The View from 2Marthas

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by Martha Sussenbach

“Build it and they will come.” –God to Noah

About 2 years into our business, Martha Iler and I decided to expand our gift shop. What could we add to our line of handmade jewelry, silk scarves, knitted wearables? It seemed that adding clothing would fill a niche in our town. A search online, reservations made–on to the Stylemax show in Chicago.

Stylemax is held in the Merchandise Mart. The Merch, as I like to call it, was built in 1930 on the North Side of Chicago. At 4,000,000 sq. feet, it was the largest building in the world. It has 18 base floors and 25 tower floors. We didn’t know it, but for our very first dip into the world of fashion, we were about to find ourselves on a 200,000 sq. foot floor, with over 2000 vendors vying for our attention.

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I’m a Project Runway expert on fashion, and as far as I know, Martha doesn’t watch the show. After we mastered the parking and the maze of elevators, the next challenge was to keep our chins above water in a sea of black-clad shoppers, who seemed to know where they were going at a very great rate of speed. They all had appointments. We didn’t.

When we asked for directions, a well-meaning vendor looked us up and down, then said, “I assume you are interested in the moderately priced clothing.” Hey. We were wearing our very coolest SKIF sweaters. Whaddyamean?

We learned a lot in the two day visit to Stylemax: Pilled sweaters and ripped jeans are in–but not at thrift store prices. There is a growing number of women who design clothing in their homes, and they know what women want. Moms are designing great kids clothes.

From across the room, we spotted a green polka-dot dress which lured us to a land called COMFY. We purchased a small line to bring back to our hometown, not knowing if it would sell, but, that’s part of the risk. You don’t know until you try.

“(I’m) the type of woman who climbs the ladder wrong by wrong.”–Mae West.

Were we wrong to add a line of clothing? Wrong to get a liquor license? Wrong to add specialty coffee to the menu? Wrong to start a dinner club? Don’t know. We can’t channel the future to see how it will all work out.

I do know that we’d rather have the adventure of taking risks over just running a business. Chicago was a helluvalot of fun.

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