Headline article image How Sherri McMullen created a fashion community around her store

How Sherri McMullen created a fashion community around her store

The Californian boutique owner has built a thriving and inclusive business

When Sherri McMullen opened her eponymous fashion boutique in the California city of Oakland, she was determined to create a business that reflected her values.

That meant designing a stylish space that could host community events and champion emerging designers as well as designers of color. It also meant ensuring that the boutique was as inclusive and welcoming as possible for her customers.

As a Black woman, McMullen believes that highlighting and investing in designers of color is both a responsibility and an opportunity.

“When you come to my store, you truly get a sense that this is a space for us. It’s for everyone, but as a Black person you can see yourself in this space,” says McMullen.

“That includes using mannequins of multiple skin shades. We have from the fairest to the brownest of mannequins. We have designers from all over the world.”

On McMullen Boutique’s website, Black designers are given prominence, and the store’s social media spotlights a number of Black influencers.

This mix of style and community-driven inclusivity has made McMullen one of the country’s most respected fashion entrepreneurs, with her boutique regularly celebrated in the pages of the same fashion magazines that feature the high-end designers she carries.

It’s also proved to be the foundation of a smart business strategy. McMullen says customers frequently tell her they were drawn in by the chance to support Black-owned brands. Meanwhile, styles from designers of color are the fastest-selling in the store.

A local focus from the start

Right from the beginning, McMullen endeavored to establish a store that is true to its local community. A former buyer, McMullen rose through the ranks at Neiman Marcus and Pottery Barn Kids before writing a business plan for her own boutique, which she always knew would be located in Oakland.

“I moved to Oakland from San Francisco and realized there was a need for a luxury store. They hadn’t had one in Oakland since the mid-’90s, and I wanted to create one in the city that had become my home,” she says.

How events helped build community

McMullen regularly hosts fashion trunk shows for emerging designers as well as styling sessions and charity fundraisers.

“When I started, I wanted to make sure that the space was truly a community space. So it was a space where women obviously felt empowered through the clothing that they put on and also through different organizations that we cared about,” she recalls.

“We held fundraisers for local organizations around the arts and around children and women. That was something that our customers really loved and enjoyed being a part of. It became this community space where we were not only selling clothes but also working with great organizations, giving back and supporting our community the same way they have embraced us.”

Taking her community online

Like all retailers, McMullen has been challenged by the pandemic. But the boutique owner believes that small businesses have the advantage of being able to shift quickly in difficult times. “Last year was a really scary time for so many of us, yet we were able to still reach our customers through our online channels and through social media,” she says.

For McMullen that meant leaning into e-commerce and social media (the store boasts more than 42,000 Instagram followers).

Even now, online sales remain strong although foot traffic has largely returned. Online sales were up 420 percent from 2019 to 2020 and increased 612 percent over the past two years, even while in-person sales have exceeded pre-pandemic numbers. “Part of it is people not being able to go out who now have the capability of getting out of their homes and traveling, and they’re just wanting a full refresh,” she explains.

McMullen says that Afterpay has helped expand her store’s audience online. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in a younger demographic. We’re able to see that we can reach more consumers by allowing more flexibility with payments. It’s been wonderful. It was a great opportunity to be able to reach a new audience and gain more sales and more revenue by offering it.”

Build community with your partners

While McMullen has created a tremendous sense of community within her shop and social media followers, she also believes in investing in relationships with the designers and brands she features. “I can FaceTime them when we’re in the store to talk about product and [say] we just got the new collection in and this is how customers are responding to it, or maybe the fit could be adjusted a little bit on something,” she says.

Many times, I’ll talk to a young designer about their pricing structure and make sure that they are also getting margin for their business so they can reinvest in their company. Because we want all of us to be around for a long time.

Tibi is the one brand that has been carried in McMullen since the store opened, and designer Amy Smilovic has become a close friend and trusted adviser. “We have a very strong relationship, and we can talk about so many things, industry-wise, such as being a woman in the industry, what that’s like, the ups and downs, how we get through things. Especially moments like last year – how do we work together to come out of this and then how do we work together going forward,” explains McMullen.

Sherri McMullen’s tips for taking your business to the next level

Take a minute to celebrate your wins. “When I hit the 10-year mark, I’d been going for so long, going, going, going, and it sort of snuck up on me…. It’s really important when you hit a milestone or [achieve] small or big things that you sit with it and acknowledge it because it takes a lot of work to run your own business.”

Social media works when the customer can see a bit of you. “If there is a moment where you could show a throwback of you, the business owner, creating the store [and show] what that process was like, [do it]. If you can help paint that picture, tell that story, I think it’s inspiring for those who want to do something similar to know that it’s possible. It’s always great to show the beautiful things on Instagram, but I find that people are always drawn to seeing what’s behind that.”

Make your business truly inclusive. “I am very intentional about supporting and bringing in Black-owned brands. It’s just great business, but also for me it’s the right thing to do. It’s a responsibility I have, to highlight people who look like me, because for so long this industry has felt very exclusive on so many levels.”

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Written by
Adrienne Gaffney
Adrienne Gaffney is a freelance journalist who contributes to The Wall Street Journal and Elle magazine.
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