by Liza Roberts
Ten years ago, Ashley Harris was an optimistic 27-year-old entrepreneur with a bank loan and a big idea: to sell high-end designer fashion in Raleigh. Today, she’s a successful and seasoned retailer whose Vermillion boutique has earned real and lasting influence. Not just among her loyal Raleigh clients, but among the top American designers she carries.
“She’s the voice in a designer’s ear that pioneers future styles,” says loyal longtime client Sarah Poole, “the bridge tender between the designer whose work she sells and the woman who wears it.”
Harris can fill that role – getting a designer to tweak a dress to better appeal to her clients in general, or to create a custom garment for an individual client – because she has such strong relationships with the designers themselves.
“Ashley is one of the people I’m closest to, out of all of our retailers,” says New York designer Lela Rose, whose ladylike, stylish dresses are a favorite of First Lady Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton. “I think the thing that really makes the biggest difference is that she knows and adores her clients.”
Rose says she, too, adores Harris’s clients, after getting to know them on several trips to Vermillion for trunk shows. As a result, the designer has created special dresses for big life events for several Raleighites – from debutante balls to weddings and christenings. “We have grown along with some of these customers,” Rose says.
When it came time to celebrate Vermillion’s 10th anniversary, Harris asked Rose and twelve other top designers to create exclusive, commemorative items for the occasion. Many took the opportunity to celebrate the color behind the boutique’s name as well. Rose made a red ruffled top; Wes Gordon, Veronica Beard, Megan Park, Raleigh Denim, Nili Lotan, and Barbara Tfank all created dresses of varied styles and orangey-red hues; Irene Neuwirth, Gabe Bratton, Lizzie Fortunato, and The Woods Fine Jewelry made jewelry incorporating rosy gold, coral, and carnelian; a fuchsia and orange scarf came in from Bajra, and Figue delivered a straw bag with red pom-poms.
Several of these designers will be in town this month for Harris’s 10th anniversary party; some, including The Woods’s Shawn Hecox and Lela Rose, say they’ve come to love the city of Raleigh itself through their special relationship with Harris.
“Ashley is just such a wonderful, truly genuine person, and in the fashion industry, that is rare,” says Hecox. “And she’s fashion. The way she puts herself together, and the store together, and the lines she gravitates toward – she’s all fashion. It’s no joke. She’s not doing this halfway.”
If halfway were her style, Harris says she wouldn’t have survived the recession. For a luxury business especially, “it was very scary.” But the difficulty, she says, made her a better businessperson. “It just made me work harder. It made me think more innovatively.” That included adding events like fashion shows and trunk shows “to bring people in the door.” She negotiated payment plans with designers; cut her orders; became more careful when it came to buying. Today, all of that is behind her. Harris owns her business outright, she’s the mother of twin girls, and she’s proud to enter the store’s next decade with a solid foundation.
“I’m very happy with where we are today,” Harris says. “I want to continue to cultivate relationships with my clients who are now friends. In the future, growing or expanding would be wonderful, but I’m happy with the balance of life at the moment.”