Michelle Farmer is moving up. The Palm Beach-based founder of the women’s wear line with four specialty stores in South Florida and Southampton, N.Y., inked a deal with BRE Hotels & Resorts to launch outposts at the hospitality group’s Waldorf Astoria Biltmore Arizona in Phoenix, and Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea and the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua in Hawaii. Once they’re up and running by year’s end, BRE’s Hotel del Coronado off the coast of San Diego will follow. Each measures about 1,000 square feet, the same size as her other boutiques except Palm Beach’s 3,000-square-foot flagship.
Separate from her BRE partnership, Farmer operates two locations at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. She said her casual concept in the resort’s beach club was busy over spring break, while her more upscale assortment in the main resort is temporarily closed during the property’s renovation. Farmer’s Palm Beach and Southampton stores thrived during the pandemic, too. The Southampton store’s sales never let up after Labor Day, so she transitioned it from seasonal to year-round and only closes two days a week due to labor shortages.
“I never expected these kinds of numbers. I’ve almost made my year,” said Farmer. “Top clients shopped nonstop, and a lot of our seamstresses worked from home. We did a ton of custom gowns for stay-at-home date nights by dropping off swatch cards and meeting in private.”
Farmer has had a few lucky breaks during COVID-19. She and her husband own her Palm Beach store’s building, as well as a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in West Palm Beach, which they bought in 2017, and remodeled into her factory with polished cement floors and steel factory windows as partitions for natural light. She plans to add a second story.
The self-taught designer picked up sewing and technical drafting classes at FIT but mostly learned through trial and error. She still designs everything including her stores’ architecture and interiors, though her full-time production team has grown to a patternmaker and five seamstresses. The same person sews each garment from start to finish. Another COVID-19 advantage has been controlling production based on demand and shutdowns, but she’s always preferred small runs.
“We’ll make 50 of a body to test in the store. After getting feedback and perfecting the fit, we’ll do it in different fabrics,” said Farmer, whose sole pandemic supply issue with fabric sourcing has been importing silks from China.
She’s reissuing cashmere knits and introducing outerwear and shearlings. Home items, already a key category, will have a big presence in her hotel stores. Outside vendors, notably emerging designers, make up 30 percent of her boutiques’ inventory. With more stores on the way, her buying team will expand from two to five full-time staffers and relocate from the factory to the Palm Beach flagship.
COVID-19 hasn’t been all smooth sailing. A boutique in a leased space in Greenwich, Conn., was short-lived. Farmer isn’t keen on opening her own brick-and-mortar retail moving forward.
“We’ll do more luxury hotel partnerships, especially because we need the increased security for the fine jewelry we carry. I love catering to the hotels’ different locations and guests who come from all over and want to take something special back home as a souvenir,” she said.