Hilary Arthur: Breaking Every Rule of Retail
Welcome to our first blog post of 2018. I am thrilled to bring you an insider interview with Hilary Arthur of Arthur and Daughters. I first met Hilary through her namesake collection. I fell in love with her artfully modern pieces in sumptuous wools or delicate silk. I was in awe when I finally met Hilary in person a few years ago. She is a striking and graceful figure who always looks poised, even when she has a baby on her hip. I have had the delight of doing pop-up events at her boutique in York, Pa. I have been inspired by how Hilary has blended work-life and family into a full and rich experience. We got to talking about launching her boutique, her exquisite made-to-order collection and how she has sculpted her business around her family.
GM: How did you get your start in the fashion industry? How did that work help you when you decided to start your own business?
HA: I got my start when my friend, Lee Tucker, who was doing visual displays for Escada in NYC, hired me freelance to help with the big window changes. I was then hired by Escada full time to be the assistant to the VP of Visual Merchandising and Buying. I then worked as a merchandiser for Escada and then worked on their wholesale sales team. Working for Escada was a major education and has informed much of what I do in my own business. My boss at Escada, Kimberly Jetnil, was a great leader and was always willing to do whatever it took to make customers and clients happy and that has stayed with me. Also, Escada was a relatively small operation in the US considering the volume we did. The team had to wear lots of different hats and we got to have our hands in lots of different projects. I really thrived in that environment and was able to learn everything from finance to buying to opening a new store.
GM: What was it like when you first launched the Arthur and Daughters boutique, what were some of the early hurdles of launching the store.
HA: It was very exciting and nerve racking!! I think the biggest hurdles were that we positioned (and still are) at a price point that is higher than everyone else in our market. It has taken time to educate people as to why the prices of Made in the USA goods are higher and why they should support that. The other major hurdle was, and still is, managing the demands of a retail schedule and my family. I bring the girls to the shop with me and I was very concerned about how customers would respond. In retrospect I was way too worried about it! Our customers are really wonderful and love seeing the girls. I have people who I know come in as much for the clothes as they do for Baby Reed!!
GM: Your boutique proudly carries only Made in America products and really supports local brands. How has this decision changed your business?
HA: When we first opened we had designer consignment and Made in the USA products from independent designers. I very quickly became passionate about supporting small designers. It became my goal to eliminate the consignment portion of the business and strictly do Made in the USA collections. We have been open for 5 years and in the last 2 years we have successfully transitioned to only Made in the USA collections! It has been so wonderful to make this transition. By focusing on what I am truly passionate about our business has blossomed and grown.
GM: I love that when I enter your shop one of your girls is usually present ( hence the name, Arthur & Daughters), what is it like being a mother of three but still running your own business.
HA: Thank you!! That makes me really happy. I used to be really anxious about how people would perceive them being there. I was so afraid of being judged for it. I can’t really pinpoint when I stopped caring what people thought about it. Maybe it’s just come with time and having more confidence in the business. I also feel that I am the boss right?! I can make my own rules! It is certainly not perfect. There are times when it works perfectly and there are times when it all goes to crap! I have learned that even if we have a less than perfect day, life and the business goes on! I think I seem to break all the retail rules and it works for us!
GM: You launched your own private label, take us through the process of how you create your pieces and how you custom make them for your customers ( I would love to hear about how your dad is involved and the other people that help, I think your business model for the clothing is different than other designers and I really want to share your process).
HA: So it starts with an idea or concept which I sketch out. My Dad, Reed Miller, is an engineer and he uses those skills to help me translate my ideas into patterns. We then create a sample piece and that piece “lives” in the store. We then take custom orders based on that sample piece. They are also able to make changes to the design in terms of fit, length, fabric, color etc. We take their measurements and requests and make them a custom pattern. I then cut the piece and prepare a kit with all the materials for our sewers and the piece is made. We may do a second or third fitting to get the fit just right depending on the piece.
GM: Who are some of your favorite designers, and what design ideas are influencing your work?
HA: I have so many favorites! I love Celine / Phoebe Philo. I am so very sad that she will be leaving Celine. I have loved following her career. She is also a Mother and has really positioned herself in a way to make her career mold to her family life in a way that I appreciate. Her work is so strong and smart. If I won the lottery I would go straight to the Celine store!! I also love Rei Kawakubo. I love how she endeavors to do something new and not look backward. The design ideas that influence and guild me most are trying to make pieces that are clean and simple and can be combined to create a sort of uniform without being boring. My customers are also a HUGE point of inspiration. I have learned to really listen to them and really try to take my ego out of things as much as I can! If multiple customers are requesting a particular design change I shouldn’t resist it! I am really lucky to have the store and use it as an incubator / test lab for the pieces and then to use that to inform what we create next.
GM: I have been lucky enough to have done a trunk show in your shop a number of times and got to witness the close relationship you have with your customers, do you have any tips for designers who are starting out on how to nurture their relationships with their customers?
HA: Thank you again! That also makes me really happy and proud! I think that cultivating that takes times. As I mentioned before there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for my customers. “No” isn’t really in my vocabulary! I will always at least try to go above and beyond for them. I think my advice for designers would be that you have to put yourself out there, talk to the customers, be open to their feedback and follow up – a simple handwritten thank you note to someone who bought your piece goes a long way! I am perplexed by designers who don’t have any retail experience. I highly recommend to anyone who wants to work in fashion in any capacity to get a job in retail at some point. Whether you want to be a designer or a buyer or visual merchandiser it all comes back to the sales floor and the customer experience!
Photos from the Arthur and Daughter website and photographer Kris Weiss.