How Hampden Boutique Beat Small Business Ratings
When Stacy Smallwood came up with the idea for Hampden, her Charleston-based luxury boutique, she was living in Dallas and working as a buyer for Neiman Marcus. Her job gave her the opportunity to interact with a wide range of fashion brands, but she always felt that the designers she was most excited to buy seemed more suited to a retail experience. to intimate detail. “I saw a niche in the market when brands like Rag and Bone and 3.1 Phillip Lim were gaining traction. It was a cool time in fashion and I knew [they] were best served at a specialty store,” she recalls. So when a 1,500 square foot space opened up on King Street, one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, she decided to take a leap of faith and open her own boutique.
Over the course of a decade, Hampden quickly became a cult favorite among women across the country who loved discovering smaller, harder-to-find designers or shopping for practical luxury pieces that made sense with their urban lifestyle. . Until 2020, the store was in good company among similar independent retailers like Brooklyn’s Bird, Seattle’s Totokaelo and Need Supply, the Richmond, Va. store has become an up-and-coming e-commerce platform. While these have all closed, as victims of the pandemic, Hampden has not only survived, but grown: Smallwood’s space on King Street is now over 10,000 square feet and it also has a 7,200-foot distribution center for its vibrant e-commerce business.
Financial success was not guaranteed, especially since a year after opening his store came the economic crash of 2008. While traditional retail was struggling, it was a blessing in disguise for Hamden. “I noticed the walking pattern of shoppers on King Street. They didn’t want to walk that extra block to find my store. So, when a place opened closer, I decided to go there. The new space, while conveniently located, was also double the size for the same amount of rent. It was a big commitment, as she would need to stock the store with more merchandise, but Smallwood knew she had to go. “Taking that risk at a time when things were going to the worst was the best decision I ever made at that time,” she says.
Although the store now takes up a formidable section of its block on King Street, nearly 70% of its customers are actually out of state and shopping online. Smallwood had the foresight to diversify its audience from the start, knowing that relying solely on brick and mortar wouldn’t be the smartest way to grow its business when it opened in 2007. While others brands and retailers were reluctant to offer e-commerce at the time, Hampden did the opposite: “I actually had a website from the day I opened the store,” she says. The move proved particularly prescient when 2020 hit, and the pandemic forced her to temporarily suspend in-person shopping. While other boutiques have been forced to lay off employees or close permanently, Hampden has been able to keep seven staff on full pay and survive a pandemic.
Hampden’s strong national following also serves as a buffer given the polarization of the political climate. Along with the pandemic, there have been two years of racial reckoning, mask and vaccine mandates, and other sticky situations. Businesses and brands are expected to stand up for their beliefs, which can then attract or repel customers, depending on your personal beliefs. Charleston, a relatively progressive city, is still part of the conservative South, and one Instagram story or post can be enough to turn off much of the state. But luckily that doesn’t matter when the majority of Hampden’s customers come from all over the country.
Smallwood’s instincts aren’t just limited to real estate and e-commerce decisions, she also trusts her instincts when it comes to buying for the store. “What ultimately separates us from a department store is our unique voice and our saying: I’m passionate about it. I’ll take a risk” she says. To that end, Hampden currently offers over 175 brands ranging from luxury brands like Stella McCartney, Marni and Proenza Schouler to smaller brands like Brogger, Kika Vargas and Victor Glemaud. Smallwood’s mix works – in the past year the store has seen nearly $1 million in Proenza Schouler sales, proving the store’s customers won’t mind spending money on anything which Smallwood put his stamp of approval on.
While Hampden may be unique in the South for its fashion-forward offerings, Smallwood takes a more inclusive view of size, which is less common in high-end boutiques. The store carries a wider range, within the confines of what fashion offers, and Smallwood isn’t afraid to drop a brand if customers can’t relate to the pieces. “I’m not a size two, so when I’m at a market meeting, I think about who the customer is. I can look at something and know it’s going to be great for someone who’s a size 10 with a larger chest or a size 12 who doesn’t want to show their arms but still wants to look feminine,” says -she.
Understanding and connecting with its target audience is probably Hampden’s greatest secret weapon for survival. Her shop has seen women through all stages of their lives, from starting a new job, recovering from illness, to mourning a lost person. “You’re in an intimate space with a woman who’s undressing and, and she’s here to say, help me look good and approach the world. The greatest gift we can have is to be there for those moments,” she says. It does this with a friendly staff, which is evident on social media, as the team share their travels and behind-the-scenes snippets on Hampden’s Instagram account. It’s not uncommon for a buyer to tell Smallwood and his team that they traveled to Charleston specifically to visit Hampden.
Making Hampden a destination for out-of-town shoppers and locals also includes hosting ambitious events that are on par with those you commonly see at big city retailers. In the past, Smallwood has attracted designers like Tibi’s Amy Smilovic and Christopher John Rogers to come and chat with its most loyal customers at trade shows and parties.
In honor of the store’s milestone anniversary, Hampden is not shy about throwing parties. “I believe that everything we have experienced over the past 15 years was worth celebrating throughout the year. It’s a monumental thing as a retailer and small business owner,” Smallwood says of the full slate of events, which kicked off with a small 40-person dinner with New York label Sea in February. Given Proenza Schouler’s track record of profitable sales, last week Hampden kicked off a two-day deal that included a revival of the brand’s Fall 2022 show at their e-commerce fulfillment center. After the presentation of the fashion show, 150 customers went to an ephemeral space where they were able to shop the brand’s pieces. With a regular line in the register, it was a resounding success. Later in the year, Smallwood is planning activations with Marni as well as trunk shows with Rachel Gilbert, Brogger, and more.
Hampden may be celebrating its 15th birthday, but Smallwood is also thinking about the next 15, especially as the South has become a bustling place for luxury brands. As labels take interest in Charleston, she knows Hampden is poised for success in the future. “I welcome any new stores on King Street as it helps elevate our city as a shopping destination,” she says. Although if you ask any of his dedicated fans, Hampden has already done more than his fair share to already establish Charleston as a fashion locale, thanks to the hard work of Smallwood.