Influential Oakland retailer Sherri McMullen, who has made it part of her philosophy to support color makers at her inclusive luxury specialty store, is in expansion mode, with plans to boost her growing e-commerce channel and launch an incubator for young designers in a new 10,000 square foot warehouse space.
The fashion leader is also celebrating her 15th birthday by taking her store on the road, starting in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she will hold several events this weekend, then moving to Detroit for six months. starting in September and hosting a three-day celebration and fashion show in November in the Bay Area featuring 15 exclusives from 15 designers.
“It’s important that we have brands of people like me because I know firsthand how difficult it is to run a business when you have very few resources,” said McMullen, who was the first retailer to buy CFDA Women’s Designer of the Year award-winning Christopher John Rogers’ collection, which she offers in her lifestyle boutique alongside Stella McCartney, Khaite, The Row, Jacquemus, Carolina Herrera, Peter Do, Sergio Jewelry Hudson and Khiry, glassware from Estelle, Ankara pillows from Lagos-based Lisa Folawiyo, books such as “Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora” and more.
The McMullen e-commerce site has a section highlighting “Our Black Partners.”
“More consumers, not just black consumers, more consumers in general are looking for color designers and black-owned brands, and it’s an easy way for someone to go and identify brands that maybe ‘they didn’t even know that were founded by a black owner,’ she said of the added exposure.
This is the fastest growing segment of the business for McMullen. More than 35% of its sales were generated by black-owned brands in 2021, up from 11% the year before, she said. “Investing in these companies is important – not just giving them my platform, but investing in our community as a whole.”
Originally from Oklahoma, McMullen was a buyer at Neiman Marcus before moving to the Bay Area to work as a textile buyer at Pottery Barn Kids. She fell in love with the Oakland community, which was then full of thriving small businesses. “I was writing a business plan while still working, and found an 800 square foot space on Piedmont Avenue that was still under development, had no flooring, no plumbing. I started looking and imagining where the cash envelope and locker rooms would go, and we ended up opening in 2007.”
There hadn’t been a luxury store in Oakland since I. Magnin closed in the mid-1990s.
“The Bay Area has a bad reputation, but the Oakland customer is unique. There’s such a sophisticated style here and customers don’t care so much about the brand as about smaller, more independent designers, and that’s what we’re known for.
Withstanding the 2008 recession, California’s laid-back revolution and COVID-10 shutdowns, she now occupies a 2,775-square-foot space on Broadway, where she sells to clients including Phenomenal Media founder Meena Harris; “And Just Like That” actress Karen Pittman; Huey P. Newton’s widow, activist Fredrika Newton and author/political strategist Alicia Garza even did the hair for some of them, including Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry and actress Ayesha Curry.
McMullen also addresses the technical class. “We work with many executives and young women in technology, as well as leaders in biotechnology,” she said.
And they don’t want to dress like Elizabeth Holmes.
“Everyone wants to get dressed – they said after lockdown they wanted to burn everything in their closet,” she laughed.
Between 2019 and 2021, the company’s total sales grew 31%, with a 23% increase in-store and a 601% increase online, said McMullen, who acquired customers through social media, rewards programs and sending “gift boxes” of styles to buy at home. “Our plan is to grow e-commerce tremendously over the next 10 years,” she said, adding that after relying on friends and family for funding, she is now actively seeking outside funding.
“When I started and went to the banks for financing, they said the retail business had a shelf life of about two to three years, and we’re not going to give you a money because we don’t trust you. I even had some money myself to invest in the business and a lot of experience, so I checked all the boxes, and they still said no” , she recalls.
So she got a $50,000 loan from friends and family, which she repaid in three years. “Very few black designers have come to this place on their own,” she acknowledged, noting that she still struggles today to turn to private equity and venture capital for support.
And yet, McMullen’s store has become such a draw that customers come from LA and fly there directly from the airport. Its largest markets are California, New York and Texas, and it is looking to tap into others.
McMullen buys collections all over the world and is as passionate about storytelling as he is about styling.
“I’m always looking for things that move me. When I talk to designers and hear their story and their inspiration for a collection or their brand in general, that’s what excites me. It can be how they support other people and communities they live in, or how they bead and hand-dye and use traditional techniques. I just know if our customers are going to love it and we weren’t wrong,” she said, adding that she can take risks on younger brands that big stores can’t, and enjoys working with designers on issues such as production and quality.
She has an eye for spotting new talent from New York to Nigeria and developing ongoing relationships with designers like Tibi’s Amy Smilovic.
“We really grew up together…[Tibi] was a contemporary brand when we first started carrying it, and now it’s turned it into a lifestyle brand,” McMullen said. “It resonates with me, I wear it every season. these are the things I want to live in. Her joggers, which I can wear to take my son to soccer practice, or I can wear her strappy dress with one of her blazers. It’s easy to mix and match your pieces and that’s the case with many of the brands we carry. I want our customers to feel like our store is a closet of things that can work together.
“Sherri has always had a point of view and has never tried to be everything to everyone. She has a strong sense of personal style and her best thing is being pretty candid with her opinions and making them known. to her clients,” Smilovic said. “Sherri bought it because she believes in it. For herself and for her client.
“I think the whole category of independent specialty stores is interesting to watch. Businesses whose owners are present and invested in their bottom line are seeing tremendous momentum right now. Customers see it and feel it, whether in-store or online. Sherri builds a human connection. If you go to a department store, you might be lucky enough to find a stylist to connect with, but the whole franchise? Unlikely. That’s a plus for Sherri, it’s actually a real person,” the designer continued.
McMullen first met Lagos designer Lisa Followiyo on Instagram, and has been selling her collection fusing West African textiles with contemporary shapes exclusively in the United States for the past four years.
“What I know about working with brands from different parts of the world is that it’s not always on our schedule,” McMullen said. “When we receive the parts, they will be magical and we don’t mind waiting six to eight months. Few people in the industry accept this, especially traditional retailers who are so heavily seasonal. »
From New York, she helped train Aisling Camps, a mechanical engineer turned knitwear designer. “During lockdown we were zooming in and she was trying on rooms in her flat. I told him to “ship everything to me, I can’t believe no store picked up your work!” We started talking about margins and pricing structures and making what she does less of a hobby and more of a business.
McMullen was the first store to buy Christopher John Rogers’ collection in 2017. “He’s so talented, he has a strong point of view, I love his use of color and volume. There was nothing on the market,” she said, noting that five years later, it’s still her fastest-growing brand. “We can’t keep it in stock. “It doesn’t come, and by the piece within a week. We quadrupled our purchase after the second season, and it just keeps getting bigger. We’re not even close to hitting the cap with it.”
Along the same lines, it plans to roll out an incubator program in the 10,000 square foot warehousing space it recently acquired in West Oakland for its e-commerce operations. “We’ll have a dedicated room for a student from an art school or a design school who doesn’t have a physical studio,” she said. “I will work with them individually, help them find business partners and production facilities locally or using my network. It’s about nurturing new talent so they can survive.
In the meantime, she’s kicking off her birthday party in Los Angeles, taking possession of a house at 5356 West Boulevard in the historic Black Leimert Park neighborhood for a taster’s dinner on Friday, a day of shopping open to the public on Saturday and a roundtable discussion on Sunday with Studio One Eighty Nine designers Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah.
“It’s a great way to test the market,” she says.
In Detroit, which is experiencing a fashion renaissance thanks to Tracy Reese, Detroit is the New Black and other brands, McMullen will set up shop in September across from the downtown Shinola Hotel.
“When I think of the different areas that we want to be in, similar places in Oakland, which has such a rich black history, art and culture, are meaningful to me,” the retailer said, adding that she was also looking for At New York.
In August, as part of Obama’s portrait tour, she will have a pop-up at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco with a selection of products from black designers and a conversation with Natasha Becker, curator of African art at the museums. the fine Arts. .
It’s a track for his dreams for the next 15 years.
“It’s really about continuing to invest in the brands I care about, growing the incubator program, offering more styling services as we style a range of leaders and influencers, artists and activists, and to have physical spaces across the country that are truly meaningful, where we feel deeply rooted in community, arts, fashion and people.