Sherri McMullen is the Founder of eponymous luxury concept retail store, McMullen, located in Oakland, California.
Interview by Brooke Frischer
Sherri McMullen poses in Jonathan Cohen "What Dreams May Come" collection.
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME ACQUAINTED WITH JONATHAN COHEN?
I first became acquainted with JC when I saw my friend wearing a beautiful dress and I asked her about it. I was then introduced to Sarah and Jonathan. I went to the studio and we developed a relationship.
YOU ALWAYS LOOK AMAZING, AND WE LOVE TO SEE YOU WEARING JONATHAN COHEN. TELL US ABOUT ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE PIECES.
I adore Jonathan’s clothing and especially the dresses. I own a few and one of my favorite dresses is from the Fall 2019 collection. I remember going to the runway show and seeing the first look, a floral jacket over a floral dress in the same pattern. The colors and prints were exquisite and I knew I had to have this collection for my store. I ordered that dress for myself and it is still one of my favorites.
THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS CHANGING AT SUCH A RAPID PACE. WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE OF FASHION? ADDITIONALLY, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE MOST EXCITING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE FUTURE OF FASHION?
One of the biggest opportunities we have as an industry is how we reach consumers. Consumers are discovering brands through social media or different search engines. Brands should be active on multiple channels to stay connected to customers as the industry continues to change. I’m intrigued by different models, but if we can find ways to do business more thoughtfully, more sustainably, and more consciously, we will have even longer legs in this business. Our biggest challenge is change. This industry has been slow to change in terms of how much product we are putting into the world, delivery dates, markdown cadence, seasonality, etc. The good thing is that we are having conversations, and through those conversations, there is a better understanding of our needs and more collaboration and partnerships.
Sherri attends the Vogue & CFDA 'Americans In Paris' event, photographed with Lineisy Montero and Jonathan Cohen.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO OPEN YOUR BOUTIQUE? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO OPEN IT IN OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA?
When I was starting my career, I was always curious about the behind the scenes of retail. I wanted to understand how product got into the stores and who was making those decisions. I started my career as a buyer for big retailers and wanted to create something for myself. I moved to Oakland and fell in love with the community and the spirit of the city, so I opened my boutique here.
WHEN CURATING YOUR STORE'S PRODUCTS, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR? HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE NECESSITY OF CONSIDERING ANALYTICS/NUMBERS/TRENDS WITH YOUR STORE'S UNIQUE POINT OF VIEW?
I look for the most talented designers on the market and ones that tell a story through their work. I look for designers who stay true to their point of view and create a DNA that is authentically their own. Fashion is such an important visual art for me and I become emotionally engaged with pieces.
I studied business in school and have a strong understanding of financials- that part is easy for me. I can analyze business but I make my decisions based on gut and what I believe our customers will want to buy. Of course, I have a budget to stay within but that may mean that I’m buying fewer of some and more of others- or that may mean that there is a greater opportunity for business and I go after it.
WE ARE AT AN INTERESTING POINT IN TIME FOR RETAIL, WITH MORE AND MORE SHOPPING OCURRING ONLINE. IN YOUR EYES, WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF A SPECIAL IN-STORE SHOPPING EXPERIENCE, ESPECIALLY DURING THE TIMES OF COVID-19? WHAT IS THE UNIQUE EXPERIENCE YOU STRIVE TO PROVIDE FOR YOUR CLIENTS?
I started my business in 2007 when there was no e-commerce or social media. There is nothing like the in store experience and I don’t believe that any digital platform can duplicate that- you need both. Consumers are shopping both ways and even the most loyal in-store shoppers are now comfortably shopping online. You have to give customers a good experience in both places, otherwise, you will lose them. We believe in servicing customers and going the extra mile. I learned that through my early corporate days. I believe in making it happen. I almost had my employee fly to Italy to deliver dresses for a client that arrived late from manufacturing and it was completely out of our control. I thought to myself, these dresses will be in three continents in a 96 hour period just to make sure our customer is happy.
Sherri McMullen photographed wearing Jonathan Cohen.
HOW DO YOU STRIVE TO EXPAND INCLUSIVITY AND DIVERSITY IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY? DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF WISDOM FOR OTHER WOMEN OF COLOR WORKING TO MAKE IT IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY?
I just do it. It’s simple for me because I truly believe that fashion is for everyone. It should not be this 'exclusive' thing. There is no question that I’ve had challenges being a black woman business owner of a luxury store in Oakland. Some brands would prefer to sell to other businesses simply because they are in San Francisco or Marin and because it felt comfortable for them. I’ve struggled to get some brands because they didn’t understand the “Oakland client.” Keep in mind, my clients are from all over the world. I’ve had challenges getting funding. I’ve had to check every single box 3 or 4 times before a bank would blink an eye at me for funding. I would tell any person of color to not do this business unless they are willing to work harder than they have ever worked before. I would also say that their challenges will become opportunities to create change, do something meaningful, empower people, support the arts, and for that, it’s worth it.
HOW DOES YOUR LOVE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY TIE INTO YOUR BUSINESS? YOU HAVE MANY PHILANTHROPIC PURSUITS. WHAT CAUSES ARE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND HOW DO YOU AIM TO INCORPORATE THEM INTO YOUR BUSINESS?
The Oakland community has embraced me since the beginning and it was important to me to give back to the community. The areas that we work with are children, women, and the arts. We have to uplift our children and protect them. As a black woman, any issues around women’s rights, equality, and equity are some of the most important things I stand behind. I like to think of our store as a community space and a place of gathering. We have conversations about black women and health. We speak about motherhood and entrepreneurship. We celebrate women in the arts, and film. It goes beyond fashion.
SINCE FOUNDING MCMULLEN, YOU GREW YOUR FAMILY! HOW HAS BECOMING A MOTHER AFFECTED YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
Yes I did! I love motherhood and it has changed my life. I work to give my son opportunities to do whatever he wants in life and also so he can see the importance of women working and owning businesses. Some valuable lessons I can teach my son is the value of ownership, hard work, and giving back. Having a family has also given me some time to spend outside of work and enjoy that time with my son.
WE KNOW THAT YOU HAVE UTILIZED TECHNOLOGY HEAVILY WHEN COVID-19 FIRST HIT, FACETIMING CLIENTS DAILY AND GOING LIVE ON INSTAGRAM TO HIGHLIGHT NEW STYLES AND PRODUCTS. IS TECHNOLOGY STILL PLAYING JUST AS BIG OF A ROLE IN YOUR BUSINESS TWO YEARS POST COVID? HOW HAVE THINGS SHIFTED?
Technology still plays a big role in my business, whether it is buying virtually or discovering a new designer through Instagram. We have opened up a new audience and clientele through social media and they are engaged and often want to experience McMullen without having to go to the stores. I will say that since we reopened, we have seen an increased number of people visiting us as a destination. They are traveling from all over to come see us if they are coming to the Bay Area.
ON YOUR WEBSITE, YOU HAVE DESIGNATED AN AREA TO FEATURE BLACK DESIGNERS AND ARTISTS THAT YOU PARTNER WITH. WHAT DOES HAVING A PLATFORM THAT ENABLES YOU TO SHOWCASE AND UPLIFT OTHER BLACK CREATIVES MEAN TO YOU BOTH AS A BUSINESS OWNER AND AS A BLACK WOMAN?
It means everything to me as a business. We have a strong selection of black designers to invest in, mentor, highlight, and help grow and develop. I wanted to create a space for people to see the work of black creatives. Black designer brands being photographed on black models by black photographers and being sold at a black-owned retailer. There is such pride seeing yourself included in this industry and knowing that you have a place too. It is a part of my work that I take very seriously and I am very passionate about it.
You can follow Sherri on Instagram @sherri.mcmullen and learn more about McMullen at shopmcmullen.com