Tucked away inside a Tanglewood-area shopping center, a high-end speciality clothing store, Frances Kahn, has been serving customers for 30 years.
“We’ve dressed three generations,” said assistant store manager Andrea Dixon, who has been with the company for 27 years, 16 of them at the Roanoke store. Store manager Rose Stavale has worked at the Roanoke store for 25 years.
Frances Kahn opened at Roanoke County’s Grand Pavilion in 1983 following the success of stores in Lynchburg and Danville, where the company was founded. Those stores have since closed. Frances Kahn also has stores in Richmond and Virginia Beach.
The business got its start in 1936, following the worst of the Great Depression. Founders Frances and August Kahn had only enough money to open in the bottom half of a two-story building in downtown Danville. The business slowly grew and expanded, and the couple’s daughter and son-in-law, Lorraine and Nathan Lester, took over in the late 1940s.
Their son, Rusty Lester, joined the family business in 1974 after working at Rich’s Department store in Atlanta. He introduced the store’s customers to names such as Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis.
Lester opened a second Frances Kahn store in Lynchburg in 1977. Many of its customers were Roanokers, prompting the opening of the Roanoke store in 1983. The
Danville store was sold that year.
The Richmond store opened in 1988 and Virginia Beach in 2003.
Stavale, who worked retail on New York City’s famed Seventh Avenue, got to know Lester as a customer at the store where she worked. Disenchanted with New York, she joined Frances Kahn in 1988. Dixon managed the Lynchburg store until it closed in 1996.
The women frequently traveled to New York to attend buyer meetings and returned with knowledge they shared with their staff.
They’ve watched as shopping has gone from a recreational activity to a rushed necessity, and they’ve seen the business through its ups and downs.
The onslaught of online shopping hurt business, but Stavale said the staff’s customer service is what kept the store viable.
“The one thing that separates us is our customer service,” Dixon said. “We are like personal shoppers to our customers.”
The recession also challenged the business, as customers cut down spending on luxury items.
Lester responded by introducing contemporary and less expensive lines such as Elizabeth and James, Alice + Olivia, Vince and Brochu Walker.
“Rusty got into lines that really helped carry the business through the tough times, and our customers changed along with it,” Stavale said.
Last year the women noticed that their customers were ready to spend money again. They are continuing to see more interest this year, they said.
Early last week, the store received nearly a dozen trunks via UPS in preparation for the store’s Lafayette trunk show, one of several they put on every year.
“It’s like bringing Seventh Avenue to the store,” Dixon said.
Also in the column, St. Pierre Salon and Academy has shut its beauty school and moved to a new location, and a Vinton eatery is planning to close. Click here to read more of the column.