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Boutique brands

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The moment she spotted the suede purple-and-cobalt heels by Jeffrey Campbell, Lindsay Hall fell in love. When she learned that the shoe was designed in collaboration with Hampden boutique Ma Petite Shoe, the lure of exclusiveness sealed the deal.

"I had to buy them," she said about the gem-toned 31/2- inch platform heels. " I wore them out that night, and everyone freaked out. They thought they were amazing."

By teaming up with designers, local boutiques are hoping to capture a glimmer of the magic experienced by national retailers such as Target and H&M , which have had great success with designer lines created exclusively for their stores. While national retailers have attracted customers by selling designer duds at more affordable prices, smaller boutiques are luring customers with the promise of custom-made merchandise.

While the practice is relatively new, industry experts say it can be an effective strategy.

"It makes sense to better cater to that small segment of customers that boutiques serve," said Jung-ha (Jennifer) Yang, assistant professor and coordinator of the fashion merchandising program at Stevenson University. "It is consistent with the product and pricing strategy. It helps them provide good customer service."

Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe, has been teaming with designers to offer exclusive lines since 2004, when she began collaborating with Canadian shoemaker John Fluevog.

"He was able to give us crazier colors and combinations," she said about her collaboration with Fluevog. "We had such a great response in Baltimore to over-the-top color combinations. Once we had a taste of custom colors, we couldn't go back."

With Los Angeles-based designer Campbell, Siger has found a similar relationship.

"Jeffrey Campbell just gets it," Siger said. "He's been responsive to all the small boutiques."

For Siger, the shoe collaboration has been a good step.

"We get a lot of customers from everywhere from Brooklyn to California," Siger said. "We've sent shoes to Paris and Croatia. It's like having shoe pen pals. I love sending out international orders."

At the menswear boutique Gian Marco, the approach is a bit different. Almost all the merchandise sold in the Mount Vernon store has been designed by its owners, John Massey and Marc Sklar, in collaboration with a number of European fashion houses.

The two travel to Europe twice a year and work with an agent in Milan who introduces them to design houses that Sklar calls "the foremost production houses in the world." He declined to elaborate on the identity of the design houses, saying he wants to maintain a competitive edge against other boutiques.

Through their collaboration with high-end houses, Gian Marco has offered pieces including $10,500 sports jackets made of alligator skin and $595 velvet shoes adorned with customized emblems.

Sklar and Massey, who serve as president and vice president of the boutique, respectively, stay ahead of trends by starting production of garments two years ahead of season. And they push the envelope, using bold colors and exotic fabrics.

The formula has paid off. The boutique, which is a favorite among a number of the city's politicians, pro athletes and other celebrities, was recently named winner of the 2012 Best of America Awards in the Ready to Wear Clothing (menswear) and Custom Shirts and Sportswear (menswear) categories by the U.S. Commerce Association.

"We're so different from other stores and different from what other people have seen," said Massey. "It's all about the color and presenting the outfit in the right way."

At Babe, a women's boutique in Fells Point, owner Lisa Ponzoli worked with New York City jewelry design company Taolei to lengthen the chain of a popular quartz necklace from 18 inches to 33 inches. The result was a piece of jewelry that matched the Bohemian style of dress that is popular among Ponzoli's customers.

"People really like the length," she said. "I tell them that they are getting it custom-made. They feel that they are getting something special."

For other boutiques, designer collaborations are a possibility in the near future.

The owners of In The Details, a recently opened clothing boutique in Hampden, want to team with a designer to offer a line of menswear. They want to make sure that the designer is locally based so they can build additional exclusivity.

"We've always loved the idea of supporting as local as possible," said co-owner Glenn Bennett. "It's better and you can also get things that are a little more custom and specific. We've talked about offering a smart, fresh, unusual line of menswear."

Lisa Schatz, owner of the Fells Point boutique Cupcake, said she'd also be interested in a designer collaboration.

"I would do it if it wasn't too expensive and if we could sell a limited number of merchandise," she said. "We don't want 100 people in Baltimore wearing the same thing."

The boutique-designer collaborations are the latest in the evolution in the relationship between the customer, designer and retailer, according to Joanne Kane Offerman, an assistant professor of fashion merchandising management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

"The line is blurring," said Kane Offerman, noting designer-retailer collaborations ranging from Missoni for Target to Versace at H&M. "It's an entirely changed landscape. All of these are byproducts of the changing landscape."

She said the relationship with designers can give boutiques a boost in prestige. "It gives them the opportunity to showcase the brand," she said. "For the designer, it gives them an incubator feel. The designer can use the retailer to test the merchandise."

Shoe designer Campbell enjoys working with smaller retailers such as Ma Petite Shoe because of the creativity displayed by the boutique owners, according to his spokeswoman, Sharon Blackburn. Siger stands out.

"She likes really bright colors," Blackburn said. "It's refreshing. A lot of times we present in basic black, tan, red and brown. She thinks outside the box with hot pink, purple and teal. It's nice that she can look at a style and see it in another color."

Siger first started collaborating with Campbell in 2010. She and her then-assistant buyer, Alyana Spratley, asked Campbell to add a fur cuff to one of his wedges, which he willingly did. The shoe became a hit at the boutique, quickly selling out.

"It creates desirability and exclusivity because there are only 12 of these shoes in the world," Siger said. "When we say that, we are not exaggerating."

Hall, the Ma Petite Shoe customer who wore her Campbell color-blocked shoes the night she purchased them, goes online to make sure she doesn't miss the release of collaborations between the designer and the boutique. She knows that once the specialty shoes have been sold, they're gone for good.

"I buy them because they are rare, and I'm a huge Jeffrey Campbell fan," said Hall, who lives in Hampden. "I think the concept of shopping local and having national brands is awesome. It makes us feel special."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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