As the internet continues to upend long-standing practices, especially brick-and-mortar retail, it has also made us realize and appreciate even more the expertise, enthusiasm and old-fashioned one-on-one personal service that a few gem boutiques offer. Laura Vinroot Poole’s shop, Capitol, in Charlotte, North Carolina is one of those rare havens. Successful boutiques aren’t just about the clothes, they become almost cultural institutions that have a great, and in this case decades-long, influence on the clientele they serve and even the designers who create relationships with the store. As Capitol gets ready to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary, the woman behind it (as well as a men’s shop, and a personal shopping app House Account that links the user to Capitol and other high-end fashion boutiques) talks about why being well-dressed is a Southern must, her commitment to creating fulfilling careers for the women and men who work for her, and why she’ll change her travel plans to make her Saturday morning weekly ritual.
Describe who you are and what you: I’m a mother and a wife and I’m in the business of discovering and sharing beautiful things with extraordinary women. Beyond selling clothing and objects, I think we’re dressing stylish women of substance, instilling confidence, and helping women channel their own creativity through fashion, and probably specifically breaking Southern women out of old gender stereotypes. I think that being in the South has been a big part of our success. The South is different; people still take being beautiful and showing up very seriously. It’s impolite to show up to an event and not be thoughtfully turned out. That’s really fun to work with. I would also say I am a determined, resilient problem-solver, to have made it through the recession. I’m a curious lover of travel and of learning new things and meeting new people.
What led you in the beginning to open Capitol? What is your background? Fashion really didn’t lead me to do it at all. I’m a fine arts major and growing up, my father was the mayor [of Charlotte]. My first job out of college was working on his gubernatorial campaign. I don’t know that I was talented enough to be a painter, but I knew I was an extrovert, and [the life of a painter] looked like a lonely future to me.
I got married and when my husband and I were thinking about coming back home to Charlotte, I thought about how there was nowhere to shop. Most women–my mother and her friends, shopped in New York twice a year. They shopped in Atlanta twice a year at Neiman’s, and they shopped at Bob Ellis in Charleston for shoes. That was a pilgrimage, you know? I knew that there were enough people in Charlotte–the Bank of America’s based in Charlotte, NASCAR’s based in Charlotte. You may not know a lot about NASCAR, but the drivers and their families travel every weekend, I want to say it’s 11 out of 12 months. They’re in L.A., New York, New Hampshire. If the [Bank of America] president and his wife had to go to Paris on a conference, she had to go to New York to get her clothes. I thought that was insane. I always hated the idea that you couldn’t get everything in Charlotte, that Charlotte was not enough, so I just did it. I had absolutely no experience. I had no background. I had no money. Nobody backed me. My husband and I literally built it ourselves; it was in an 800 square foot, tiny store. [It is now 6000.] The clothing and the taste level part was never hard. I knew what events women were going to and what was appropriate for them. I wanted my clients to be the most beautiful, interesting, and glamorous women in the room.
How has Captiol evolved over the years? The recession was certainly our biggest failure in that we almost went out of business, but it was also the most incredible thing that ever happened, because it really defined us, refined us, made us really decide who we were, what we were doing, and why. It happened at the same time that eCommerce took off. It was this moment where I was like, “If you can buy anything anywhere what are we doing and why are we doing it?” The three things that I felt that we did better than anybody else was number one, our edit. That’s what we do all day long is edit to find things that are relevant of our clients’ lives. It’s not “this is the hot new item.” It’s “these are going to be exactly what you need for our climate and for your lifestyle.”
Second is the service. We do everything and anything for our clients. We’ll fly out to California to zip them up in a dress for an event. We send weekly shipments to Madame Paulette [New York City dry cleaner]. We pack them for trips. We arrange dinner reservations. My girls are in their clients’ closets every week creating schedules for them of what they’re wearing and hanging the clothes, steaming them, and whatever.
Do you charge for that? No, we don’t. Then, the third thing was just the physical experience of the store. My husband designed the store and it’s really beautiful, and it’s a place you never want to leave. It’s got a Patrick Blanc vertical garden in the center of it. It’s just a really special, beautiful place that is this magical escape.
What was the easiest thing about starting your business, and what was the hardest thing that you didn’t expect? The easiest part was working hard. That’s all I know how to do. I knew that nobody was going to outwork me. The hardest part has always been managing people, and that’s probably 80% of my job now.
You invest a lot of energy in your employees. What is the thinking behind it? What you do, and why? Most of the women and men that work with me don’t have a degree in fashion merchandising or anything related to fashion. A lot of them have never worked retail before. My most incredible stylist and salesperson is a Middle Eastern history major. What’s important to me is knowing how to write a thank you note, knowing how to deal with people and knowing how to handle yourself.
Then, I think the Southern part is specific. I had a lot of interns who were clients’ children, and I was not blown away by their work ethic, focus or determination. I got really down and thought, “I don’t want to just complain about how poorly they work. I want to change this dynamic.” I want to make sure these young women know that a career is not a given, it’s something that you need to work hard to find. Nobody’s going to save you. Nobody’s going to rescue you. I do think in the South, still, and I don’t know if it’s Southern, or it’s socioeconomic, but I think that women are still taught that a guy’s going to save you.
That horrifies me. We’ve done a bunch of work with a group called The Center for Intentional Leadership, that’s about personal and professional development. Women’s lives are more complicated than men, you know? All of these girls are in different stages of their lives, whether it’s wanting to get married, just married, wanting to have children, just having children, not being able to have children. There’s so many things that affect the tempo of their lives.
I want to do the best that I can to help them to navigate that, but also, to understand that they need to be able to take care of themselves no matter what happens. So to continue to work, whether that means working half-time or a couple days a week. I’m very, very flexible. I want them to have fulfilling careers that they love.
Attribute that helps you succeed: I think empathy, leadership, and not settling for halfway. I’m a very high performer. I want that for everybody.
Best career advice you’ve received or would give to somebody starting out: I’m not sure that I really was given any advice, because there were not that many people around me that worked. I think that’s part of reason it’s become my mission to motivate and to inspire young women.
To date what has been your biggest success? Staying in business 20 years and staying relevant.
What motivates you? Myself. I’m very, crazy, highly motivated. I’m psycho.
How hard would you say you work? How do you stay focused? I work 150%, have incredible support and an incredible team. Everybody that works for me is better at what they do than I could ever be. Also I have an incredible husband who is very, very involved in our family life and raising our daughter. I don’t drink caffeine and I think that really has changed my life. It’s awesome. I have much more energy.
What excites you most about fashion now? I think the fact that it’s changing so much. I love trying to figure it out and understand what’s happening. I love being a part of it. There’s not a specific designer or anything.
You’re about to celebrate your 20th anniversary which is very exciting. Do you have things planned? We have a big 20th anniversary party. I’m Swedish and Swedes do not like to be the center of attention. They’re modest, so having a big event for our 20th is a bit uncomfortable for me. At the same time, retail is such a hard business, I feel like it needs to be celebrated. I also think that fashion, particularly, is not good at reflection, because you’re always moving forward. You rarely have a moment to look back on what you’ve done or where you’ve been. I love the idea of having this opportunity to stop for a minute and celebrate the people that I’ve worked with and celebrate the clients, because it’s not a business without the clients and without the designers.
My clients really do know the designers. The designers have real relationships with our clients, so I think it’s a nice time for them to be together and celebrate each other. Then, we’re doing collaborations with 25, 30 designers.
I’m thrilled about that and we’ve got some really cool things that we’re doing. We have a custom perfume with Lyn Harris. I think she’s the only nose in Britain and one of the only female noses in the world. I’m just crazy for her. She’s so talented. She has the best taste. It’s exciting for her to develop a fragrance for us, about us. It’s this beautiful, soft floral that also has tobacco. It’s a very Southern, beautiful-smelling fragrance.
Role models and women you admire or identify with: My mother, my grandmothers, my sister– real Southern women who are gracious, beautiful, lovely, smart, determined.
You never feel dressed without: A smile and not because I’m an Annie freak and grew up knew every word of the play, but a smile for sure.
You can tell a lot about a woman by: The choices she makes.
Three words that describe you: Determined, real, grateful.
Three words that describe Capitol: Focused, dynamic, gracious.
Favorite artist: Sally Mann, Charlotte Perriand, Cristobal Balenciaga.
Pieces in your closet you’ll never throw out: Alaia.
A table is never set without: Food made with love.
Life goals: For my daughter to find meaningful work and to build a life with people she loves. I guess that’s the same goal I have for my whole team and for myself.
Daily goals: To breathe.
Daily rituals: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal in paper form, and then either yoga, pilates, meditation, or hiking.
How do you unplug? My job is really social so I unplug by plugging in, usually by watching Masterpiece Theatre.
Favorite charity: The Mint Museum in Charlotte, which is North Carolina’s first art museum. I grew up down the street.
Do you collect anything? I have a small collection of Sally Mann photos. I love her. There’s this visceral Southern-ness to her photos, they feel like home.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Biologique Recherche facials. There is an ambassador in Charlotte and I go every time I’m in Paris. I’m petrified of injecting anything into my face, but I would get a BR every day, if I could.
Favorite small indulgence: I go to the farmer’s market every Saturday at 7:00 a.m. and I buy everything there from milk to meat, vegetables, fruit, beeswax candles. When I miss it, my week is really messed up, because cooking is really important to me. It makes me feel like I’m home and like I’m being a mother and a wife. It really helps reconnect me. I’ll rearrange trips so that I arrive home by Friday night.
Total commitment. I’ve been going for 25 years. We still talk about farmer so-and-so’s grandfather’s onions that she used to have. It’s a family, really.
Album currently on repeat: Anything by Ryan Adams. He’s from North Carolina.
Scent that brings back memories: Laura Ashley No. 1 was my first favorite from junior high.
Lucky charm: I’m a St. Patrick’s Day baby, so my whole life is about talismans and good luck charms,. Marie-Helene de Taillac made a necklace with all good luck charms on it. I never take it off.
Favorite hour of the day: Four p.m. in my bedroom. I live in a modern house from the ’40s that’s all glass and the sun comes in at that time and it’s really warm. It’s usually just my daughter and me. I love reconnecting with her, asking her about her day, and reading. It just feels really safe, warm, and home.