written by Tanis Logan-Morris | photographed by Tim Sugden
Coco Chanel famously said, “A woman should be two things: classy and fabulous.” Aiding the women of Portland in this continuous quest is Stephanie Sparkman’s first class boutique, Consigning Women. Tucked into a cheerful space at 412 NW 11th Avenue, in the heart of the Pearl District, the store is festive and welcoming. If you happen to love handbags, it is also a bit awe-inducing.
Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, as well as a healthy sampling of other brand-name bags adorn the shelves along with a charming assortment of accessories, jewelry, and shoes. The popular Pearl District shop is actually the second Consigning Women location; the flagship store is located in Lake Oswego, where it originally launched 13 years ago. At the Lake Oswego showroom, designer-label clothing makes up a hefty percentage of the inventory, but the same high quality bags, shoes, and accessories are also available.
Sparkman, who is also a successful CPA, first discovered consignment shopping nearly 20 years ago. She found hunting for designer pieces at discount prices such a pleasure that in 2003, when a perfect storm of money needing to be invested for tax purposes and a local consignment shop in need of new ownership struck, she pulled the trigger. With that, an area classic was born.
Her original location did well from the start, growing steadily from the beginning and then weathering the recession of 2007-2008. “Consignment is almost recession proof,” Sparkman says. “In a down year, people are looking for great deals, and we tend to have amazing stuff come in when the economy is uncertain.” After the economic tide turned, the business took off. The year 2009 was such a success, they moved to a much larger location at 1235 McVey Avenue the following year. Sparkman credits much of the success to her amazing team, and particularly the leadership and professionalism of store manager Geri McKarem, who has managed the Lake Oswego boutique since 2010. McKarem is passionate about her job. “There are so many great things about working here,” she tells me. “I really love watching and helping customers hunt. The best thing though, is giving people the opportunity to buy designer labels at an affordable price. I also love the fact that every single day is different. You never know what is going to come in the door…what treasures are hiding in those shopping bags a brand new consignment customer brings in.”
Sparkman’s success in Lake Oswego set her business senses tingling. She had long noted the high demand for bags, shoes, and accessories, and thought the Pearl District would be the ideal place for a consignment shop featuring only these items. She opened up her boutique in the Pearl in 2013, where the model has consistently proven itself. “We get a distinct clientele in each location,” says Sparkman. “In Lake Oswego, 80 percent of our business comes from locals. In the Pearl District, the majority of our clients are tourists,” she tells me.
Shoppers from outside the city limits also frequent the stores. “My daughter and I have gone into Consigning Women many times, just to see what we might find,” says Amy Rowley, a Consigning Women shopper from Vancouver who visits both locations. “We’ve shopped for special events there. It’s always worth checking out because you never know what they’re going to have.”
The patrons of the boutique are one facet of the clientele. The other side of the consignment business involves the relationship with sellers. “The fact that there are two different types of clients is one of the things that makes the business so interesting to manage,” Sparkman tells me. “We have consigners, and then we have those who shop.” Her staff is highly efficient and do a phenomenal job at selecting inventory that will move. “We only buy what is current, and at this point we’ve got a good idea of what is going to sell,” says Sparkman. “We are really selective with what we take.”
This attention to detail, knowledge of what people are looking for, genuine care for customers, and a love of the hunt really come through when shopping at Consigning Women. Visiting either location is a pleasure that can turn into a true thrill if you happen to find a treasure. I came to interview Sparkman, but couldn’t help myself and fell madly in love with a charming, metallic evening bag that came home with me.
At present, Sparkman will continue running both locations of Consigning Women. She doesn’t have any current plans to expand, but the business is running strong, and she has great people on the floor. Through the years she has become part of a “tribe” of strong women who own local retail businesses, and this group has been a huge source of support and inspiration. She credits her entrepreneurial spirit to her father, who always encouraged her to take chances and have fun in business. That sense of fun is evident when you enter a Consigning Women boutique. Coco Chanel would be thrilled to see just how classy and fabulous one store is.