Susan "Sam" Shockley’s advice for someone trying on clothes at her consignment shop, Consigning Women Apparel, is to not bring a friend.
"We’ll find that their friends will be jealous [of how good they look] and not tell them the truth," Shockley said. She sees it happen so often that she knows it must be more than a matter of taste.
Shockly saw a woman trying on a dress that looked good, but when her sister saw it, she said she thought it looked horrible. But when the sister found a dress for herself, suddenly the other dress was all right.
"I just shake my head sometimes, because it’s sad," Shockley said.
At the same time, though, Shockley is more concerned with making sure the customer looks good than with making a sale.
"If they look stupid in something, we’ll tell them as fast as we can," Shockley said.
Shockley, the owner of Consigning Women Apparel since she opened the store 1993, doesn’t consider her store to be a thrift store, or even an ordinary consignment shop. Neither do most of the women who shop there, which include women from the White House and the press corps, as well as high-ranking military officers. People come from all over the D.C. area to shop at Consigning Women, from Bethesda to Alexandria; Washington, D.C.; to Great Falls. They also have customers who live as far away as Texas and shop there when they’re on a business trip. One woman from Utah spends a week in the area every year and comes to Consigning Women every day during that week. Most customers are in the 35-55 age group, but younger women have also started shopping there.
"I NEVER THOUGHT I would ever shop consignment, but when I went in [to Consigning Women], I loved the stuff," said Springfield resident and Consigning Women customer Jackie Robertson, who has been shopping at the store for about four to five years. Robertson, who now shops there every four to six weeks, used to go to outlet malls to buy the designers she liked the best, which include Liz Claiborne and Jones.
"I went reluctantly, but once I got here, I was so tickled," Robertson said.
Laurel Turray of Woodbridge, a second-time customer, has shopped at other consignment stores but likes Consigning Women the best.
"Most of the other stores don’t have name brands," Turray said. "Just old stuff people don’t want."
Springfield resident Monica Gibson, 17, has considered hitting one of the local consignment shops once she gets out on her own.
"I would get more bang for my buck there," she said.
According to Shockley, word of mouth started about five years ago, spreading to atypical customers that might be seen in Bloomingdales rather than consignment shops. However, Shockley realizes the importance of always keeping her cool around famous customers, so that they will want to come back.
"Some people like to be known, and some don’t," manager Nell Woodruff said.
Shockley also said that a top-ranking woman in the Mobil Corp. sends many of her clothes for consignment.
"She doesn’t bring them; her secretary does," Shockley said. "We haven’t seen her."
Women also shop at Consigning Women for the Helen Hayes awards, the Marine Corps Ball, and the inaugural balls, among other events. Shockley got her own gown for Clinton’s inaugural ball at Consigning Women and brought it back so someone else could buy it for Bush’s inaugural ball. Some of the store’s well-known customers will also consign their old clothing to the store. The store — which carries such designers as Chanel, Escada, St. John, Vera Wang, Christian Dior, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Ann Taylor, Anne Klein, DKNY and Donna Karan — has been called the "Bloomingdales of consignment stores" by customers.
"If they can’t find [a gown] elsewhere, they’ll buy three or four here," Shockley said.
Although the store is popular among well-known local women, there is still somewhat of a stigma attached to shopping at a consignment store. Shockley said that she attended the same ball as a woman who had bought her dress at Consigning Women. When Shockley asked the woman where she had gotten her dress, the woman, not recognizing her, said, "Bloomingdales."
SHOCKLEY HAS ALWAYS had an interest in fashion. Her mother used to sew clothing and would take her to fashion shows.
"I would sit there and look at clothes ad nauseum," Shockley said. "I would touch material; you can get a feel for the fabric by touching it."
Before she opened Consigning Women, Shockley spent 25 years in the hotel industry, starting in Chicago. Since she had to be dressed professionally at all times but couldn’t afford new designer clothing, she started shopping at consignment stores.
When she lived in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, limousines would deliver carloads of clothes that had been worn only once to consignment stores. When she moved to the Northern Virginia area, she found that many thrift stores would not even have the size labeled on the rack. Although many consignment stores are run more as a hobby for the owner, Shockley started Consigning Women with the customer’s needs in mind. They are open seven days a week and are open late Thursday and Friday evenings. The cleaner across the street does alterations, if something doesn’t quite fit. They also show movies for children in the store so their mothers can shop, and send once-a-week e-mails to frequent customers.
Woodruff, who used to be in the restaurant business, "just walked in" and has been managing the store for five years. And yes, both Shockley and Woodruff shop at their own store.
"Women who are in real estate or the hotel industry – they have to look fabulous but don’t want to spend their whole paycheck on clothing," Shockley said.
The store has something for every price range, from $5,000 dresses to the $3 rack. The most expensive outfits are often the ones that are sold the fastest. The price of everything drops after 30 days, and again after 60 days. They have such rare pieces as outfits by Maggie Shepherd, a designer from Australia who makes only six of each outfit. They also have collages of shoes and other items showing how much these items normally go for, so customers can compare prices.
ALTHOUGH THE CLOTHES in Consigning Women may not be wanted anymore, they aren’t necessarily old. According to Shockley, the No. 1 reason people consign is because they have gained or lost weight. Some items, though, come in with the original price tag, because it was an impulse buy. According to Shockley, one customer who gets a huge monthly stipend from her wealthy ex-husband will often buy clothes and then give them to the store.
Oftentimes, Shockley said, women who are a size 8 will get upset if something doesn’t fit in their size and won’t want to try on anything else. Shockley makes sure that customers know that the sizes are not necessarily true sizes, because many items have been altered by previous owners.
"A personality comes with the clothing," Shockley said. "You get a little extra with something that’s been worn before."
Although they take in 100-300 items a day and sell them at the same rate, they are careful to take in only high-quality items.
"We have more Talbots than Talbot’s across the street," Shockley said.
Shockley and Woodruff enjoy getting people to try on clothes they wouldn’t normally wear.
"The ones we really enjoy say, ‘I’m moving to Germany, and I need a whole winter wardrobe.’" Shockley said.
They also try to give fashion tips to customers. For example, Shockley will tell customers that it is best to wear weighted jewelry that will stay outside of clothing, which is what Jackie Kennedy used to do.
"[Woodruff] really gets into personalities, really finds out what people want," often remembering clothes that people bought two years ago, Shockley said.
Shockley and Woodruff also have other ways of making their customers happy, including free coffee and cookies for customers, happy hour on Thursday nights, and $5 to $20 coupons for customers who spend $200 or more. Once they had a "tea," – everyone who brought in a tea bag got a percentage off her purchase. Another time, they gave a discount to anyone who brought in a fake flower, and Woodruff made a bouquet to decorate the store. Shockley and Woodruff are also always looking for ways to make their customers feel special.
"If you come in here and say it’s your birthday, we’ll buy you a cake," Shockley said.
Consigning Women Apparel is located at 6691A Backlick Road