Fashion can be a tough profession. If you don't think so, just ask Salt Laker Nannette Barlow Holmberg, who has known both the heights and the depths since launching her designing and retailing career in 1971.
Now operating a bridal and special occasion boutique on 11th East under the name, "The Private Collection," Nannette talks openly about the problems that plagued her. And you can tell she feels fortunate to have overcome the difficulties and to be back in business again.Nannette had been doing well; her custom design clientele had been steadily growing, and then when she changed focus to ready-to-wear, fashion-conscious Utahns continued to patronize the store. But difficulties developed soon after she moved her operation to the Triad Center.
Caught in a web of financial woes, set in a location that never quite lived up to its potential as a shopping mecca, Triad proved to be the downfall of most of its tenants. Nannette of New York was just one of the shops ensnared in the web. And although the designer eventually moved out and made an attempt to relocate at the ZCMI Center, too much damage had been done.
"We were one of the Khashoggi casualties," she says, referring to Adnan Khashoggi, the controversial figure behind Triad.
After closing her doors at ZCMI, Nannette tried to sort out the pieces. It was an unhappy period in her life; a time when she wondered if choosing fashion had been a mistake.
For a while, she contemplated giving up her career and becoming a full-time homemaker. But staying home weighed heavily on her hands, and her daughter, 11-year-old Erin, really didn't need Mama around that much. Nannette soon realized she had to get back into designing and retailing somehow, some way.
Husband David offered support and encouragement. So did friends, family and loyal customers. Finally, Nannette located a small house that seemed perfect for her personalized kind of business, and mustering all her courage, started over.
"We had our grand opening in February, and it's going well so far. I'm doing things on a much smaller scale; our surroundings are far more modest than they were at Triad. Yet, I've never been happier or more enthusiastic about my work.
"Things have come full cycle, you see. When I started my business in 1971, I was doing bridal clothes and custom work; the business was small and there was lots of contact with the customer. Then we started to expand rapidly. I got away from designing and began focusing on ready-to-wear, spending almost all my time going to market. Now I'm back to my original concept . . . doing what I really love. We are stocking some ready-to-wear. But, primarily, the styles are mine. I'm doing things to order and also clothes that can be bought off the rack. The options this provides are fun. If a customer can't find the exact dress or sweater that suits her, we can make up the item to her specifications."
The idea behind the new shop, Nannette continues, is to offer unique fashions, one-of-a-kind styles and collectibles clothes and such for the person who's seeking something a little different. Thus, the catchy name "The Private Collection."
Among the items to be featured in Nannette's collection will be one-of-a-kind jackets and lots of appliqued sweaters. Right now, her sweaters are purchased from a New York sportswear house and then embellished with her own creative handwork favorite trims are leather, fur and beads. But there might be a point down the road, she says, when she'll buy a knitting machine and produce the sweaters herself.
"I'm considering many design areas, and it's exciting. Not long ago I took a machine embroidery class, and I've also been studying fabric painting. These might be things I'll work with in the future. I'm also doing gift baskets. I make them for special occasions, such as showers, birthdays and anniversaries and can include a variety of things: aprons embroidered with names and dates, pretty towels for somebody's trousseau. . . ."
Fashion shows are another thing I'd like to do . . . maybe even develop an haute couture salon in Salt Lake if there's enough interest. I'd like to see us make our own special fashion statement here."
Ask Nannette if she has ever regretted living and working in Salt Lake City rather than a big design capital and you'll get a definite, "No." New York, she admits, has obvious advantages for a person interested in fashion. But everything's a trade off. And, in her opinion, the easier more family-oriented lifestyle in Utah's worth the sacrifice.
She has had, however, a fondness for the Big Apple ever since attending school there at the Fashion Institute of Technology. At FIT, she studied design and merchandising, a fitting course for somebody who seems to have been born with flair for fashion. There doesn't seem to be a time, in fact, when Nannette wasn't either sewing or sketching. The designer's mother, Mrs. LaVerl P. Barlow, an excellent seamstress, remembers how her precocious little daughter began to work with a needle at the tender age of 3 and soon was not only sewing but dreaming up patterns as well.
After attending FIT, Nannette returned to Utah, trunks full of exquisite laces and fabrics purchased from the famous couturier Mainbocher. (A friend loaned her money to bid on the treasures when Mainbocher retired.)
She set up shop in the basement of her parents' home and soon was sewing up a storm. Dad kept the books. Mom served as an extra seamstress. More and more customers began to knock on the door. Soon Nannette of New York was bringing big Eastern city chic to a long list of clients here in the West.
From the Barlow basement she moved to a shop in Trolley Square, and there were a variety of locations afterward. But, says the designer, none has suited her better than the little house where she now discusses clothing needs with customers and tries to turn their dreams into realities.
The intimacy of the setting is fitting, she says. And she wants to keep the firm small enough so that this personalized contact is maintained and there's plenty of time to attend to important details.
"I have no desire to move back into a big mall or to become a huge corporation. I'm convinced there's a customer out there who appreciates a one-on-one relationship with a designer; a customer who appreciates the finer points of fashion bound buttonholes, neat seams, hand-finishing, innovative ideas all those things that aren't a part of mass production today. That's the person I think of whenever I sit down at the sewing machine. My customer's a perfectionist, just like me!"