Trading Politics for Fashion

Posted April 1, 2008 at 5:17pm

In Washington, D.C., where political trends are more closely watched than any other kind, three former campaign and Hill staffers turned boutique owners have found success in the niche market of selling to the Beltway set.

“This is a very conservative town, and women have to keep within a certain line, but we still want something fun for that evening fundraiser or event,” said Elizabeth Mason, owner of Periwinkle in Alexandria and former campaign staffer for President Bush.

Mason, Gretchen Hitchner, owner of Ginger in Bethesda, and Elizabeth Todd, owner of the Shoe Hive in Old Town Alexandria, each have nearly a decade of political experience under their designer belts. They opted to leave their traditional Washington careers to become first-time business owners, trading in policy briefs for fashion forecasts.

“It’s kind of monotonous, the life of a Hill staffer,” said Hitchner, former press secretary to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “Instead of worrying about my boss being misquoted in a story, my worries became a lot different. They were about me and my own success.”

Hitchner’s new store, Ginger, will open in Bethesda Row next month, and is her second boutique. She first partnered with Mason, whom she met through a book club, to open Periwinkle three years ago. The two friends and admitted clotheshorses had no formal training in fashion, but they seized on their business plan like it was a political campaign, making contacts and researching the issues.

“Any job teaches you how to work in business, and especially politics,” Mason said. “You learn the hard work it takes to get something done, and that mentality carries over into anything.”

In college, Mason dreamed of opening her own store. Though she worked part time at an Atlanta clothing boutique when she was a student at Oglethorpe University, the 38-year-old stylish blonde joined politics instead. She worked on the Dole-Kemp campaign in 1996 and the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004. She left after Bush’s 2005 inauguration to open Periwinkle with Hitchner.

For Todd, a Columbus, Ohio, native with a journalism degree from Ohio University, opening a shoe boutique was a pipe dream that she never treated as seriously as her career in direct-mail consulting. She finally got serious in 2003, putting together the business plan for the Shoe Hive while she worked for a handful of Republican clients during the 2004 elections.

“I was in New York for a [Republican National Convention] meeting in 2003, and I’d go to my meetings during the day, and run over to see a shoe vendor in my spare time,” recalled Todd, who ordered shoes from Cynthia Rowley and Butter during that trip.

Of the three boutique owners, Todd perhaps mixes politics and fashion the most. She uses her direct-mail savvy at the Shoe Hive, where she reaches out to new and loyal customers with coupons and promotions every quarter. Todd even said the idea to open a shoe store developed while she was stomping throughout the country working for a startup direct-mail firm.

“I’d go to all these state capitals and small towns, and find these great shoe stores, and then I’d come home to Alexandria and have nothing,” Todd recalled. “There was such a void in that market.”

The three businesswomen have found success in filling that gap by selling stylish merchandise to conservative-minded Washington shoppers. Sales at Todd’s Shoe Hive grew by 25 percent last year, while Periwinkle grossed $850,000 in sales in its first year and more than $1 million by its second year.

Mason and Hitchner wooed Hill staffers to their shop by promoting it through word-of-mouth and have sold to the occasional Washington VIP, including Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who bought an outfit for her appearance on “Jeopardy” in 2006. Hitchner’s new store, Ginger, will cater to the same clientele of mid-30s professionals and carry many of the same lines as Periwinkle, which include Nanette Lepore, Dolan and Trina Turk.

“I learned that I loved the research side of things, looking at retail forecasts and trends,” Hitchner said, recalling her earliest days at Periwinkle and in fashion. “That’s some of the press secretary that is still in me.”

Hitchner’s husband had to guarantee the business loan for Periwinkle, and she and Mason held down part-time retail jobs while they were preparing to launch their own store. Leaving cushy government jobs to become small-business owners was a daring move, but Mason, who came to Washington at the age of 25, knew her political career would help her with fashion.

“For people who moved here in our 20s, this is where we’ve grown up professionally. I have contacts that are readily available to me, and I know the customer,” Mason said, explaining why she chose to open a store in Washington instead of her hometown of Atlanta.

Todd had experience working for a startup before she opened the Shoe Hive in 2003. Following a quick stint on the Hill after college, Todd joined a direct-mail firm and worked as its only employee, watching her boss struggle through the surprises and challenges of any new business owner, from signing new clients to managing the finances. While she learned how to target voters with direct-mail pieces, Todd said she also honed general business skills that she constantly uses at her store on South Royal Street.

“There’s always going to be good times in retail and in politics, and you just have to see it through,” Todd said, adding that she has worked on the losing side of a handful of campaigns. “Politics is the reason I’m in retail. I wouldn’t have had the desire to try something new otherwise.”

The boutique owners still keep up with the latest political news and Beltway chatter, but it’s clearly the fashion runway that has their focus.

“I still love and appreciate a great suit, and when I get them in the store it makes me wish I had a ‘real job,’” Mason said. “But for now, I’m happy where I’m at.”