Friday, June 14, 2013

Belk makes Southern designers dreams come true

When I walked into the atrium of Belk department store's headquarters at 9 a.m. on June 12, I felt like I was at a club. A song by Bruno Mars was cranked up and hundreds of stylish people of all ages were mingling around a stage where the winners of Belk's second annual Southern Designer Showcase were getting ready to be announced.

Arlene Goldstein, Belk's vice president of trend merchandising, was the first on stage. "What started as a celebration of Belk's 125th anniverary has become an important franchise for our company," she said.

The competition, which is the brainchild of Kathryn Bufano, Belk's president and chief merchandising officer, has turned out to be a huge win-win for Belk, Southern designers and Belk customers. The designs of last year's winners - which ranged from gowns to dresses, children's clothing, shoes, jewelry and handbags - were offered to customers at special pop-up boutiques in select Belk stores and online at this spring.

One of the reasons Belk is so successful is that it doesn't try to second guess its customers - it's the customer who ultimately determines which lines the stores carries.A handful of last year's winners who really resonated with customers will continue their partnership with Belk, including last year's only winning designer from Charlotte, Kathleen Murphy. I bought a necklace and earrings from her collection that I absolutely adore and every time I wear them I get compliments. I wore the earrings to the June 12 event. Kathleen was there wearing the matching necklace. We got a kick out of that.

From the stage, Arlene looked over at Kathryn Buffano and said, "Remember when you called me into your office and said, 'Do you think we could do a little design contest? Now look what happened!' " That got a huge laugh because it's obvious Kathryn's idea has become a big success.

I wondered if they could equal the creations from last year's talented designers and the answer is heck yes, y'all. As each one was introduced to the audience - first by video vignettes shown on the screen of them working on their collections and pitching them to Belk's team of judges - it was clear this is going to be another incredibly talented crop of designers.

Here are all the winning designers with Kathryn Bufano, Tim Belk and Arlene Goldstein on the right.

Then, in a fun video, Arlene is shown surprising the winners at either their homes or design studios with a big bouquet of white flowers. I got a headache from fighting back tears during that segment. It was so moving to see the reactions of the designers. It was a life changing moment for all of them and it was a beautiful thing to see.

This year's winners are Kari Bryde from Little Rock, Arkansas; Lori Cunningham, who currently lives in New York City; Darrius Curry of Lithonia, Georgia; Lucy Dang of Dallas, Texas; Charlene Dunbar of Lilburn, Georgia; Heather Menzie Gressette of Columbia, South Carolina; Ali Howell of Atlanta, Georgia; Annabelle LaRoque Columbia, South Carolina; Elle Parkinson of Raleigh, North Carolina; Diane Wallace of  Knoxville, Tennessee; Regina White who's originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina but currently lives in Chesterfield, Virginia; Anne Hughes Windmueller of Charleston, South Carolina; and Rhonda Wyman of Union Mills, North Carolina.

Here's a photo of some of the designers who are from the Carolinas. Annabelle LaRoque, from left, Regina White, Elle Parkinson, Rhonda Wyman and Heather Menzie Gressette.

After seeing the displays of all the winning works that were set up around the atrium, the only bad thing about the announcement is that Belk customers will have to wait until spring 2014 to shop the designers' collections. I cannot wait. Everyone is unbelievably talented. There are a few who personally appealed to me. I wanted to buy their offerings right then and there.

Here are samples of designs from the winners from the Carolinas and you'll see what I mean.

Regina White's bags:

Elle Parkinson's children's clothes:
 Rhonda Wyman's jewelry:
 Heather Menzie Gressette's classic clothes:
 Annabelle LaRoque's super cute dresses.

Note the monogrammed sash on Annabelle's dress. She, like all the winning designers, really captured Belk's tagline of Modern. Southern. Style.

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson


Anonymous said...

Nice to have an upscale dept store that seeks out local boutique lines, too. Belk really has it together. I thought their stores were just ok years ago but ever since Nordstrom and Neimans moved to SP, Belk has really become a great store.