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By LENNIE BENNETT
ST. PETERSBURG -- "It started three years ago," says Dr. Barbara Hall, "with a scarf."
The beginning of a love affair?
Hall, a Dunedin radiologist, considers herself in a longterm relationship with Carlisle.
Carlisle is a women's clothing company, a very successful clothing company, that continues to thrive even in tough economic times that have many retailers reeling from slow sales. And it has done so by defying the conventional notion of shopping as recreation.
Hall is one of several hundred women in the Tampa Bay area, and among thousands nationally, who eschew malls, preferring the salon-style approach offered by New York's Carlisle Collection, which posted sales in 2001 of about $150-million.
Carlisle was founded in 1981 by William Rondina, a veteran retailer who understood that women in the niche market he was courting -- affluent professionals and homemakers -- could find quality and value in many stores. Lacking was commensurate service. So Rondina created a shopping experience equivalent to staying on the concierge floor of a good hotel. It is refined, discreet and tailored to the needs of the client. In a brilliant twist, the relationship between his sales force and clientele is not the traditional one of server and served, but one of peer to peer. Carlisle representatives -- called consultants -- are People Like Us, well-connected socially, who draw from their pool of friends and acquaintances in building a loyal following. So powerful is the word-of-mouth network that Carlisle does not advertise except for an occasional page in Town& Country.
Carol Fisher of St. Petersburg is one of about 1,000 Carlisle consultants nationwide. She has a business and interior design background and has been a community volunteer, serving on the boards of the Junior League and a local museum and helping to found a shelter for abused women. Her husband, Ben, is a semiretired investment banker. She began buying Carlisle clothes in the 1980s from Wyline Sayler, wife of former state Rep. Henry Sayler and a fellow Junior League member, who was one of the first Carlisle consultants. When Sayler decided to retire, Fisher was offered the opportunity to take over.
"It's unique and an anomaly," Fisher says. "One of the only businesses that a woman can start and within six months have recouped her initial capital outlay."
Consultants are independent contractors, but they are carefully vetted by the company "in order to insure that they don't fail," Fisher says, meaning they must demonstrate they have a fat enough address book of potential clients. They pay a one-time fee that covers training and a set of fixtures, and seasonally purchase Carlisle-produced videotapes of the collection, sketchbooks and invitations to showings. Several identical collections are created in a variety of sizes and rotated through the network of consultants.
The showings happen four times a year: fall, winter/holiday, spring and summer, usually in consultants' homes. They are not girl-fest parties like much in-home shopping. The appointments, lasting at least an hour, are one-on-one and fairly intense. Clients can't take purchases with them; clothes are ordered and usually arrive two weeks later. Consultants receive a percentage of sales. Carlisle does not release those figures but Fisher says that consultants' fees can range from $20,000 to more than $100,000 annually.
Hall has arrived for her Carlisle appointment at noon on a recent Friday. Because Fisher moved several months ago and is still organizing her new home, she has rented the Polywog Room in the Renaissance Vinoy Resort's country club on Snell Isle for the winter/holiday showing. More commonly the scene of luncheons and bridal showers, the room has been transformed into an upscale boutique.
Black steel grids, backed by custom halogen lamps, display beautifully tailored separates, arranged in color groups and according to day or evening. Coordinating silk scarves and suede belts are draped over cashmere sweater sets and glove-leather jackets. A separate table holds coordinating necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Prices range from about $100 for a scarf to $1,300 for a fur-trimmed jacket. Skirts and slacks average about $250.
"Shall we start the grand tour?" Fisher asks.
For the next two hours, Fisher will have eyes only for Hall.
"People think we have individual appointments to hard-sell but that's not it at all," Fisher says. "It's the only way we can give this level of personal attention."
She walks Hall through the collection, all 600 pieces, calling attention to styles and colors she knows Hall favors. They stroke fabrics, discuss proportions.
"The jacket to those pants would overwhelm you," she tells Hall, who is a size 2.
Holding up a skirt, Fisher says, "That would work with the sweater you bought last year." To make sure, she consults a book that contains a record, with swatches, of all Hall's previous purchases.
"This is awesome," says Hall, who is in charge of the Susan Cheek Needler Breast Center at Morton Plant Hospital and a founder of the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. "I'm a clothes hound and I love to shop, but I never could find anything in a mall. I don't have the time to look around for everything. Here I get personalized attention. She remembers what I have. I'm seeing that over the three years I've been buying Carlisle, I have really built a wardrobe that can be mixed up. You can't do wardrobe-building in a mall."
The Carlisle Collection would never be called "fashion forward." For many years, Carlisle did not sell slacks and no Versace-like safety pins will ever expose large areas of thigh -- and that is their beauty to clients such as Hall and Joan Carroll, who drives from Boca Grande four times a year for her Carlisle fix.
"They're classic and well-made," says Carroll, who has shopped the line for eight years. She and her husband, who is semiretired, travel and play a lot of golf "so I buy more casual things, sweater sets, slacks, blouses. From year to year, I can match things up."
Colors and styles are tweaked every year, and the cut of a jacket or the trim on a sweater might be subtly au courant, but the point of Carlisle's country club chic is not to stand out; continuity is the guiding design principal.
"Our job is to show you how to spend less money and have more clothes and spend less time getting out the door. We understand you're investing in longevity," says Fisher.
Nor are the clothes ever discounted.
"You'll never find Carlisle in an outlet mall," she says.
Implicit in the relationship between client and consultant is the promise that a Carlisle outfit will not be oversold. For a woman who has spent the kind of time and money on her appearance that most Carlisle clients have, nothing is more distressing than finding herself at a party in the same outfit as three other women.
"If I buy from Carol," says Joan Carroll, "she'll tell me that so-and-so also bought it."
"If one of my clients has bought something for an event, I won't sell it to anyone else for that event," says Fisher. "And if an item has been popular, if we sell three or four of them, we will often pull it from the collection."
Fisher said the weak economy has had some effect on her business.
"One of my clients, a banker, said she couldn't afford to get much this year so she bought one piece, a top for a little over $100, but it went with five or six things she already had."
Hall and Carroll are more typical, both ordering several complete outfits.
For most of her clients, the final step is what Fisher calls "prioritizing. It's the painful part."
Hall, who tried on several dozen items and liked about 10 of them, wants to whittle down her purchases. She and Fisher brutally dissect the merits of each piece. It's the sartorial version of tough love and yet another facet of Carlisle service. In fact, there seems to be little Fisher won't do to help her clients look their best.
"I've had them call me and say they're all ready to go out but what about the scarf," she says. "So I'll go to their house and tie the scarf."
"It's always a scarf," says Hall.
For information about the Carlisle Collection, call (727) 430-3402.
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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