When Drexel University signed on as an NRFF College Partner, I wanted to learn more about how the Design and Merchandising program prepared students for the real world. They referred me to Abby Kessler and Katie Loftus, co-owners of SMAK Parlour in Philadelphia. After speaking with them, I became so impressed that these two best friends started a business from the ground-up at 25 years old and five years later, after one of the most challenging periods in retail history, they remain so enthusiastic about their business. Their enthusiasm is contagious and I can’t wait to visit their store next time I’m in Philly.
Katie Loftus and Abby Kessler, co-owners of Smak Parlour
I read that over the past 5 years, Philadelphia has developed its own fashion community, marketing the city’s potential for an even bigger fashion scene. How is your store contributing to this new focus of retail and design? What do you think of the Philadelphia fashion scene?
Old City, Philadelphia is an awesome location to have an independently owned business. All of our neighbors do creative things, Philadelphia has a very DIY (do it yourself) feel and we’re proud to be a part of it. We contribute to this by designing and making our clothing in Philadelphia, thus creating jobs and being able to offer special, limited-edition items to our customers who love looking unique. We also support local artists by selling their jewelry and accessories.
The store design of Smak Parlour includes pinks, reds, blacks, stripes, polka dots a dozen chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And, you design clothing based on what you want to wear. From where do you draw your inspiration?
We’re actually up to 16 chandeliers at this point! We really draw inspiration from each other. We love looking back at different eras of fashion and getting inspired (pin- ups, 80’s, old Hollywood and more)! We love bouncing ideas off each other, we can get very imaginative!
You design clothing based on what you want to wear, so obviously you wear a lot of things from your own line. What are some of your favorite items? And, where are some other places you like to shop?
You might spot at least one of us wearing our signature ruffle hoodie. It is a long zip-up sweatshirt made of the softest baby french terry with luxurious gathered ruffles around the hood. We also love our over-sized sparkly turtlenecks that are sewn on to tanks, tees and tunics. We order styles from other vendors that we want to wear in addition to our own line, and ordering all of those items is a total shopping spree for us. Since we have such a broad range of items from jackets to shoes, for the most part, we really do only shop here!
Who is your typical customer? Describe the “girl” who shops at Smak Parlour.
Our customers love fun, rock ’n roll, retro, girly, glam, 80’s, pin-up, vintage-inspired styles! It’s a lifestyle, not an age.
Smak Parlour’s store design.
Not too long ago, you doubled the size of your store and included other items such as housewares. Where do you see Smak Parlour business 5 years from now?
Five years is a long time so you never know! We are driven and open to whatever opportunities come our way! We know one thing for sure, we’re going to continue to design & produce our clothing locally and seek out even more unique things to keep getting fuller and fuller… with more and more to offer.
You started your business 5 years ago and have survived one of the most challenging economic times in retail history. How did you prepare and overcome these challenges?
With our expansion, we brought in more brands of clothing, jewelry, lingerie, accessories, gifts and most OF ALL DIFFERENT PRICE POINTS! In troubled times like these, people always need a pick-me-up (some shopping therapy)! There’s something here everyone can afford.
Can you give us specific examples of items you’re selling at specific price points?
We have dangling chain earrings, carved lucite rose rings, heart compact mirrors, undies, picture frames, gloves, books, and retro oven mitts for $12 or less. For $25 or less, we have sunglasses, hair accessories, scarves, hats, many styles of earrings and bracelets, tank tops, tees, leggings, wallets, piggy banks, umbrellas, candles, baby onesies, ice cube trays, coaster sets, and eyemasks. In the $45-$100 range, we have dresses, jackets, cardigans, skirts, tunics, tops, blouses, lingerie, shoes, curtain sets and vases.
How is your business doing? What makes it most successful?
Overall, our business is doing great. Of course, we feel the economic challenges but we are offering affordable price points and we get new things almost every day. We genuinely enjoy what we do and are truly happy to be “at work.” We are often told that our shop has an uplifting, friendly, upbeat vibe… we love that our customers leave smiling and in a good mood. Perhaps that’s part of why they keep coming back.
Jewelry and accessories were an important component to Smak Parlour’s expansion.
Tell us about the wholesale business you created while at Drexel University.
Our line was SMAK by Abby & Katie, deconstructed, embellished, silkscreened t- shirts. It was in hip, cool boutiques across the country.
Drexel awarded you the Entrepreneurial Award recognizing your use of education, initiative and innovation to create a new business. Tell us how they’ve supported you through your venture.
Drexel’s been so supportive of our shop! They awarded us an Entrepreneurial Award and continue to send students our way. Many professors bring their classes into our shop for a meet and greet. We love speaking to eager students and answering their questions.
What role does e-commerce play in your business?
We have a website with gifts, house-wares, baby clothes, jewelry, and accessories for sale. Stay tuned for more!
What’s currently the best selling item in your store?
Our new burn-out tees are hot sellers! They’re great… they come in all different colors, they are $22 and you can layer them on top of each other. They’re long enough to wear with leggings!
Starting a retail boutique business with your best friend (since the age of 15) sounds like something of a dream, but also something that could turn out to be a nightmare. Tell us how you make the partnership (and friendship) work and how you share decision-making.
Katie – It’s absolutely a dream come true to work with Abby! I can’t imagine doing this without her. We always want to make sure the other one is happy, no matter what, so sharing decisions and getting along effortlessly comes easy to us.
Abby – We never fight. It sounds like a lie, but it’s true.
As store owners, you’re in charge of design, inventory, finance, and hiring. What criteria do you look for when hiring an employee?
Experience, personality and drive are important but, most of all, they should have an interest.
What advice do you have for a student looking toward a career in retail?
You must be passionate about fashion – it’s a lot of hard work and long hours so it requires dedication. It is absolutely worth it if you love what you do!