After two hours, a sizable dent in the Pinot Grigio, and an indeterminate number of sweaters, the two blondes in Polly Sturm’s basement show no signs of slowing.
The women model silk blouses, Pucci-esque vests, and elegant coats. Items that have won approval are set aside on a metal rack. A white ribbed sweater is thrown over a chair—still in the “maybe” pile.
“Now I could see you in this color, Terri,” says Sturm, sliding a raspberry-hued suit jacket off a hanger. Sturm has been hosting clothing trunk shows in her Chevy Chase house for the past four years, and she’s learned how to work a room.
Valerie Schulte, a first-timer, pours herself another glass of wine. “I thought I wasn’t going to get sucked into spending a lot of money here,” she says. “I was wrong.”
Schulte is not the first to be seduced by an in-home trunk show. Since the days of Tupperware and Mary Kay, women have sold products out of their living rooms. But a new era of high-end home shopping has arrived. Upscale clothing, semiprecious jewelry, monogrammed baby clothes, and custom handbags are today’s game.
Trunk-show junkies say they like getting stylish goods without the hassles of regular shopping, such as attracting the attention of salespeople and finding parking. They enjoy the camaraderie of shopping with people they know.
Some shows are casual drop-in affairs where children are welcome. Others are by appointment only, drawing from an exclusive invite list. Tricia Lott, wife of Senator Trent Lott, sells the Carlisle Collection from her home, while Allison Brooks, who creates jewelry under the label Queen Bee Designs, has held a private show for Lynne Cheney.
Hostesses work mainly on commission, pocketing an average of 10 to 15 percent of sales. But buying and selling between friends can have its drawbacks. What if a neighbor neglects to pay her bill? Or if a customer changes her mind on that handbag, but the hostess won’t take returns? ➝
Polly Sturm’s basement, painted a soft yellow and fitted with recessed lighting, is an ideal backdrop for the colorful, textured fabrics that punctuate Etcetera, the New York clothing line she sells. Etcetera is a trendier, more affordable cousin of the Carlisle Collection, owned by the same company.
Sturm, who has two teenagers, a dog, and a husband who is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, left the workplace 15 years ago to raise her children. Hosting trunk shows allows her the flexibility to be around when her kids get home from school.
Four times a year it’s showtime, and her family knows she’ll be running around nonstop. “I’m exhausted,” says Sturm, during a lull in a marathon day during her August fall show. By dinner, which consists of an apple and some Doritos, she’s already handled nine clients.
When Terri Rabel, an old friend from her full-time working days, shows up with Schulte, a potential new client, she perks back up.
Coming down the stairs, the women are met by clothes in a burst of blues. A glittery buffet of chunky necklaces is laid out next to a bar that has been turned into a sales counter.
Sturm greets them cheerily, letting them poke around before she moves in. “This is our menopause sweater,” deadpans Sturm, showing the women, who are in their fifties, a top with decorative vents on the sleeves. “For people with hot flashes.”
Sturm knows her audience. While her clients range in age from 16 (her daughter, Kathryn, has been drooling over a $500 pink leather jacket) to 87, most are mothers working part-time or are full-time professionals like Rabel and Schulte.
“I’ve probably done my personal all-time best here,” says Rabel, who buys armloads of clothes each year from Sturm. She slips on a $165 cropped wrap jacket with scarflike panels in the front. Schulte suggests she throw the panels over her shoulders, “You can do a bolero,” she says. “Cha-cha-cha!”
Samples do not come in every size, but if a customer who is a size 12 likes a pair of pants whose sample is a size four, there’s usually a pair of pants in the line to try on for size. “There is a degree of guesswork involved,” says Sturm, but she says regular clients learn the line and its fit.
Schulte likes the jacket too, and both women put it on their order form. Schulte, whose fashion rules include no skirts, nothing brown, and no animal fur, is dismayed to find out the white sweater she likes is trimmed with mink. It goes in the “no” pile. Sturm tells her to think on it; she can always call her and order it later.
Sturm has learned some near-universal truths about women and clothes: No woman is happy with her body, black is always in, and people buy more when they get personal attention.
She’s also had her share of difficult customers. One day she saw a client wearing a piece of clothing she had bought at her trunk show. The woman returned the item a few days later. Sturm gave her her money back without a word. “I think of the long term,” says Sturm. “She’s also a good friend.”
Having friends as clients can present difficulties. Occasionally, friends don’t bother to pay. She’ll have to call and remind them. If that doesn’t work, she will mail an invoice. “I’ve always gotten my money,” she says. “It’s never gotten ugly.”
Pressure to Buy
Michelle Schoenfeld is no stranger to problem clients. The 37-year-old also hosts trunk shows for Etcetera in Potomac. A woman once came to one of her shows brandishing a wad of bills, eager to wheel and deal. “Oh, come on, honey,” she recalls the woman saying. “What’s my discount for cash?”
“I think people think that because it’s in your house, it’s discounted,” says Schoenfeld. She never invited the woman back.
Other people have come to her shows, rifled through clothes, and left without buying. After 3½ hours of sifting through pants, skirts, and tops, one woman said to her, “That was fun. Thank you.” Clothes were everywhere, says Schoenfeld.
Some invitees feel pressured to buy because they know the hostess or designer and don’t want to offend. “You feel more obligated to behave as a friend than if it’s simply you against the store,” says Christina Wilkie, who plans special events for the Aspen Institute and has been to several trunk shows.
When she was at one show, she was offered a glass of red wine. Then a friend bumped into her. She spilled Cabernet all over an orange organza skirt. The hostess was nice about it, says Wilkie, but she felt obligated to buy the $280 skirt even though it wasn’t her size. She gave the skirt to Goodwill.
A friend from nursery school invited Abbie Stubbs Burke, a 27-year-old nurse, to a show in Chevy Chase where she had her jewelry on display. When Burke got there, she realized the jewelry was out of her budget. “I pored over all the earrings to find the cheapest ones,” she says. “It was kind of embarrassing.” She says she felt she had to buy something to avoid being rude. There weren’t many other people in the room: “Everybody was watching me, I felt.”
She found a pair of simple but stunning blue gems. The price? $1,000. She pulled out her father’s credit card, reserved for emergencies. “Now he calls them my emergency earrings,” she says sheepishly.
There’s the added element of peer pressure from friends or other attendees, says Katie Tarbox, an editor at Washington Life magazine. “They’re oohing and they’re ahhing,” she says. “That helps put people over the edge on whatever they’re going to buy.”
Some women, Schoenfeld says, buy a dozen things and return them all: “They want to spend lots of money in front of their friends.”
If two friends both like an item, there is no need for a standoff. Most trunk shows display samples, and clients order items they like. Jewelry designers simply make another bracelet or necklace.
Unlike stores that may have 30-day return policies, trunk-show return policies vary and are usually up to the seller. Sturm gives clients about a week to make returns and will give cash back as long as the clothes are unworn and with tags. Some sellers do exchanges only. For children’s clothes with personalized monogramming, sales are usually final.
Some women do resist the pressure to buy. Marshall Kiker attended a trunk show at her aunt’s house in Old Town for Bosom Buddy Bags, a company that sells handmade purses. The bags cost up to $250 and are decorated with vintage pins, feathers, and silk ribbons.
Kiker says she didn’t feel guilty not buying anything because she brought two friends with her, both of whom left with purchases. Plus, her mother had already bought her a purse as a gift.
Prices aren’t always indicated on invitations. Wilkie went to one show where T-shirts started at $375. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she says. Still, she appreciates the trunk-show concept and has come away with items she loves. “Where else can you get beautiful pieces that you’re not going to see on anyone else?” she says.
Clothing at trunk shows generally costs more than choices at a department store but not as much as for top designers like Chanel and Escada. Women who like to hunt for bargains are not likely to enjoy trunk shows. What keeps many coming back is that the lines promise high quality. And once a client becomes familiar with a line, she can pick out clothes quickly.
Hollis Younger, 60, has been attending Carlisle Collection shows for ten years. The Bethesda resident hates going to big malls and likes that she can view a CD of the line before she shops to check out which clothes, belts, and jewelry interest her. She likes Carlisle clothes because they travel well, are coordinated, and come in a variety of colors and fabrics. “You can put yourself together in a neat little package without a lot of trouble,” she says.
Customers like Younger are prized on the trunk-show scene. Susanne Seidman, who started a business called Lilly’s Pad, sells art smocks, bibs, and burp cloths to the preppy set out of her Alexandria home. She says the women who host trunk shows make up a small circle in Washington—all seem to know each other, and some hosts get competitive.
“There’s definitely some jostling,” says Seidman. People have peppered her with questions about who is on her invitation list and who has bought her products.
Many women enjoy trunk shows because they can be more like cocktail parties than business affairs.
At the Cummings Collection, a show run by five women who met through their children’s elementary school in Chevy Chase DC, everyone seems to know everyone else. Women catch up on gossip as they peruse toys, clothes, holiday decorations, baby products, and cookbooks. “We usually talk each other into getting something,” says customer Melissa Labutta.
Susan Thompson-Hoel of Vienna also appreciates the social aspects of trunk shows. She is a representative for Beaux et Belles, a New Orleans–based company that makes children’s clothes and accessories. As a new mom, she says, “You want to be with other adults.”
At a show this past summer, Thompson-Hoel took orders from a clientele dominated by Junior Leaguers in flowered miniskirts with babies on their hips and toddlers underfoot.
Back in her basement, Polly Sturm says Etcetera offered her a position as a regional manager. She said no. “I like selling,” she says. “I like visiting with my friends.” With that, she turns back to Rabel and Schulte, whom she’s been watching out of the corner of her eye. She has a top she thinks will look fabulous on both of them.