Feature: Private Runway 

Meet four women who are turning their homes into salons.

In the living room, an oversized painting of cherubs atop the fireplace surveys the sales floor. Family heirlooms mix with well-designed cottons, silks and tweeds. The creations spill into the dining room where a massive iron chandelier illuminates stylish jackets, skirts, pants and blouses.

The four friends, all passionate about fashion, are consultants in a new kind of home-sales venture.

The idea of marketing products in homes isn’t new. Tupperware parties date back 40 years. But this show and others like it aren’t your mother’s Tupperware get-together. Today, private homes serve as backdrops for a variety of merchandise, including products from brands such as the Pampered Chef, Partylite, Mary Kay, Premiere Jewelry, Doncaster clothing and Juliana.

“Home-based marketing companies are becoming the ideal form of business for many companies that want to expand their client base and revenues,” says Strickler. “Americans are changing the way they purchase. ... with mega stores, Internet shopping and outlets, the retail marketplace offers less selection and personal service.”

As the minutes to the women’s first appointment dwindle down, coffee brews in the kitchen. Background music wafts through the air. Flower arrangements receive a last adjustment.

The home’s two-story foyer houses an oval, full-length mirror and dozens of shoes — all designer samples from the Shoe Box — that guests slip on when they are trying on different outfits.

Not far away is a small table with handcrafted jewelry. Debi Berg, who holds degrees in art education and sculpture, crafts the pieces after receiving swatches of fabric from the current line. The necklaces look as though they were made to complement specific outfits. “I design them without looking at the clothes,” Berg explains. “It’s an opportunity for me to have fun.”

The Direct Selling Association defines this type of selling as person-to-person, away from a fixed retail location. Salespeople can be consultants, hostesses, representatives or distributors. The major draw is extra income. But there’s a secondary benefit: Serving as a hostess to such parties or shows is a great way to showcase your home and to meet and socialize with other people who share similar interests.

The trend seems to be on the upswing. Recent surveys conducted by the association reveal that 55 percent of Americans have purchased goods or services through direct sales. The same survey shows that such sales in the United States have doubled in the last decade to nearly $25 billion and are now more than $82 billion worldwide.

Each of the women hosting the Juliana show brings her own expertise to the table. Horton is a model and actress; Harris worked in advertising and cosmetics; Hancock, who also modeled, helped introduce new designers to Richmond; and Strickler modeled and studied fashion at the Paris Fashion Institute in France. She leads fashion trips to Europe and China for Fashion Prospective Tours.

All four wanted a part-time venture where they could work out of their homes a few times during the year. Harris found out about the Juliana opportunity through a contact in Dallas and traveled to New York to check it out.

“I thought long and hard about it,” Harris says. “I thought we could do this. We have 10 days to show the fashions, and we could choose the weeks. I have elementary age children and I didn’t want to go back to work full time. This was a no-brainer. It was something in our blood.”

Before jumping into the venture, Harris researched the company, learning that Juliana is a $25 million operation founded in 1994. The company features a fashion-forward collection with imported fabrics from France and Italy. The clothing is designed by European-born designer Juliana Kos.

“Juliana is the ultimate in packaging,” Harris says. “Her clothing fits a lot of different body styles and it’s easy to be altered because of the construction.”

The women are responsible for the inventory and sales during each trunk show. Horton admits it’s difficult to transform your home into a boutique. “You have to get into the mindset that your house isn’t your own for those 10 days,” she says. “By the end of the show, it gets old and I want the things out.”

Hosting the trunk show provides the four with an opportunity to socialize and entertain. Before one event, the women hosted a cocktail party. “We wanted the guests to see what it’s like,” Horton says.

Everyone who visits the trunk show is offered either a cup of coffee, bottle of water or glass of wine. “We’ve tried to create a salon setting,” Horton says. Strickler agrees: “Fashion capitals in Europe, like Paris, use old grand homes to show couture fashions. That’s similar to what we are trying to create — homes converted into salons.”

Harris believes this type of home-based venture is most successful in the South. Statistics from the sales association show that 36 percent of direct sales take place in the region — the highest percentage for any part of the country.

“I believe we are more comfortable entertaining in our homes,” she reasons. “Other areas are catching on to this.”

Women crave the personal, comfortable atmosphere of an at-home show. “People still want boutiques,” Strickler says. “We show them the clothes and let them make their decision. They want someone to help them put it all together; give them that total look. It’s not easy to go to different stores to coordinate fashion. This is convenient.”

As she makes a final sweep of the room, Harris looks around and likes what she sees. “Who wouldn’t want to buy clothes in this beautiful home?”

Harris’ instinct was on target. By the time the trunk show closed, 60 women had attended the home event, making it a success in the eyes of the women.

“We had a nice flow of clients,” Strickler says.

On average, each client purchased four pieces of clothing. Popular items included stylish black pants, short jackets, pink trench coats and apricot-colored quilted jackets.

“Color was selling as much as style,” Strickler says. “If we can help 60 women look better and feel better, then we have had a successful show.” HS



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