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Sherry Gravitt, owner of Encore Consignment Boutique, and Marc Jacobs have more in common than Gravitt knows. Both connoisseurs of fashion at age 15 started their first jobs in fashion. For Jacobs, it was as a stockboy at Charivari, a now-defunct boutique in New York City. For Gravitt, it was in the handbag department at the Vogue, “which was the designer boutique in Chattanooga,” she chimed.
Both entrepreneurs of fashion and business have claimed bragging rights in their respective ways—although Jacobs’ life is decidedly more glamorous—but both have global reach. Encore lays claim to the of title Best Consignment Store in Chattanooga from the Times Free Press’ Reader’s Choice and Best of the Best awards.
“[When I bought the storefront,] quite frankly, I didn’t know if I wanted to go back into clothing or antiques,” she said. “I decided, that’s it. I mean it was just, bam. Done.”
And while impulsive decisions, especially when it comes to the clothing business, can result in disappointing ends. In Gravitt’s case, her instinct came from a business and marketing degree and a long affair with fashion. She represented her high school on Loveman’s Teen Board and continued working at the Vogue in college.
“If you go into a business like this, and you don’t know clothing, and you don’t know designers, it would be extremely hard,” she said. “But that’s something that I’ve been around my whole life. My grandmother was the manager of the crystal room at Miller’s when it was downtown.”
Gravitt channels her experience in past fashion to evaluating the current. She visits Atlanta at least once a month to scour inventory at a variety of stores, and when her daughter lived in New York, she went to the Big Apple twice a year to observe the market there.
Setting Encore’s reputation and distinguishing it from thrift stores was the real challenge. The two industries sell pre-owned clothing but differ in almost every dimension from business operation to selecting merchandise, according to her.
First, Gravitt stresses that while thrift stores accept all donations, consignment stores have standards for buying pieces to sell. Encore adheres to a very selective and specific process for accepting clothing and accessories. For clothes, items must be three years old or less, dry cleaned or laundered, pressed and on hangers before they are considered. Easily found on the racks are designer gems from Akris, an esoteric Swedish fashion label, Fendi and Ralph Lauren, but in the same space are retail and contemporary brands such as J.Crew and Tracy Reese. You might find the likes of said tags at thrift stores, but only with sheer luck and without abundance.
This leads to the second main distinction, which is the consumer demographic.
“In a thrift store, too, you’ve got a particular market that are looking for very, very, very inexpensive pieces,” she said. “Whereas, we tend to, we go the higher end.”
People with superfluous expensive items gravitate towards consignment stores not only because of reimbursement, but also because they know they can entrust their items with places like Encore who have high standards and reliable business models.
“In the consignment business, this is a trust business,” she said.
With 2,300 consignors on record, Gravitt has consignors who shop all over the world, resulting in an injection of global fashion perspectives in Chattanooga. This also means that global shoppers return home to try on brand-new, white cheetah print boots only to find that they don’t fit like they did in that store in Italy. Gravitt estimates that a third of merchandise are new with tags.
However, one thing that should never have tags, according to Gravitt, is a designer handbag: “Louis Vuitton never attached a tag.”
Before Gravitt takes any piece, she spends hours researching to authenticate the label, especially in designer handbags.
“It might take me eight hours to authenticate a bag, and it has many times,” she said.
She has crafted a list of clear giveaways, such as the stitching, but with her honed experience, she can authenticate a signature handbag, such as Louis Vuitton’s Speedy, almost by instinct.
As she dissects the features of an authentic bag with me, she hesitates for a moment.
“You just have to learn the feel,” she explained. “It’s kind of like with a Chanel—there are two types of leather that they usually use with a Chanel—you have to know that feel. And you can’t do that unless you’ve seen a lot of them and you just go on and on and on. It takes years, basically, to kind of, figure some of that out.”
It’s in this way that Gravitt has succeeded in the industry and that newcomers often neglect: you have to pay your dues.