Friday, November 18, 2011

Jill Donnelly, Owner of Baby&Co.

Baby&Co is a multi-label boutique in the heart of Seattle. It is more than just a boutique, it is a lifestyle. The moment I first walked in, I felt relaxed (almost like home) and a dog came running towards to welcome me. With 38 years of history (it was launched in 1973!), Baby&Co is a great example of a successful store that transcends generations.

I caught up with the current owner of 22 years, Jill Donnelly, as she shares about her role as a buyer, what makes up a woman with great style, her favourite buying destination and a whole lot more! (It's a long interview, so take your time to read and imagine how long it took for me to type it all out. Definitely worth every second.)

What led you to owning a Baby&Co? 
I always love fashion and I always love beautiful clothes. The store opened in 1976 and it was my favourite store. Original owners, Baby and Uri Burstyn had it and it had such an amazing and creative vibe to it and the clothes were wonderful. But, pragmatically, I went to work for Nordstrom in 1977 at the Men’s Department. I thought I wanted to be a buyer when I was 18. 

I took a leap of faith, went to Australia for two years and worked for another company for me to understand the structures behind a great store. I came back and thought I wanted to be part of a smaller identity. So I worked for Baby&Co at 1989. Ten years into it, I got the opportunity to go to Paris and do the buying for Baby and Uri. The streets of Paris, where you see designers with their own store front, small and just really coming into themselves, created great opportunities to have a connection with each of the designers we worked with. 

You see the process in their point of view, what takes to choose the fabric, their inspiration and where it comes from, then bringing them back to a store like Baby&Co, you are truly selling the artist’s point of view. The other thing I love about a small store like this is that I do all the window display, visual merchandising and then just have such a great one-on-one personal relationships with my customers which is key because we work for the customers. The customers then guide my point of view.

What do you like about being a buyer? 
The hard part of a buyer is to take your own ego and your taste, and use the “Who What Where and When” approach. My whole approach to it is to make your everyday life a runway. Dressing my customers for every occasion, be it to a funeral, first date and even the last date, you get to know the lifestyle and body of work of a woman’s life. I just saw this customer; I dressed her when she was pregnant with her daughter who is now 16 years old and I got to dress her as well. It’s generational. And that is so satisfying. It’s very unique operating a store that involves the buyer as the salesperson. 

What are the challenges you’ve faced so far? 
The challenges are the Euro and the economy. You have to be sensitive. Clothes are a luxury. I’ve done well because I’m halfway between. So somebody that buys Lanvin or Prada, they can see the look in our store because I do buy that level of point of view and sophistication. I’m almost second tier from a Rick Owen leather coat which costs about $4,000 but I have this beautiful handmade leather coat for $1,600. While that’s still expensive it’s more affordable. The challenge is that if I am going to have you spend $1,600 on a coat, I must make you see the value in it; each piece is unique and I have exclusives on all my collections. So I really play out against the department stores. 

Another challenge is that because I do buy European products and production in Europe is very expensive. Italian production is the best in the world, nobody manufactures clothing better than the Italians. So the weak US dollar is a huge challenge. And you know, stability of the economy is still on people’s mind in the US and they are still a little cautious. 

I have to educate a customer’s taste level, to show them and have them feel what a beautifully cut garment feels like so they are not just going to pay a high price for a label that they simply recognize. I do carry very small brands that are not recognizable which for me, which is a gift in a way because it is a brand that you do not know about and you got a special one off unique product. We tend to attract customers who want to find their own individual style. 

What is a woman with great style? 
I can wear something outrageous and when I walk into a room I’m selling it because I believe in it. That’s a woman with great style. But if you put on all these great clothes on somebody and she doesn’t feel them, she looks artificial and it is authenticity that makes seamless beauty like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly who have such a natural ease and chic to their look. 

Coco Chanel is also one of my mentors that I follow because her whole point of view is to adapt a garment. Instead of a woman dressing for a man, you dress for you. For women to stand around wearing these clothes just to look pretty is one thing but they couldn’t move in them, they couldn’t ride horses, they couldn’t move fluidly. I love clothes that give women that kind of ease and timelessness. 

What are the local designers you have in the store? 
I don’t have a lot of local designers because I must say, if you are good, and you are local, usually you go off to school in New York. You don’t stay local. I buy European products for two reasons; Europeans wear clothing of a higher standard, they don’t buy as many clothes so the clothes have to be made better and worth investing in. I don’t know that a local designer can hold up next to a European designer. 

Women in America think that fashion is over by the time they are 40. The big direction for fashion, all the trends and fashion are for young skinny girls, whereas in Europe, women in their 40s to 60s are the best dressed women because she knows who she is. She knows her style, the money, the sensibility, and that’s something sexy and alluring about that. But there are American designers I carry, such as Hazel Brown from Los Angeles. 

What’s your favorite buying destination? 
Paris is the birth place of fashion. To go to fashion week in Paris is amazing because everybody from around the world goes. Everybody is so inspirational and we have the true fashionistas there. The stores there are fantastic, from the setting to the merchandising and marketing. The energy there is great. 

New York is great but there aren’t as many great boutiques anymore. It’s mostly brands, boutique is a dying breed. I’m always interesting in finding cool multi-label boutiques in different cities. The culture and the art of life are so great in Paris is so nice, so I love it and I take advantage of it. 

Have you been to Asia for buying trips? 
Yes. Japan is interesting but you see a lot of Japanese designers in Paris. Japanese and Parisian designers have a love affair with each other, so I don’t have to go as far. There’s a fitting issue about the brands I carry. I do have two Japanese collections coming in but women are bigger here. We did carry Comme des Garcons and Yojhi Yamamoto’s Y line but they don’t always fit. Seattle is much more relaxed and practical. But I hate it when people wear their yoga stuff out here. You can’t do that in European city ever. Part of it is just laziness. 

Has Seattle’s fashion scene changed over the past few years? 
Yes. The dressing has gotten more sophisticated because of the industries here. We’ve got Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon, so they brought in people from other big cities. There’s a more cosmopolitan mix of people. People want to dress up more. 

Who is your favourite designer? 
Over the body of work, and in the most fashionable years of my life, I have to say Comme des Garcon. I love her point of view. She is true to herself. It can be very outrageous but I like her philosophy.

How about fashion blogging? 
It’s great! If you find somebody who has a point of view that you love. But there are just so many blogs now. It’s so easy to start a blog. It’s like a mine field. I am too overwhelmed by it. 

What is the store’s concept for this season?
I named this season’s collection, Sahara because it consists of mainly beige, leather, denim, cream and khaki. What I’ll bring in for fall 2011, it is called the Scottish Highlands, because of its various textures, corduroys, cable-knitted sweaters, big yummy camel coats, that whole feeling of a cold country winter. So I got a lot of plaids and fabrics for that to help me tell a very nice cohesive story. 

What is your personal style? 
I have a tomboy chic because of the weather. I wear pants and men shoes. I like a very structured jacket. I’m always in a jacket. I usually add a feminine touch to my look with a miniskirt or a pair of Mary Janes. I like clothes that make me feel comfortable. My core palette is pretty neutral. 

What’s your style tip?
Find out the base colours you like. Invest on core pieces like coats and shoes, which have timeless design. Always invest in a piece that you love to wear over and over again. A scarf is a great accessory to change your look. When you want to have fun with prints, go for low prices. They don’t last. I love a good T-shirt too.

What do you see Baby&Co in ten years?
I find us following a natural thread of great architecture. Our look and feel stays distinguishable and timeless. Customers know exactly what they are going to get when they come into the store. While fashion changes from time to time, the core of the store stays true to itself ever since it first started. When somebody says Baby&Co, you think eclectic, architectural, whimsical and interesting. The image stays strong, relevant and timeless.

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