too. I think they are looking for something fun, something different.”
Gensheimer started the store with her sister, Stacey Crane, 14 years ago. Operating on a shoestring budget, they stocked it with homemade jewelry and items they found at Goodwill like the dishes they jazzed up with paint and ribbons and dubbed “Laura Petrie dinnerware,” after Mary Tyler Moore’s classic character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Gensheimer’s husband, Chris, entered the business when her sister moved to Hawaii. The couple expanded to a second location in downtown Fort Worth and added a store in University Park’s Snyder Plaza by Southern Methodist University. As the business grew, they broadened their buying beyond Goodwill. Now Gensheimer purchases most of the merchandise, including beaded bracelets and silver earrings with semiprecious stones, from vendors at markets in Los Angeles and New York.
Last year, Earth Bones had to deal with damage wrought by the spring tornado, hurting sales in the Sundance Square location. The normally vibrant area filled with movie theaters and restaurants was hurt by clean-up efforts and consumer concerns about navigating around damaged buildings. But Gensheimer said shoppers are returning.
“It was hard, it took a year for people to come back downtown,” she said. “We’re finally getting things back on track.”
She is optimistic about sales going into fall and winter because the store’s price points range from a 99-cent Pocket Angel talisman to a $200 tapestry.
“People are still going to buy birthday presents,” she said. “They may cut back on big ticket items, but they’ll want the small products that will make their home feel more like a haven.”