A home-decor store catering to an aspirational lifestyle

Posted: June 13, 2011

By no means do you think lacy, cleavage-baring lingerie when you step inside Mary Rhoads' home decor/lifestyle shop in Media.

The Simon Pearce glassware is lovely, but not exactly sexy. The handmade floral-print matelasse tablecloths are certainly feminine, but . . . they're tablecloths.

And yet this small-business venture - launched with unfortunate timing two years ago, when a good number of Americans seemed more focused on saving their homes than decorating them - is related to apparel of all types, insists Rhoads, a former Victoria's Secret sleepwear designer.

"Everything in life has to do with fashion," she said.

More later on the sheer silk-georgette robe designed by Rhoads and roundly rejected by Leslie Wexner, chief executive of Limited Brands, parent to Victoria's Secret. These days, Rhoads' focus is on seducing shoppers with place settings and vases, lamps, paintings, and other items of elegance she wants them to buy for themselves or as gifts.

When customers step across Simply Elegant Home's threshold on East State Street, she wants them "to think and imagine, 'Oooooh. I can live like that!' "

This entrepreneurial endeavor is not what Rhoads, 59, of Rose Valley, planned decades ago as a student at Ursinus College. She majored in psychology, but she had no interest in graduate school to turn that into a career.

So she applied at John Wanamaker, where she was accepted into a training program in 1974 to become an assistant buyer for the children's department.

"I always loved fashion," particularly that it is ever-changing, she explained. "I get bored a little bit easily."

Then a man caught her eye. Rhoads married and moved to North Jersey, where she would work in a variety of jobs for Bamberger's and the department-store giant that swallowed it, Macy's, until 1989. Most of her time at Macy's flagship store in Manhattan was as a lingerie buyer.

One of the vendors she dealt with tipped her off to an opening at what was then an expanding Victoria's Secret catalog division, at a time when old reliables Vanity Fair, Bali, and Olga dominated the lingerie trade.

"The senior management at Macy's said it was a fly-by-night operation," Rhoads said. "They said women would never buy unbranded bras."

Turns out Victoria's Secret did branding "better than anyone I've ever seen."

She would spend the next 10 years traveling the world and working with a team to come up with sleepwear that reflected that brand, centered on the fictitious "Victoria," whom Rhoads described as "someone extremely sophisticated, living an aspirational lifestyle."

The same type of client she now aims to appeal to with household amenities.

The transition to home decor was triggered by an event that altered a great many lives and career aspirations: the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on Lower Manhattan.

"I just wanted out of the city," Rhoads said.

She would open a store in 2004 at the Jersey Shore, in Avalon, where she had a home. Last summer, Rhoads pulled the plug on Simply Elegant Interiors, which specialized in furniture and accessories for beach homes. Prompting that decision was "a tremendous amount" of change in the typical Shore visitor, Rhoads said.

Up until 2007, she said, there was a heavy rental community in Avalon with frequent turnover, which meant fresh shoppers.

"Now, what you see is owners," Rhoads said.

And even they are cutting short time spent at their properties because, for instance, of their kids' soccer schedules back home, she said. By last summer, Simply Elegant Interiors' sales had dropped 30 percent from the $150,000 recorded the first year.

Rhoads is renting out the Dune Drive storefront to a clothing store - a retail sector she certainly has experience in, but didn't dare pursue as a business owner. "The clothing business is quite treacherous," she said. "It's so seasonal, fast-moving. It can be very price-sensitive."

A 2008 divorce prompted her to move from Cranford in North Jersey to the Philadelphia suburbs, where she had friends. She had ideas of opening an Internet business but didn't like the economics.

Then an employee she had in Avalon made a suggestion: "Why don't you open a store?" urged Becky Avata of Springfield, currently one of Rhoads' three part-time workers. (She made those matelasse tablecloths.)

Almost immediately, Rhoads was pounding the pavement in downtown Media, looking for a storefront. More difficult would be convincing the landlord to lower the rent. Rhoads said it took her four months to get him down 30 percent.

That was in October 2009. Then came $25,000 in renovations to the former hair salon, including stripping out linoleum to get to the original oak floors and painting over orange and peach walls with a warm green shade Benjamin Moore calls Thunderbird.

Completely self-financed, Rhoads opened the store the following month, with sparse inventory in a miserable economy. Improvement in both led to sales last year of "well over $100,000," with this year "on track to do 50 percent more," she said.

Returning customers - spending $105 on average - constitute at least 60 percent of Simply Elegant Home's business, with wedding gifts a common reason for buying.

Nancy Harriz of Media is among the regulars, drawn two or three times a month not only by a vast collection of Root candles (which she used to have to drive many miles to buy) and botanical prints that are "exquisitely framed," but also for the kind of personal service she hasn't been able to find at a mall.

"Mary herself is . . . so attentive," Harriz said. "You want to go in and just be her friend."

There it is, the reason Rhoads liked psychology: "I always had an interest in helping people."

Even if it's to spend money.

What she misses in her new professional life, she said, is creating merchandise. Not that it was always a thrill in the lingerie business. Her memories are vivid of Victoria's Secret's Wexner nixing that robe idea she had:

"He just didn't understand why someone would want a sheer robe."

To hear Mary Rhoads explain how she made the transition from a world-traveling buyer for Victoria's Secret to a home-decor guru, go to www.philly.com/business

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.


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