Though it’s still winter outside Chris Dahdah’s Homeland house, inside it’s spring. As she does every February, Dahdah has transformed her elegant living room, dining room and sunroom into a boutique showcasing the Worth direct sale line spring collection. Four times a year, when Dahdah hosts the two-week sale, her family retreats to the back of the house while well-heeled customers browse the orderly racks of pants, suits, dresses and accessories out front.

Yes, this is a trunk show—or a direct sale clothing show, to be exact—but there’s not a Chanel-style suit or stitch of tweed in sight. Instead there are biker-style jackets in pastel colors and denim suits with ribbon trim, clothes that are surprisingly modern and feminine with gorgeous, understated details. Indeed the only thing about Dahdah’s sale that hearkens back to an earlier era of trunk-show shopping is the high caliber of customer service she and other direct sales consultants offer. Each client shops during a scheduled time slot and receives 100 percent of Dahdah’s attention or that of her partners Kit Dale and Linda Eisenbrandt. “We’re not just advisers on their clothes, we’re advisers on their lives,” says Dahdah, who has more than 10 years of experience with Worth. “We get to be friends.”

Throughout the day, Dahdah moves easily about, pulling items from racks for women to try on, adjusting a pair of pants as a customer checks the fit in a full-length mirror on the sun porch-cum-dressing room. One shopper likens the experience of direct sale shopping to having a personal shopper. “It’s a time saver for me because I book it in like I do an appointment. I don’t book a trip to Nordstrom,” says Eileen Brown, an interior designer who shops the Doncaster direct sales line.

Although Brown rarely purchases entire outfits from Doncaster, she buys classic staples that she mixes and matches with her other clothes. Her favorite purchase is an unusual sweater set with a fine, mink trim. “I hate to go into stores and have the clothes all jammed in a pile,” she says. “I’d much prefer a small boutique, but unfortunately in Baltimore, there aren’t that many anymore.”

Kim Federico is a working mother with five children and two stepchildren—she’s not a woman who has time to shop. Instead, she allocates part of her clothing budget to attend at least one direct sale of Etcetera and Worth Wear each season. “I’m building a wardrobe,” says Federico. “I know what I have when I get there, and I use my budget to get the things that are harder to find elsewhere.”

The direct sale of clothing is not a new concept, but in-home trunk shows have largely been a well-kept secret until now. These days, women tired of cookie-cutter fashion and too busy to fight the crowds in the mall are turning to trunk shows. Private label fashion is firmly out of the closet.

Worth, Carlisle and Doncaster are considered the “big three” of direct sales, and Worth and Carlisle have added new companies to their fashion repertoire, Worth Wear and Etcetera, respectively, which offer more casual clothes at lower prices than the grande dames. There are other indicators that the market is growing; Doncaster branched into the plus-size market with its elana line, and a consortium of representatives opened a Doncaster studio in Ruxton this spring to meet the growing needs of their clients. Even the fashion house of Bill Blass has thrown its well-appointed hat into the direct sales ring with the launch of the exclusive Bill Blass New York line this spring.

Designers appreciate the direct sale approach because unlike a retail environment where store buyers hen-peck the clothing on display, an entire line is shown directly to shoppers in a trunk show. The collections usually include several hundred pieces that can go from “the carpool line to a cocktail party.” The catch phrases “wardrobe building” and “investment dressing” are often used because, while the clothing is not inexpensive, the pieces are classic coordinates that combine into multiple looks and are timeless enough to last a lifetime.

The trunk shows have the feel of friendly gatherings, and they are. But they’re also serious business. Sales associates receive a commission on each sale, which can be substantial given that the average price of a suit made by Worth, Carlisle or Doncaster is about $1,000. The average direct sale representative makes about $40,000 yearly, and a top seller can make more than $100,000. Many sales representatives are women who were drawn away from the 9 to 5 work world. Dahdah says she never meant to stay in the business as long as she has, but the perks keep her coming back each season. “I make decent money, I love the clothes and it’s a full-time job with flexibility,” she says.

“We’re all independent contractors and we can all run our agencies different ways. Some people are aggressive, some are laid back. Everybody does it differently and that’s the beauty of it—you can really make it your own,” says Coleman Hooper, who began selling the Carlisle Collection in 1992. “This is very much a business to me and I try to be very professional, so that when people come to my house it’s not a coffee chit-chat thing.”

Besides educating themselves about the fit, size, color and fabric of the clothing lines, each consultant, like any small business owner, needs to be her own best marketer. Some representatives distribute pamphlets and fliers supplied by corporate; others send their own invitation cards. But a consultant’s best marketing tools hang in her own closet—her clothes. By wearing the clothes they sell, associates take advantage of the “where did you get that?” effect. Réné Pallace, an area development manager for Etcetera, has even sold the clothes off her back to a potential new customer.

And then, of course, there’s networking. Sherry Billig, a Doncaster sales consultant, gets many of her client referrals from her mother-in-law, who owns the tour company Diversions. Whether in the grocery store line, at a dinner party or a board meeting, networking sells more clothes than any advertisement. According to Caroline Davis, president of Worth, “Women are natural, extraordinary networkers and they really love building businesses of their own—which is what a Worth agency is—by networking through their communities with other women.”

Davis sold clothes for Doncaster as a new mother and went on to found the Carlisle Collection in 1981 and Worth in 1991, now an $80 million company. She says that to become a Worth representative a woman needs a customer list of 150 to 200 people whom she personally knows. “The representatives are very much selling themselves. They are selling a lifestyle, they’re selling connections,” says Davis. “We look for women who are role models in their community, women who are respected and connected.”

Dahdah invites about 300 people to each show, follows up on each invite with a phone call and typically makes about 50 to 70 appointments per season. Lauren Knott Colyer, who joined Worth Wear three seasons ago, invited 220 people to her spring 2004 show, booked about 40 appointments, and hosted the show at her parents’ Towson home, which is bigger and shows off the clothes better than her own home.

Although there can be more than one consultant for each line in one city, often they live in distinctly different neighborhoods, targeting different guest lists to help ease competition. According to Pallace, “our competition is not with each other, it’s with the other retailers.”

Recently Doncaster consultants Stephanie Rich, Rosemary Knott Haynes, Sherry Billig and Kearny Dietrich decided to join forces and open a studio in Ruxton. They hope the studio will provide easier access to the line, reduce pressure to buy and take away the strain of maintaining a showroom at home. “My family is delighted that our home won’t be a boutique,” says Dietrich. “And all the comments from clients have been favorable. While they love coming to the house, they look forward to the convenience of having full access to the line for a full season.”

Direct sale companies may be miles away from overtaking the big-box brand name retail giants, but they are reporting sales growth each season, riding the checkbooks of savvy shoppers all the way to the bank. One indicator that direct sales is gaining market share—even as many major malls lose theirs—is the launch of the Bill Blass New York line, which marks the first time a well-known designer has created a line exclusively for direct sale. Baltimore-based Blass consultant Lisa Hardiman says she was “blown away” by the reception buyers gave the line, explaining that the sleek interpretations of Blass’ classic style were a hit with women across all ages. “People are excited to see the return of Bill Blass’ classic look,” she says.

At its core, direct sale lines are all about choice: the choice to run a business your way, the choice to shop your way on your schedule, the choice to wear something unique and support a woman entrepreneur. More women are exercising their right to choose by veering their cars away from the malls and into posh neighborhoods around the city.

“Let’s face it, today people don’t have time for anything,” says Eileen Brown. “Everyone wants personal service. That’s the name of the game for the future.”

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