Being in New York City, especially now that the studio is so close to SoHo, we are very aware of all the amazing boutiques the city has to offer…almost to the point of being overwhelmed!
I’d been putting off buying a garden wedding dress for months. I didn’t want to spend a day going from store to store, but I also wanted to have more of an experience buying such a special piece than sitting all alone in my PJ’s on a Saturday morning and ordering online. I think there is a time to buy something quickly online and then there is a time to make it an experience.
When I was down in Charleston with Tibi for their pre-fall runway show, we stopped in to the boutique Hampden Clothing where creator and owner Stacy Smallwood has turned an historic King Street storefront into a little curated slice of SoHo heaven. I walked in, I said I was looking for a garden party wedding dress, and in 15mins it was done. It felt like I was finding something insanely special without having to do all the work. They carried everything from Alexander Wang to Rag & Bone, Tibi to KENZO and more. It was fabulous.
So what’s the point of covering a store? The point is, Stacy brought New York fashion -avant garde silhouettes, crazy patterns and pieces so chic they look like something a princess would wear – into Charleston South Carolina, a town of 400,000 people, and never looked back. She doesn’t sell beach flip flops or mass-produced product that’s here today, gone tomorrow; she respects her customer’s intelligence, sophistication and style. She created a space where you can love fashion but not have to know anything about it and still be taken care of. She has wound back the clock to an era of shopping where the store was specially curated for you, where shopkeepers knew your name and what you liked, pulled for you from designers when she is on buying trips to New York or Paris, and makes sure you feel as good as you look. In a time where the Internet makes us all so anonymous, it’s a modern day luxury to have someone like Stacy who KNOWS you.
I sat down with Stacy in her store to hear how she created her own fashion universe in the middle of the South.
How did you get into fashion?
I was recruited by Neiman Marcus at Vanderbilt to go straight into their buying program, and it was the best decision I ever made. I moved to Dallas and I was with Neiman Marcus for five years as an assistant buyer and designer in sportswear, and department manager in ladies shoes at the flagship store.
Why do you say it’s the best thing that ever happened to you?
It taught me a work ethic and gave me a bigger picture of the fashion industry that I wouldn’t have gotten. My buyer taught me to – she worked equally as hard if not harder, and she taught me to never ask anybody to do anything you wouldn’t do.
What is it that you like about buying?
I love getting excited thinking about customers in particular, that they are going to love that piece. We really keep individual customers in mind when we’re shopping. And then I love the art of it! I really believe that fashion is art. And something new comes out and it’s just so exciting…I treat it like these little gold finds. Finding a new designer is my favorite thing in the world – it’s so interesting and I feel like I’ve discovered a gem and a new baby and I want to take care of it and introduce it to the world.
What are some examples of young designers that you’ve discovered that you really love?
I love Masscob, it’s this little line out of Spain. There’s only four stores in the US that carry it. It’s so unique, and we’ve been carrying it for three years. I love having something that nobody else has. We were one of the first people to ever carry Rag & Bone. David and Marcus said they remember filling out the FedEx forms themselves and handwriting it to Hampden Clothing. That’s so cool, now to see their growth, and hopefully that happens to each designer we carry.
What is the difference between shopping in a store like Hampden and shopping at Bloomingdales or Macy’s?
Service. 90% of what sells in our store is what we suggest, and what that means is you take a look around, we’ll take a look around and meet in the middle in the dressing room and really find you what is going to look best on you. You get help! And you try things you never would have tried, and you walk out of the dressing room feeling wonderful. None of our people are on commission; it’s about the customer. And you can feel that, here. And we care! We all do this because we love it, and I really think that comes across. I get more excited about a customer finding something they love than I do about taking something from the store for myself. I never take anything…I’ll sell the jacket off my back to make somebody happy, because their excitement about fashion makes me happy.
So when did the idea for you opening your own store come about?
My family is a family of entrepreneurs. We all want to do our own thing – I think there’s a lot of chiefs and no Indians in my family! So I think I always knew the corporate life wasn’t for me. And right when Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone, all these advanced contemporary designers were coming – they weren’t Gucci and they weren’t even DVF. They were doing something interesting and new, and I felt like they were paving the way. And they were best suited in a small store. And I thought that was the time to bring it to Charleston. People looked at me like I was crazy, that I was going to carry Alexander Wang in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007. But it was the chicken or the egg for sure.
Actually starting the store…my family helped. My father is in commercial real estate, and he gave me the money and said, “Good luck.” He helped me get the lease, but he did not help me find the contractor, he did not help me get permits, he didn’t help me get my business license – he basically was like, “You gotta figure it out.” And it was sink or swim. It was really hard. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, trying to figure out the balance of inventory and margins, and how do you make money with this? You’re not in it for the money, in fashion, you’re in it because you love it. Now I really feel like we have the right recipe, the balance between taking risks and having something beautiful and easy for customers to wear.
Will you expand?
I think right now I want to expand through our website. That is where the growth is going, 100%, and that’s where we’ve invested a lot of our time in the last six months and we’re going to in the next six months. Hopefully we’ll be on keep.com, and really work on that platform, because that’s where the growth is happening in the U.S. I want to be relevant online and for people to know us as much for our website as they do for our store.
Do you support any local Charleston designers?
Yes! We have some great jewelry designers – Theodosia is amazing, and I’ve seen her evolution…she was, through us, just featured in Lucky Magazine. It’s a big tusk necklace which is so cool. And then we have Christina Jervey jewelry. We’ve carried Troubadour in the past, which is Lindsey Carter’s brand, and I think we’ll be taking a look at that again because she’s done some amazing new stuff, and…of course, Candy Shop Vintage! They’re doing the Charleston Rice Beads.
What other projects are you working on?
I just got the job as the stylist for NBC Sports! There are five female broadcasters I’ll be working with, one is Carolyn Manno, who I love and was such a joy to work with and do a TV segment for them talking about style in the Kentucky Derby. I’d certainly love to do more fun TV projects with NBC and hopefully that will lead to that. I’m always going up and doing little pop-up shops in New York for clients and flying round and helping them, so I think I’ll be doing a little more personal shopping in the future.
So you do do personal shopping for clients?
Yes, we send a lot of packages by outfit, to people in Texas, California, Macon, Georgia! All over the country. I love that they say, “I just went to New York and went to Barney’s, and you have a better selection and I don’t even have to go to New York and shop anymore, I get to enjoy the city.”
You really do a great edit here. And unlike in a department store, there’s such a knowledge about what the brands are, what the inventory is, so it’s nice to feel like you’re talking to someone who’s educated about fashion.
Absolutely! That’s the thing. So many people come in and they go, “I don’t know any of these brands!” And I go, “It’s not your job to know. It’s our job. We’ll tell you.” People come in, and they’re like, “Where’s my dressing room?” And it’s all pulled for them, we’ve already got everything set up. It’s nice to have a huge room and relax – we have a beer and a flatscreen TV for the guys, it’s always set up on ESPN so they can hang out, a men’s lounge – and on the weekends, they’re hanging out, the men don’t want to leave. And the women are in the dressing room, you know, you get to make both of them happy! And I always say, too, with us, you’re one step away from the designer. Half of these people fly up to New York with me, and meet them, or the designers come here. We can email them directly and say, “Can you get this top?” You’re not going through a buying office, going through one person and another person and another person, to really get the top or outfit you want, you’re just one step away instead of six degrees of separation from the designer.
Is this the first location?
We started somewhere else – we started at 357 King St. It was one block down, it was 1500 square feet, and it is now a Firehouse Subs. Which is hysterical. And then we moved into this location in November 2009, which is 2800 square feet, and then we opened James in December 2012, so now we’re at 4200 square feet.
So tell me about the name Hampden…
Actually, it was my middle name. And also it was my great-great-grandfather, who came from Scotland to Charleston, and his name was James Hampden Small.
So then James the shoe store…
It comes from him as well. Those are my two babies; I don’t have kids, so I have James and Hampden.
We came down here for the Tibi runway show with you guys – how did that come about, having runway shows for the people of Charleston?
I think that it’s important to show people the bigger scope of what’s out there, and have fun with fashion. It’s intimidating for a lot of people. These are events to get to meet wonderful people like Amy [Smilovic], who’s so incredibly down to earth and nice, and to be involved and love it in the way that we do. We’ve found this success with having a start and a finish to a show creates this anticipation for a product like nobody’s business. You get to see it live and then go shop it! It’s an experience that few people get!
Was this set-up your idea?
Yeah! It really started with David and Marcus [of Rag & Bone] coming. And after that, even designers are coming up to me now and saying, “Oh my god, we want to come down,” and I’m like, “Whoa, no way!” So Tibi is the only other person I’ve partnered with to do this. I would do it again, but we definitely need a year to recover! I think we’ll maybe wait for our ten-year anniversary and then do somebody else really huge. It’ll be here before we know it – we usually plan a year out to get this done because there are so many moving parts. And finding the right partner for it is so important – Tibi was such a great partner and wanted this to be a success as much as we did. Not everybody is that way in this day and age. They want to get in and out and grab the money, but it’s so nice to continue working with people who are really doing it because they love it.
Plus, Hampden’s guide to Charleston!
EAT & DRINK
SEE & DO