The White House Inc., which has grown into a 33-store chain by selling women's clothes of cream, ivory, oatmeal, chalk and other pale hues, is tipping its hat to the other end of the shade spectrum.
The Linthicum-based company opened a store last weekend in Del Mar, Calif., that sells only garments and accessories that are black, gray or somewhere in between. A second Black Market boutique will open in Miami next month, giving the company 35 stores.
The White House hasn't abandoned white. President Rick Sarmiento believes the country can support as many as 150 White House stores eventually.
But with one one-color concept thriving, White House executives for several years have considered branching into a category that fashion experts say takes up fully half of many women's closets.
"There are a lot of women out there that, unless it's black, they won't buy it," said Judy Kurgan, a Los Angeles-based apparel broker who sells to the chain. "This'll bring another element of customer" to the company. "It's the other half of the world."
No Black Market stores are planned for the Baltimore area anytime soon, although Mr. Sarmiento has talked to the Rouse Co. about opening a black store late next year in downtown Baltimore's Harborplace. A Washington-area store could open sooner, he said.
White House's Maryland stores are in Bethesda, Annapolis, Owings Mills Town Center and Harborplace.
The company's new, dark side isn't simply the White House in negative image. White House stores are lacy, fluffy, bright and cool. The Black Market store, near San Diego, is warmer-looking, with dark floors, wrought-iron and dark-wood furniture and white walls to set off the garments.
As befits their often-summery merchandise, White House stores are largely in the South. Company bosses foresee Black Market stores in places such as New York and Boston as well as warmer towns. At 1,500 square feet, the black store is slightly bigger than the White's typical 1,200 square feet. But Black Market is mimicking the White House's one-color trick, its adherence to exclusive shopping districts, its meticulous attention to decor, its just-in-time buying for each selling season.
Seeking fashion freshness, Executive Vice President Patricia Darrow Smith orders just two or three months in advance. Most clothiers leave six or eight months' leeway.
"It's hard for manufacturers, but for her business it works," said Nelly Caruso, a New York apparel makers' agent.
Last year White House Inc. generated sales of $15 million -- $500 per square foot of selling space, said Michael Smith, vice president.
For a boutique chain, "those are excellent sales per square foot" when many apparel merchants are struggling, said Otto Grote, a retail analyst with Derby Securities in New York.
Mr. Grote isn't familiar with the company, but, he added, "It sounds like they've got a good handle on merchandising."
Same-store sales rose by 2.5 percent last year, and the company boosted gross margins by two percentage points, managers said.
Plans are ambitious. Mr. Sarmiento, who founded the company 10 years ago when he was general manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, wants to have 50 stores by the end of 1997 and more after that. He figures there are enough ritzy U.S. shopping centers to eventually support 150 White Houses and 150 Black Markets.
Internal funds can support some of the expansion. Most profits are reapplied to the company. "We live modestly," Mr. Sarmiento said.
But as any entrepreneur knows, growth of the scale Mr. Sarmiento contemplates bears other risks. The company might settle for less than top-notch store sites. The small management team -- only 16 work in Linthicum -- might become spread too thinly. Ms. Darrow Smith's nimble buying might get bogged down.
She discounts the possibility. "The best manufacturers can turn the goods," she said. "We buy three months out and that's it. I think that's a key to success, and we can't lose that."