When former tech guru Christine Campbell
opened Crimson Mim, her Los Altos, CA boutique pioneering emerging accessory designers, in 2005, there weren't many places to buy Loeffler Randall. After successfully navigating the recession, Campbell opened a second location at Town & Country Village in nearby Palo Alto just last month, giving the locals the clothes they always wanted (but couldn't find). With a memorable name (an homage to Campbell's grandmother and her favorite color) and a stable of devoted clients, this little boutique that could is poised to be a big player in the Bay Area retail scene. ASHLEY BAKER
Briefly, how did you get here?
I grew up in northern Ontario, with a brief detour into Guatemala for 5 years between the ages of 10 and 15. I lived in El Astor on Lake Izabal. My dad worked for a mining company, and they discovered a nickel there. I’m sure part of the reason that I love fashion is because I lived in a village in the middle of the jungle, where a local woman sewed my clothes. And then after college, I started my career in high-tech, working at a variety of companies in a variety of capacities for the first 15 or so years of my career in Canada. I worked as a buyer at a microcomputer distribution company, a middleman that purchases software and hardware for resale for other retailers. Then my ex-husband and I started a consulting firm for CRM software—customer relationship management—that’s how I ended up in California. Then we started another marketing and consulting firm, and our company was bought. The new owner hired our employees, and it was a great time to leave, because I didn't have any obligations to my company or my employees.
Why did you choose retail?
I looked around at all the opportunities within fashion, thinking, where would I fit? There are a lot of fashion companies in the Bay Area, but there weren't many independent boutiques—and the merchandise they carried was not of interest to me. I believed there was an opportunity to support up-and-coming designers, and the best fit was to start my own store. Because I owned my own business in the past, I knew I could do it. In the beginning, we were footwear-focused, and at the time, there were some nice independent shoe stores in San Francisco, but wasn’t much in the peninsula. A lot of it was either Arthur Baron-ish—more comfort-driven—or at a lower price point. I felt like there was an opportunity at the $300 price range, and I opened the store with that premise in mind. I discovered our customers were really looking for a complete look, but they were looking for us to provide that head-to-toe experience. We opened Crimson Mim on Valentine's Day in 2005. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what I was doing.
How were you feeling?
The first week we were open, people were coming in and buying things, and I was so surprised! The business was completely learned on the job. I feel like I’m pretty good at observation, so I spent a lot of time in other stores and reading the trades to figure it out. From essentially the beginning we were carrying Loeffler Randall and Bettye Muller shoes from the beginning. All our footwear is made in Italy or Brazil—not China.
At what point did you really feel like the business was working?
Certainly within the year. We had a lot of customers, we were really busy, and a lot of people liked what we were doing. It's funny, because when I was contemplating opening a store in Los Altos, so many people told me it was a bad idea—customers were only looking for bargains, et cetera.
How important is customer service?
How do you compete otherwise? There are two points of differentiation when you own a boutique—you have to have an interesting product mix that isn’t widely available, and you have to have great service. Why else would anyone shop in a little store? As long as we have a strong business and a loyal customer base, we're OK. When the economy went off the cliff in 2008, thank goodness we had them.
What factors do you take into consideration when you're buying for the store?
I think about our customer as an aggregate. Is she going to think this is too expensive? Is there inherently-tangible value in a product? Is it bra-friendly? I have such a list of do’s and don’ts that it really narrows down the product list. We’re not a special-occasion store—once we've partnered with a brand, and our customers love it, we continue to carry it, because she expects to see it every season. We ended up opening our second store, in Palo Alto, because there were so many great new lines we wanted to try.
Palo Alto opened just last month, and it has a very different feel from Los Altos.
We do have overlapping lines, but we don’t have overlapping merchandise. From a visual look-and-feel, very different. The building is almost 60 years old, so it dictated a different type of interior design. We found that we have customers shopping in both stores. The main difference is that in Palo Alto, people tend to be a little more dressed up, because so many people work in the area in venture capital, high-tech, hospitals, and of course, at Stanford University.
Do students shop with you?
We’ve had a few, but mostly it’s their mothers.
How did you staff the store, and how do you split your time between the two?
Trying to open a store is like trying to hit a moving target. I wanted to hire and before we opened, so we could train staff in Los Altos first. We were able to find great people in Palo Alto, because there is so much retail in the area. I split my time between the two.
What brands are performing well?Caron Callahan
, out of Brooklyn. And Whit is doing so well—I’m thrilled! It’s so great when people are willing to try a brand-new line. We also carry Harvey Faircloth, Rachel Comey, Phillip Lim, and ALC.
When you pick up new lines, what are you looking for?
I have to like it, and look at price and not have a heart attack. And it also needs to meet our customer's critera: How's the hand of the fabric? Is construction nice? Is it flattering for women who aren't twenty, and who don't have a perfect body?
How important is the made-in-America factor?
We actively promote it. But we always tell our customers the stories of our brands, and where they are made. Our staff is very educated.
Can you see a third or fourth location of Crimson Mim?
We’re working on e-commerce right now, so that will happen next—and hopefully this summer. Beyond that, I don’t know—the second location is still so new—but I want to say yes.