Marshall Simon and his daughter Madison know what it takes to build a luxury fashion business. Marshall was first inspired by his family’s women’s store (named Laurie’s) in Greensboro, NC, where he worked from age 13 through college.
Gwynn’s was established as a 600 square foot women’s store in 1967 by Marshall’s in-laws, Gwen and Norris Ward. Marshall and his wife Lynn Ward bought the store in 1990, gradually evolving it into 22,000 square feet of fabulous women’s fashion, beauty, menswear, designer footwear, fine jewelry, and unique gifts.
Menswear, generating 20 percent of store volume, features top Italian brands including Canali, Isaia, Zegna, and Cucinelli. Tailored clothing is still 60-70 percent of their men’s mix and, while business has been affected by the pandemic, the average sale in recent weeks is up. “We see custom and MTM business opening up as customers are starting to buy for specific events,” says Marshall. “Still, in off-the-rack clothing, we’ve been buying less and holding over more.”
He also acknowledges that the cultural shift from dress-up to casual started well before the pandemic, and that “you have to sell a lot of Peter Millar golf shirts to equal an Isaia sportcoat.” That said, sportswear is clearly driving sales these days: five pockets in any fabric, casual slacks, jeans (Jacob Cohen, AG, Hudson, Joe’s), and cool sneakers (Golden Goose). Other key brands include Peter Millar, Eton, Stenstroms, Kleinberg, Swims, Santoni, and Saxx. Accepting the fact that many key vendors are selling direct-to-consumer, Marshall says it’s okay with him as long as it’s not discounted.
Interestingly, the pandemic has impacted staffing only slightly. “My philosophy has always been to have fewer, well-paid sales associates who wear multiple hats.” Marshall also notes that the team has much experience surviving hardships, including hurricanes; Hugo, a powerful Category 4 storm in 1989, closed the store for nine days. “Yes, the pandemic has taken its toll but business is bouncing back,” shares Marshall. “It’s currently down only 3 percent vs. 2019. But as you might imagine, men’s is down more than women’s; gifts and fine jewelry are up.” (His theory on fine jewelry: “Affluent customers still have money to spend, more than usual since they’re not running off to Europe or the Caribbean. Precious jewelry is not just a luxury purchase; it’s a meaningful gift, often considered an investment.”)
Gwynn’s renovation four years ago added a travertine marble storefront, two fabulous fitting rooms with natural light and elegant chandeliers, and an extra 400 feet to the tailor shop. “We wanted to make trying on clothes an elevated, white-glove experience,” Madison explains. “We give our customers whatever they want: lunch ordered in, access to our full bar, and the best service imaginable.”
Looking toward fall ’21, Marshall is building up his buy. “We’re moving full steam ahead with fresh product, adjustments to payroll, and creative marketing initiatives. Two years ago, we brought our marketing in-house; Madison and her team have done an amazing job establishing our voice and reaching out to customers in many new ways.” Online sales currently comprise 5 percent of Gwynn’s total store volume with a goal to reach 7 percent by year’s end, and ultimately 15 percent or more.
And a bit about Madison: she’s smart, beautiful, and as fashion-savvy as they come. Graduating from Ole Miss, she started her retail career in NYC with NEST Fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman, rising to senior account exec of their corporate wholesale division before joining her dad at Gwynn’s. Among her many accomplishments, Madison has been responsible for styling several cast members of Southern Charm (a popular Charleston-based reality show on Bravo) who then serve as online influencers promoting Gwynn’s fashion.
Asked what he’s learned from his 50 years in the business, Marshall is thoughtful. “I’ve learned that the most important factor is face-to-face time with your clients: welcoming them, maintaining friendships, being totally present. It’s our relationships with customers that keep us going, no matter what. I’ve also learned that you never stop learning: even after 50 years, I’m still figuring it out.”
Says Madison of joining the Forum Group, “It’s exciting to be a part of a group that focuses on the unique challenges of a family business. I’m learning that this group is itself like a family, one in which members can lean on each other and share openly. As the third generation of my family’s business, I look forward to leaning on, and learning from, the best.”
Adds Marshall, “We’re honored to have been even considered among these elite merchants. We look forward to learning and growing and contributing to the Forum group.”
And from John Braeger, owner of Garys in Newport Beach and current president of the Forum Group, “We’re delighted to have Gwynn’s join our group, the first addition in several years. They are exceptional merchants with a unique niche in the southeast market and we believe we can learn a lot from them. More importantly, Marshall and Madison are truly lovely people: genuine, transparent, creative, and caring. It feels like a great match!”