Thursday, August 05, 1999

Dressing direct


Using their homes as showrooms, saleswomen link buyers to quality clothing makers

BY REON CARTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A home shopping network is alive and thriving in the Tristate, and you don't have to turn on the television to participate.

        Dozens of home-based direct-sales operations are providing alternatives to Tristate residents looking for something beyond the usual mall and deparment store fare. And it's not just cosmetics, toys and home goods.

HOME-BASED LINES
  The Tristate is brimming with home-based apparel. Most of these women's lines are similar in quality and price to upscale labels, such as DKNY, Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman. Here's a sampling. The companies can put you in touch with a Tristate representative.
  • Doncaster (800) 669-3662: The 68-year-old company is the pioneer in the home-based trunk show business. Described as refined American sportswear with classic work staples. Price range: jackets $240-$495, skirts $130-$295, pants $150-$295.
  • French Rags (800) 347-5270: Casual, work and dressy knitwear. Similar to lines such as St. John and Missoni. Price ranges: skirts $150-$300, jackets $300-$600, shirts $125-$150.
  • Carlisle (212) 751-6490: Classic ready-to-wear separates with a couture attitude. Price ranges: jackets $395-$495, skirts $225, pants $230-$245
  • Worth (800) 967-8465: Professional, casual and formal wear. Price ranges: jackets $350-$495, skirts $200-$275, blouses $200-$250.
        More clothing is going out through this pipeline. In addition to older, established companies, such as Doncaster, Worth, Carlisle and French Rags, several smaller upstarts are creating a buzz.

        Three of these niche home-based lines are the Shape of Things to Come, maternity wear, Kelly's Kids and Orient Expressed, both children's lines.

        The Shape of Things To Come, based in Mount Lookout, specializes in the type of maternity wear favored by style-conscious celebrities including supermodel Cindy Crawford, Madonna and actress Lisa Kudrow (Friends).

        When Sarah Dunning of Terrace Park, the mother of a 3-month-old, was pregnant, she searched for maternity clothes with an edge.

        “When you're pregnant you still want to look good,” she says. “I thought the selection at most stores was too limited. I had better luck with (Shape). I got a lot of wear out of my velvet leggings and silk blouse I got there. I also had fun with my bell bottoms.”

        Of her experience with Shape she says, “It was comfortable and convenient. I'd just call them and ask if I could come over. Sometimes I'd bring a friend.”

        Ceci David and Christy Dorger, both stay-at-home moms, started Shape two years ago. Their business has doubled, with customers coming from Louisville, Lexington and Columbus to check out the clothing they display on racks and wall hooks in Mrs. David's basement.

        Unlike most direct-sales operations that only show sample garments two to eights weeks a year and take orders, Shape has clothing in a variety of styles and sizes that shoppers can take home with them. Stock includes fashion-forward maternity lines that aren't found in local stores, such as Japanese Weekend, Duet Designs and Ma Divine Clementine (for spring and summer). Prices range from $50 to 70 for pants, $40 to $80 for shirts/tops and $90 to $120 for dresses.

        “We buy everything up front wholesale,” Mrs. David says. “I don't believe trying to fit with samples works well for maternity. These women need to try things on to see how things fit and feel. They also need to wear them the right away.”

        There's also a simulated “belly” customers can use to see how they might “grow” into the clothing. That's one advantage in-home shopping has over catalog or Web site shopping.

        Shape owners send invitations four times a year for trunk shows. They also schedule open houses during peak shopping times, but customers can make appointments year-round to view the lines. (Information: 533-9923.)

        Trunk-show shopping for children's apparel with such lines as Orient Expressed and Kelly's Kids also is experiencing growth in the Tristate.

        “We literally cannot produce enough clothes to meet the demand,” says Sally O'Meallie, a co-owner of the New Orleans-based Orient Expressed line, which specializes in moderately priced handmade, hand-smocked children's clothing. (Smocking is a shirred, decorative stitching.)

        Kathryn Harsh hosts Orient Expressed shows in her Mount Lookout home twice a year.

        LouAnn Mauk does two Kelly's Kids shows a year from her Terrace Park residence and takes the party to other locations by request.

        The Kelly's Kids line is for children ages 6 months to 14 years old with some matching adults outfits. Appliques are a signature feature. Rompers ($27), sweat shirts ($25) and dresses ($56-$70). Fall clothing samples will arrive next week. (Information: 831-4655.)

        Orient Expressed sizes run from infant to size 5 for boys and size 8 for girls. Dresses/rompers range from $40 to $60; boys short-alls from $35 to $55.

        The trunk shows resemble Tupperware parties, without games, so shopping is a social event. Mrs. Harsh mails approximately 200 invitations to yield a group of 60-70 people.

        Refreshments are served and guests mingle as they check out sample garments for the coming season. Orders are taken and merchandise is shipped six weeks later.

        Mrs. Harsh, who works on commission, says her Orient Expressed business tripled in three years. Her next show will be Sept. 9. (Information: 321-7998.)

        Kim Mount of Mount Lookout has attended most of the Oriental Expressed shows to shop for her daughters, ages 1 and 3.

        “I'm attracted to the personalized service and the hand-smocking” on the garments, she says. “Not many stores in the area carry it. And the bonus is I get a mom's night out. It's an opportunity to have a drink and catch up with friends.”

       



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