Fashion is dynamic! It’s about trends—the latest hottest/hottest latest streak of creativity and self-expression. What is chic reflects the personality and mood of designers and wearers alike. And, while unpredictability in artistry can be exciting, there is a different kind of allure that comes with having your source for fashion be one that is unwavering.
Timeless elegance and steadfast business savvy lie behind two names woven into the fashion fabric of the New Orleans area—Saks Fifth Avenue and Carolyn Elder, its general manager.
Saks Fifth Avenue has been synonymous with glamour since 1924. In 1983, the designer retailer brought this glamour to the Crescent City, with Carolyn Elder at the helm. Then only 26 years old, Elder was already a seasoned buyer of designer labels at New Orleans’ landmark department store, Leon Godchaux’s. She had, in fact, begun her retail journey as an industrious seventeen-year-old with a love for fashion and a need to work her way through college. And though her intended career was in education, drive, tenacity and an observant manager would lay a path in the fashion retail industry from which she would never stray.
When Elder interviewed with Saks that fateful year, she had no misconceptions about the leap she would need to make to go from local retailer to large national operation. Saks was expected to relocate one of their own from an ample pool of New York fashion pros. But the company wanted more than just someone well versed in designer labels. They were looking for someone who truly knew New Orleans—the culture and customs, the landscape and people, all that makes it unique. What they got in Carolyn Elder was a leader who would provide unsurpassed devotion to her company, her birthplace and, much later, the rebirth of their union after a devastating tragedy.
Rising From The Ashes
In 2005, Saks’ New Orleans store suffered the worst of Katrina. Water, fire, theft and vandalism, followed by marshal law and a displaced staff left this corporate machine with circumstances no handbook in the world could cover. Without a protocol or definitive solution, the company turned to Elder, their longstanding insider, for information and guidance about when and if they should reopen.
After a six-week stay in Baton Rouge, Elder was back in New Orleans, gathering data and gauging the readiness of the community. “I was always running into people who asked, ‘When are you opening? When are you opening?’ It was almost as if they needed it desperately.” Elder set about convincing her higher-ups that New Orleans needed its Saks back. Now! She negotiated a temporary store in Canal Place, had merchandise transferred in from four Saks stores in surrounding states, and organized a four-day selling event. Sales exceeded $1 million. “It was crazy!” Elder exclaims. Soon Saks corporate was working at light speed (by construction’s standards) to be able to open the doors of its stunning new Saks Fifth Avenue New Orleans store just 13 months after the tragedy. Beyond returning the city to an elevated state of fashionability, this move was a much-needed vote of confidence in New Orleans’ ultimate return to grace, a confidence that began in Elder herself.
Elder has a presence that is at once all New Orleans and all Saks. Her appearance is stylishly professional. Her speech, unmistakably Southern. But not every savvy fashionista or New Orleans enthusiast can create success for a premium designer retailer. Her secret ingredient? Work long and hard. “I always did have a love for fashion. But that’s not what is necessarily going to lead to a good businessperson. You’ve got to understand that that is an instrument that you work through.”
Elder has resisted offers to manage larger stores in larger cities. “I always got a sense that if I just stayed here and continued to make my own store succeed, that it would become a flagship,” she remarks. Her instincts were on the money. Despite the hardships of operating a retail establishment that has faced near destruction of its store, its city and, more recently, the economy as a whole, New Orleans Saks currently ranks tenth out of the company’s 53 stores. With an esteemed reputation to match, and Carolyn Elder at the helm, it is a favorite to host special events, product launches and celebrated appearances by leading designers, as evidenced by Elder’s latest success—Tory Burch’s visit to Saks New Orleans, one of only four such events in the country.
In Grand Style: The Tori Burch Event
At Saks Fifth Avenue in Canal Place, the pre-opening mood is festive. The fresh, sharply clad Saks team mingles through walkways lined by envy-inducing designer shoes, laughing, talking and sipping lattes. A DJ cranks up New Orleans pride with classic Mardi Gras tunes. And in dances Saks’ event man himself, Steven Putt. He opens an umbrella and calls for his second line. An instant parade, with an unsuspecting queen. As the cheers get louder, she emerges—iconic designer Tory Burch. She is tiny, but strong; graceful and gracious; and oh-so-chic!
New Orleans opened its arms to Tory, and she responded in kind. In her whirlwind 24-hour visit, she took in all the city has to offer and did her part to give back. She was the guest of honor at a cocktail party co-hosted by Saks and Rita Benson LeBlanc of the New Orleans Saints, a benefit for the Early Childhood and Family Learning Foundation at the Mahalia Jackson School. From there, Tory hit the town. Jazz, beignets and photo ops with some local bikers were followed by a stop in the Ninth Ward. If all this revelry slowed her down, it didn’t show the next morning. She hit the main event at Saks Fifth Avenue with a smile on her face and a spring in her step.
The Saks Tory Burch event offered much more than just a celebrity sighting across a crowded room. Every Tory fan got to meet and be photographed with her. Posed models previewed Tory’s fall collection. Tory was generous with her attention, warmly wrapping her arm around the shoulder of each awaiting admirer with a camera.
She also took some time to talk one-on-one about the passion behind her purpose. A pragmatic and tenacious businesswoman with a strong background in the fashion industry, Burch did not have a clear destination for her aspirations until she became a mother. “I knew that I’d want to start my own company. When I took some time off, I decided what company I would start and why it would be meaningful. I spent a lot of time looking at the market and seeing what was missing.” Her talent in design came as a surprise. “It unleashed this great thing in me that I didn’t even realize existed.”
An art history graduate and avid music lover, Tory shares her love of life through her collections. “We reference history a lot and are inspired by a lot of different artists, music—anything from all over the world.” She is also a devoted philanthropist, with a newly formed foundation designed to empower women through entrepreneurship and microfinance.
Tory is already brewing up plans for her next visit to New Orleans. “I love it here, by the way,” she repeats frequently and exuberantly. “The energy is so positive! I’m definitely coming back!”
Photos by Abby Sands Miller, Abby Photo, LLCFiled under: Fashion and Beauty, IN Good Company