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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Hampton University Student Acts As A Personal Stylist To Clients by Cynthia H. Cho

At Klaleh York's boutique in Newport News, R&B singer Robin Thicke's "Lost Without U" plays on the stereo. Scented candles burn near the register. Heavy black velvet-like cloths drape doorways.

Sweaters, tops, jeans, dresses and skirts hang neatly on racks. Purses and hats sit on shelves. Earrings, necklaces and bracelets shine from inside and atop a display case.

"I want them to feel as if they are almost at home, in their personal closet," the 25-year-old business owner said.

But at High Maintenance Boutique, the shop York opened last September, women will have on hand something they probably don't have at home. Actually, it's a someone.

"I'm like a personal stylist, to help them with whatever look or outfit they're trying to put together," York said.

York, who is graduating from Hampton University in May with a degree in computer information systems, said she has loved fashion since she was a little girl.

"I love it," she said, throwing her head back slightly and laughing. "I can't describe it. I love looking good. I love making other people look good."

Twice a month, York travels to trade shows around the country to place orders for her boutique. When she's doing so, she often thinks about her base of regular clients, the 50 or so shoppers who visit her shop every week.

"When I go shopping, I think, 'Becky is going to like this' or 'Shaniqua will buy this,'" York said. "And they always do."

York believes that that kind of personal attention will help her boutique succeed. She asks every visitor to sign her guestbook. When York receives an item that a certain client might like, she calls to let the potential buyer know.

On Christmas Day, York spent nearly three hours calling everyone in her book.

"It's all about customer service," she said.

It took about $25,000 to start the business. York received a $5,000 loan from the federal Small Business Administration and the rest came from her personal savings. She said she started seeing a profit during her second month of operation.

She sells T-shirts ($20 each), tops ($25 to $37), purses ($20 to $45) and accessories ($8 to $25). She also offers more expensive items such as a $278 Roberto Cavalli denim dress and True Religion jeans, priced from $143 to $189. She also makes custom dresses for $90 to $125.

For jeans she will order the full range of sizes. But for most items, she only stocks three - small, medium, large.

That's what attracts some shoppers, such as Lateisha Tramontano, to High Maintenance.

"She doesn't have a lot of the same stuff, so you don't have to worry about other people having the same stuff," Tramontano, a 26-year-old Hampton resident, said after she purchased a necklace.

Tramontano added: "I also like what she's doing as a young entrepreneur."

York said that she knows she is setting an example for locals, including some of her own clients.

"You don't see too many African-American entrepreneurs. Or female or young," she said. "I think I stand as hope for a lot of people."

Her patrons include high school girls who often spend time just browsing and chatting with York.

But York is anything but complacent.

"You might go to Atlanta, there are women who are 21 or 22, doing this," York said. In a year, she said she'd like to open a second store, preferably inside a mall where she will have more foot traffic. And, in the future, she wants to move into a bigger market.

It was challenging, she said, to leave behind the security of receiving a bi-weekly paycheck from her job as a sales executive for The Talking Phone Book. But she said the risk was worth it.

"Fashion is not something you learn," she said, "It has to be a passion. When I am dressing someone, I get the chills."

This article appears in The Daily Press.

Cynthia H. Cho

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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