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If the great cities of the world were personified as women, you might think of Paris as fearlessly avant-garde. New York is, obviously, a well-coiffed bohemian. And Washington? Well, Washington is the uptight younger sister who hasn’t quite figured out how to look stylish and professional. She dons colorless, conservative suits that fall far below the knee (you don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention in this city).
There are no fashion shows here, and few fashionistas.
But Betsy Fisher, who owns an eponymous women’s clothing store in one of D.C.’s prime shopping districts, is helping to change that image. “Clothing expresses an artistic quality,” she said. “It lets you show who you are inside on the outside.”
Betsy, who is trim and (naturally) well-dressed, has made it her mission to provide professional women with clothes that are beautifully made and classically chic. Her 21-year-old business features the work of designers like Hugo Boss, Diana Von Furstenberg, and MAG to name a few. But though top brands are well-represented, the store isn’t stuffed with attire. Instead, Betsy provides her clients with highly personalized service. Acting as something of a curator, Betsy selects and presents carefully chosen pieces for them to view, always keeping in mind the personality and stylistic preferences of her clients.
Her approach and matchless taste has attracted a number of members of D.C.’s hot list. Helene Cooper, a New York Times writer based in Washington, called the store “a stylish and funky boutique.” Stephanie Cutter, communications director for the Treasury Department, buys her Diane von Furstenberg dresses there. And Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s Supreme Court correspondent, is a loyal costumer.
Betsy’s romance with fashion started abroad. During her early 20s, while travelling through South America and Europe, Betsy fell in love with elegant attire of the local women. The colors and cuts, she said, were soft and flattering, accentuating curves. When she returned to the United States, she was determined to bring that elegance to ladies in D.C.
“Where would a 25-year-old shop?” she remembered asking herself when she returned home to the Beltway. She set out to answer that question, hatching plans to open a store where young women could transition their wardrobes to fit the working world. Betsy spent two years laying the groundwork with her husband Lyle, a lawyer who is now a general manager at the store. The couple found a small space, stocked it full of garments, and planned a November launch.
Betsy opened her doors on Black Friday, 1988. She spent most of the day pacing and waiting for customers, but no one came in until the end of the day. As she was preparing to close, one man stopped in to buy a white shirt. “I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do it.”
But Betsy quickly developed an affinity for sales, and her business grew at a breakneck pace. “I would wait outside of the store for Betsy after I finished my day as an associate [at a law firm],” Lyle said. “When your hours are worse than a first-year lawyer, you know you’re working hard.” The store became so popular that Betsy eventually decided to move to a sunny space on Connecticut Avenue, near Dupont Circle. Clothing lines the walls, and shoes sit primly on shelves above the racks. Impatient husbands or boyfriends can sit and sip a cool drink while their significant others browse. The products are high-end, and the price tags show it—suits range from $200 to $600, and few products cost less than $40. But Betsy says her clients know they are paying for quality.
When determining what to order, Betsy surveys the work of designers across the world, from Europe to Asia and Australia to cities across the United States. And she spends hours poring over the Internet, searching for new looks to add to her collection. Her tastes, she said, still reflect her founding mission. “I ask, will that outfit do ten things?” she said. “Does it make you feel confident and catch your eye?”
Her employee base has expanded too—she has five staff members along with Lyle, who left his law job to help Betsy full-time. He is now the company’s administrative mind, dealing with staff issues, project management, and finances. The decision to join forces was a tough one. “We talked to friends, and we heard horror stories,” about what it’s like to work with your spouse, Lyle said. But ultimately, they decided their lives centered on their family. Why shouldn’t the store? “Our girls are our priority,” Betsy said. “This has been a family endeavor.”
Two decades after Betsy Fisher first opened, the retailer has become one of Washington’s heralded boutiques. The Washingtonian, D.C.’s trend-maker magazine, has included the store among its favorite places to shop for clothing, shoes and accessories and The New York Times included the business on their list of places to visit during Inauguration Day weekend 2009. InStyle and Glamour magazine have referenced the store in their pages. DC’s George Hotel included it on its “Destination DC Design” tour.
Betsy’s success has led her to plan for expansion. But the impact of the recession has halted immediate plans to grow. Instead, the couple is focusing on sustaining current operations. “We’ve gotten ruthlessly efficient,” Lyle said. The store cut down on orders, he said, and trimmed their advertising budget by two-thirds.
They are concerned that President Barack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the wealthy will hamper the store’s growth even more. Fashion, Betsy said, has thrived because it is rarely limited by government regulation. “It’s one of the freer industries around the world,” she said, noting that designers are often able to design as they wish, even when a country limits other means of expression.
Lyle sees Betsy Fisher, as one more example of the power of an industry driven my individualism and freedom. Fashion is about “constantly striving to perfect yourself,” he said. And, added Betsy, it’s a way to showcase your individuality. “Clothes tell you so much,” she said. “Fashion is rational, personal and prideful … it’s a celebration of humanity.”
Amanda Erickson is a reporter at the Washington Post where she writes about D.C.'s movers and shakers. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. When she isn't reporting, Amanda enjoys mastering new recipes, travelling on the cheap, and visiting second-hand bookstores.