Made In SoWal: Judith March
SoWal’s own Stephanie Nichols is making fashion waves from sea to shining sea. No matter how smug us locals might be about our little corner of paradise, every now and then it’s great to get validation from “out-of-towners.” Granted, we know with certainty our beaches and architecture are the best. But it’s nice when first-time visitors confirm other SoWal offerings rank up there too.
A couple of years ago, I was working with a New York City photographer and stylist on a magazine shoot in a charming house in Seaside. On these occasions, I enjoy hearing their opinions. I wasn’t surprised they loved everything about the cottage, the town, the Gulf, the sand, the weather, and even the restaurants. But one thing surprised me about their reaction to South Walton. It was their response to the little upstart shop, Déjà Vu.
On our way to dinner at Bud & Alley’s, the window display caught their attention and we decided to stop in. It was late February and the town was in the dead-of-winter dark just before Spring Break. The weather was unseasonably warm and Deja Vu was stocked to the brim in anticipation of thousands of teenage girls who would need a skimpy little dress to show off the first sun of the season, no to matter it might be 50 degrees in the shade.
After a two-hour shopping spree with a trio of seasoned fashionistas from the Big City, it was obvious this tiny store was something big. The clerk stayed open late and we got to Bud’s just before the kitchen closed.
When I finally met Stephanie Nichols, the brains behind Déjà Vu and the upstart clothing line Judith March, her story unfolded like a bolt of the most colorful batik.
One might think a fashion dynamo would hail from some cosmopolitan locale and relocated to SoWal to get away from it all. Not! Stephanie was born and bred in the Alabama town of Brundidge about an hour north of the Florida state line. The ground was fertile and Stephanie flourished, where starting in kindergarten she was putting together the perfect outfit. By high school she was modeling and making friends and strides in the industry.
Stephanie admits she always enjoyed the art of the deal, selling ceramics at local crafts shows in third grade. But she got serious in 2002, when her marketing professor Dr. Steve Garrott encouraged her to turn a class project into a real business selling clothes out of her car at country clubs and sorority houses from Auburn to Tuscaloosa.
“I watched the buying patterns of girls and women, and I saw what they wanted,” says Stephanie.
After a couple of incredibly successful weekends at the Rosemary Beach West Indies Market, Stephanie opened a kiosk in Seacrest.
“We blew it away in a 100-square-foot space,” Stephanie recalls. Déjà Vu quickly expanded first to a shop in Pier Park and then in Seaside.
“I love the immediate feedback of retail,” Stephanie explains. “Spending time at the cash register over spring break was my Harvard MBA.”
Buoyed by the popularity of the two shops and looking for unique offerings for her customers, Stephanie hatched the idea of own clothing line, Judith March in spring of 2009.
“We worked day in and day out without a minute to spare for our initial market launch in New York City on January 4, 2010,” Stephanie vividly remembers. “We carried eight of our 60 samples with us, and we were at the UPS store the night before the market opened receiving the rest of them.”
Although Stephanie had been to dozens of apparel markets over the years, this one was different. “I had seen it all, but this time it was ours,” she declares. “Editors from Seventeen and Women’s Wear Daily stopped in our booth. It was all so overwhelming.”
Within a year, more than 2,500 stores around the country, as well as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia were selling the Judith March line. That’s an impressive market response to any product, but it’s all the more remarkable considering the driving force behind the brand is barely 30 years old.
It’s obvious that Stephanie is obsessed with the creative process and possesses a work ethic that is unrivaled. “I love to sit on the fabrics and patterns and interact with the sewers and designers at the warehouse. I always try things on throughout the process.”
When Stephanie and I met over a casual dinner at La Botana away from the hustle and bustle of the office her mind never slowed down.
“I look at the candle on our table or hear a song and I see a potential dress,” she explains. “Inspirations exists everywhere, but it’s all about the fit and the print.”
That energy has spurred a budding fashion empire headquartered in the heart of Santa Rosa Beach on North County Highway 393. The contemporary office and warehouse is abuzz with activity with 67 employees (66 women and one man at last count) overseeing design, marketing, distribution and nearly everything except the actual manufacture of the clothing, which is truly global with facilities in Whigham, Georgia, to India to China.
And Stephanie has done more than her share of travel. “I visit all the factories. I would never do business with someone I hadn’t met face to face,” Stephanie maintains. “It’s also important to find the best place to produce the best product.”
This hands-on approach is evident in the finished goods and the corporate philosophy. “I can honestly say we have a ‘dream team” and everyone seems to love the work.” Interns from Auburn and University of Georgia clamor for a chance to work for a summer at the beach and can’t wait to return for a career. The mood at their headquarters wavers between an episode of Project Runway to a garment district factory to a sorority party.
Stephanie acknowledges the success of Déjà Vu offered her a great opportunity to expand her horizons. And she offers advice to other young entrepreneurs. “Just sew it and anything is possible.”