Influential Oakland retailer Sherri McMullen, who has made it part of her ethos to support designers of color at her inclusive luxury specialty store, is in expansion mode, with plans to boost her growing e-commerce channel and launch a young designer incubator at a new 10,000-square-foot warehouse space.
The fashion leader is also marking her 15th anniversary by taking her store on the road, starting in L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood, where she will have several events this weekend, then popping up in Detroit for six months beginning in September, and hosting a three-day celebration and runway show in November in the Bay Area with 15 exclusives from 15 designers.
“It’s important we have brands from people who look like me, because I’ve known firsthand how challenging it is to run a business when you have very few resources,” said McMullen, who was the first retailer to buy CFDA Women’s Designer of the Year winner Christopher John Rogers’ collection, which she stocks in her lifestyle boutique alongside Stella McCartney, Khaite, The Row, Jacquemus, Carolina Herrera, Peter Do, up-and-comers Sergio Hudson and Khiry jewelry, glassware by Estelle, Ankara pillows by Lagos-based Lisa Folawiyo, books such as “Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora” and more.
The McMullen e-commerce site has a section highlighting “Our Black Partners.”
“More consumers, not just Black consumers, more consumers in general are looking for designers of color and Black-owned brands, and this is an easy way for someone to go and identify brands maybe they didn’t even know who were founded by a Black owner,” she said of the added visibility.
It’s the fastest growing segment of the business for McMullen. More than 35 percent of her sales were generated from Black-owned brands in 2021, up from 11 percent the year before, she said. “Investing in those businesses is important — not just giving them my platform, but investing in our community as a whole.”
A native of Oklahoma, McMullen was a buyer at Neiman Marcus before moving to the Bay Area to work as a textile buyer at Pottery Barn Kids. She fell in love with the community in Oakland, which was then full of thriving small businesses. “I was writing a business plan while I was still working, and I found an 800-square-foot space on Piedmont Avenue that was still under development, had no flooring, no plumbing. I started looking out and envisioning where the cash wrap and dressing rooms would go, and we ended up opening in 2007.”
There hadn’t been a luxury retail store on Oakland since I. Magnin closed in the mid-’90s.
“The Bay Area does get a bad rap but the customer in Oakland is unique. There is such sophisticated style here and the customers don’t care so much about the label as they care about smaller, more independent designers, and that’s what we’ve been known for.”
Weathering the 2008 recession, the California casual revolution and COVID-10 closures, she now occupies a 2,775-square-foot space on Broadway, where she sells to customers such as Phenomenal Media founder Meena Harris; “And Just Like That” actress Karen Pittman; Huey P. Newton’s widow, activist Fredrika Newton, and author/political strategist Alicia Garza, even styling some of them, including Golden State Warriors’ star Steph Curry and actress Ayesha Curry.
McMullen also caters to the tech class. “We work with a lot of executives and young women in tech, and leaders in biotech, too,” she said.
And they don’t want to dress like Elizabeth Holmes.
“Everyone wants to dress up again — they’ve been saying after lockdown they want to burn everything in their closet,” she laughed.
Between 2019 and 2021, total company sales increased 31 percent, with a 23 percent increase in store and a 601 percent increase online, explained McMullen, who has been acquiring customers via social media, rewards programs, and by sending out “goodie boxes” of styles to shop from home. “Our plan is to grow e-commerce tremendously over the next 10 years,” she said, adding that after relying on friends and family for funding, she is now actively seeking outside financing.
“When I first started and I went to banks to get funding, they said retail has a shelf life of about two to three years, and we’re not going to give you money because we don’t trust you will make it. I even had a little money myself to put into the business, and a lot of experience, so I checked all the boxes, and they still said no,” she remembered.
So she secured a $50,000 loan from friends and family, which she paid off in three years. “Very few Black designers have gotten to this place on their own,” she acknowledged, noting she’s still finding it difficult today going out to private equity and venture capital to find support.
And yet McMullen’s store has become such a draw, customers fly in from L.A. and head straight to it from the airport. Her biggest markets are California, New York and Texas, and she’s looking to tap into others.
McMullen buys collections globally, and is as passionate about storytelling as style.
“I’m always looking for things that move me. When I talk to designers, and hear their story and inspiration for a collection or their overall brand, that’s what excites me. It could be how they are supporting other people and communities they are living in, or how they are doing hand beading and dyeing and using traditional techniques. I just know if our customers will love it and we haven’t been wrong,” she said, adding that she can take risks on younger brands that bigger stores can’t, and enjoys working with designers on issues like production and quality.
She has an eye for spotting new talent from New York to Nigeria, and developing ongoing relationships with designers like Tibi’s Amy Smilovic.
“We have really grown together…[Tibi] was a contemporary brand when we started carrying it, and now she’s evolved it into a lifestyle brand,” McMullen said. “It resonates with me, I wear it every season. they’re the things I want to live in. Her joggers, I can wear to take my son to soccer practice, or I can wear her slip dress out with one of her blazers. It’s easy to mix and match her pieces and that’s the case with lots of brands we carry. I want our customer to feel like our store is a closet of things that can work together.”
“Sherri has always had a point of view and has never made an attempt to be everything to everyone. She has such a strong sense of personal style and her best asset is being quite forthright with her opinions and bringing them to her customers,” said Smilovic. “If Sherri bought it, it’s because she believes in it. For her and for her customer.
“I think the entire category of independent specialty stores is interesting to watch. Businesses that have owners who are present and vested in their outcomes are seeing tremendous momentum right now. The customers see and feel this, whether in store or online. Sherri builds a human connection. If you go to a department store, you may be lucky to find a stylist with whom you connect, but the entire franchise? Unlikely. This is an advantage Sherri has, she’s actually a real person,” the designer continued.
McMullen first came across Lagos designer Lisa Followiyo on Instagram, and has been exclusively selling her collection fusing West African textiles with contemporary shapes in the U.S. for the past four years.
“What I know about working with brands from different parts of the world is it’s not always on our timetable,” McMullen said. “When we get the pieces they will be magical, and we don’t mind waiting six to eight months. Not a lot of people in the industry accept that, especially traditional retailers who are so highly seasonal.”
From New York, she’s helped to nurture mechanical engineer-turned-knitwear designer Aisling Camps. “During lockdown, we were Zooming and she was trying pieces on in her apartment. I told her to ‘ship me everything, I can’t believe no stores have picked up your work!’ We started talking about margins and pricing structures and making what she’s doing less of a hobby and more of a business.”
McMullen was the first store to pick up Christopher John Rogers’ collection back in 2017. “He’s so talented, he has a strong point of view, I love his use of color and volume. There was nothing like it in the market,” she said, noting that five years later, it’s still her fastest growing brand. “We can’t keep it in stock. We sell it before it arrives, and to the piece within a week. We quadrupled our buy after the second season, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. We haven’t even gotten close to hitting the ceiling with it.”
In the same spirit she’s planning to roll out an incubator program at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse space she recently acquired in West Oakland for her e-commerce operations. “We will have a dedicated room for an art school or design school student who doesn’t have a physical studio space,” she said. “I will work with them one-on-one, help them find business partners and production facilities locally or using my network. It’s about nurturing new talent so they can survive.”
In the meantime, she’s kicking off her anniversary in L.A., taking over a house at 5356 West Boulevard in the historically Black Leimert Park neighborhood for a tastemaker dinner Friday, an open-to-the-public day of shopping Saturday and a panel discussion Sunday with Studio One Eighty Nine designers Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah.
“It’s a great way to test the market,” she said.
In Detroit, which has been experiencing a fashion renaissance thanks to Tracy Reese, Detroit is the New Black, and other brands, McMullen will set up shop in September across the street from the Shinola Hotel downtown.
“When thinking about different areas we want to be in, places that are similar to Oakland which has so much rich Black history, art and culture, are meaningful to me,” the retailer said, adding she’s also looking in New York.
In August, as part of the Obama portrait tour, she will have a pop-up at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco with a selection of products by Black designers, and a conversation with Natasha Becker, curator of African Art at the Fine Arts Museums.
It’s all a runway for her dreams for the next 15 years.
“It’s about really continuing to invest in the brands I care about, growing the incubator program, offering more styling services, because we style a range of leaders and influencers, entertainers and activists, and having physical spaces around the country that are really meaningful, where we feel deeply rooted in the community and arts and fashion and people.”