Wednesday, March 21, 2012

PIONEERS: The doyennes of Sun Valley fashion


Deborah Burns

These five women have each spent over 20 years dressing the ladies of the Wood River Valley. Valley Woman sat down with these pioneers of local fashion to get some insight into the many vagaries of styling the women of sun valley.

Fashion is ephemeral, highly personal, subjective. Fashion in the Wood River Valley is all that, and then some. It's timeless with a twist, practical yet pretty. What valley women wear complements their healthy lifestyles and beautiful surroundings, but it must also withstand the elements. It's not always easy to look great while enjoying the mountain lifestyle, but the women of the Wood River Valley do. 

Though many spend the majority of their time in workout clothes, there is certainly more to prêt-a-porter in the Wood River Valley than the ubiquitous Lycra and fleece.

Five local women have been defining Sun Valley style for locals and visitors alike at their boutiques, cumulatively, for nearly 120 years. Deborah Burns (Burnsies), Kathy Crosson (Panache), Lari Lee Davis-Dolan (Maggie's), Paula Proctor (Paula's Dress Shop) and Rochelle Runge (Elle Rose) have been keeping women fashionable, fabulous and forward-thinking in the mountains of Idaho for over two decades and are consequently some of the area's most successful retailers. 

Each lady brings her unique sense of style and taste to the valley while riding the ever-changing waves of a resort retail industry with grace and aplomb.

Deeply entrenched in an industry subject to both the vagaries of fashion and the economy, the longevity of these businesses is something to be commended and studied.

The successful equation for all these businesswomen appears to be a clear vision, an infallible adherence to their personal taste and a passion for what they do. While always looking for ways to introduce trends into the valley and keep it current, they heed the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

"To me, Sun Valley style is a beautiful cashmere sweater, great jeans and a great pair of boots in the winter," Crosson said. "In summer, everyone wears pretty, colorful dresses and great sandals or white jeans with a flowing top. It's simple and elegant."

Understanding Sun Valley style and local women allows these vanguards of valley fashion to stay fashion-forward while keeping true to their vision. Each translates the local sensibility differently, but all agree that the women who live here want to look great, whatever their style. 

Paula Proctor, the eponymous owner of Paula's Dress Shop in Hailey, has been dressing local ladies for more than 30 years. Her career began in the late 1970s at the Trail Creek Village location, and her early lines featured the French country look, with cinched waists and gypsy blouses. 

"It was so much fun," Proctor said with a laugh. "Buying trips were to Paris and we held fashion shows at the La Provence Restaurant across the way. It was very glamorous!"

But evolution was inevitable, and Paula attributes her success to an ability to reinvent and revitalize her lines.  Beginning in the 1990s, she transitioned to a shop that specializes in dresses.

"They are flattering and versatile—you put one on and you're ready," she said. 

Paula Proctor

Dresses work well for her customers who rely on Proctor to make them look polished for work or elegant for a benefit.

Burns, or Burnsie as she is known, opened her first Ketchum storefront in 1979. For her, the key to retail longevity is paying attention to how people dress and helping them do it better. To look good despite a climate that can call for a puffy coat in the morning and a T-shirt by afternoon calls for lots of layering, an emphasis on active wear and what she calls "Ketchum After Dark." "Active, colorful and livable," is how Burnsie describes the valley's style needs yesterday, today and in the future.

All the doyennes agree that retail longevity hinges on outstanding customer service. Many of the shoppers who come through their doors are greeted by name and directed to new arrivals that may be from their favorite designers, a style similar to something they've purchased before, or to a piece that the owner simply thinks the client will fall in love with. Customers they don't know personally get the same attention, which builds trust and keeps ladies coming back for more. 

"My favorite thing to do is to style someone from head to toe," said Runge, who has sold some of the most distinctive names in fashion at Elle Rose for more than 20 years. "There's nothing better than completing an outfit with the perfect bag, beautiful shoes and accessories."

"We make sure we get our ladies into the right dress," Proctor said. "We pride ourselves on not selling someone something they don't look great in. We've done all the editing and can help make appropriate and flattering selections for work, daytime or special events."

Rochelle Runge
Photo by Vincent Sisilli

Davis-Dolan, who has run Maggie's in the Galleria building in Ketchum for 23 years, agreed that honesty is why her customers trust her and keep coming back. 

"I have no problem saying, 'That just doesn't suit you at all—we can do better!'" she said. 

At Panache, which has been in business for more than 30 years, customer service extends to sending boxes of clothes to part-time residents.

"We select pieces from our latest season and send them out," Crosson said. "They can try them on and keep what works."

Faces behind the windows

In the changing world of fashion, the one consistent in each of these stores has been the real woman behind the facade. What differentiates these boutiques from many big-city establishments is that you will find Paula Proctor at Paula's and Deborah Burns at Burnsies. Rochelle Runge, Kathy Crosson and Lari Lee Davis-Dolan are the faces behind the window displays at Elle Rose, Panache and Maggie's. The stores' reputations are inextricably linked to their owners. Chances are, on any given day, the proprietor of each boutique will be there offering insight and details that only they can provide on the merchandise that they so painstakingly selected. Shopping at the area's boutiques is as much about the experience as the clothing and accessories.

"The real heart of my attachment to the fashion business is my clientele. I love having a true boutique where with each piece I order I have my specific customers in mind," said Burns.

"I am the buyer, the merchandiser, the sales person, the bookkeeper, you name it!" Davis-Dolan said.  

It's this hands-on approach to which she attributes her success.

"It's about service, period," Crosson said. "We strive to be the best we can be at customer service. I'm really proud of the people who work for me—they're amazing. Many have been with Panache for years."

These fashion pioneers also insist on a hands-on policy when it comes to stocking their shelves. Proctor sums up her philosophy simply: "I trust my taste. I go to the shows. I can't buy something without touching it, feeling it and seeing it for myself."

Runge travels to New York, Paris and Italy each year and attends the runway shows.

"I love the trips because you get to see what will be available a full year ahead. Then I can plan ahead, select and edit the lines that will work in our resort town."

She believes most looks work here. "We can easily mix athletic and elegant," she said. "Most women here changed their look dramatically for evening, the symphony, the benefits—all of the wonderful events in this town."

Crosson loves to go to market and trusts her years of experience when buying for the store. "I know what I like. If I have to think about it, I know it probably won't work here," she said. "I know how to translate for a resort town."

But even with loyal customers, outstanding service and top-quality merchandise, resort retail is a tough industry in which to survive. Though these five women have proven formulas for success, they have had to adapt to changing times.

Proctor moved her popular Ketchum store to Main Street in Hailey when Trail Creek Village in Ketchum was sold four years ago. She said the relocation was a good business move. 

"I love the small-town vibe in Hailey," she said. "There's a cool feel here and I get girls of all ages through the door."

For both Crosson and Runge, the need for their businesses to adapt took the form of expansion. A few years after Elle Rose relocated from the Galleria to the Christiania building on Sun Valley Road, Runge opened a sister store next door to offer a different price point.

Panache expanded this winter, taking over a neighboring space in the Sun Valley Village despite the uncertain economy. "We just needed more room," Crosson said. "We got to spread out a little more. It was a great business decision."

Kathy Crosson

Burns has moved storefronts four times during her tenure in the Ketchum retail world to stay at the center of the action. And while Maggie's has been at the same location since it opened, Davis-Dolan said she's working with customers who are, understandably, concerned about their spending.

"I've definitely noticed that clients have become more price conscience and value driven," she said. "But that's not a bad thing. It keeps me on track when selecting my lines and keeps me thinking about my customers' needs."

The future for fashion

Despite the economic uncertainties, fashion is a career that all would recommend to young women. 

"Many of the young girls who help me at the store have gone into the fashion industry," Burns said. "I love mentoring them. I try to help everyone who works for me understand the mechanisms of the business and cultivate their fashion instincts."

"A small store is a great place to start working if you love fashion," Proctor said. "You get a look at the whole operation."

Crosson called fashion "a very viable business" for the next generation of retailers. "Wherever there are women, there will be fashion." Vibrant, thriving women's boutiques are important to the overall health of the valley's economy in many ways, beyond just keeping local women up with the latest trends.

"We all give a great deal to our local nonprofits by way of gift cards for auctions and other items," Burns said.

Success for these women has been surprisingly simple, despite the economy. They love what they do. They work really hard. They care about their customers.

Lari Lee Davis-Dolan

"For me, it's more about the people than the fashion," Davis-Dolan said. "The majority of people who shop at Maggie's are people I would want to have over to dinner."

"I have a very distinct vision, a passion for what I do," Runge said. "But I also really enjoy it. We have a ball at the store."

And it doesn't hurt to be surrounded each day by beauty.  

Despite the recent closures of two well-established valley clothing retailers, Ketchum Dry Goods and North & Co., there is still room for optimism.  

"After all," Burns said, "Fashions fade but style is eternal, and we're always going to have our own unique style in the valley."

As winter melts away and the snow on the mountain turns to corn, valley women begin to look longingly toward spring and what they will be wearing once the layers come off and the boots are packed away. But what's coming to these boutiques largely mirrors the optimism of these grand dames of Sun Valley fashion. A riot of color, bold prints and ladylike chic are all part of what's about to be trendy in Ketchum.

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