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In Style Rebuilds in the Wake of Katrina

Since June 1999, In Style School & Career Apparel has been filling the demand for school, medical, food service and work wear uniforms and career apparel in Louisiana and the surrounding states. But the last two years have brought major unexpected changes to the retail uniform store. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf region, severely damaging the entire area including the Chalmette, La., store. It is only now that many of those affected businesses are rebuilding, often in new locations and with a new perspective.

Gloria Reimherr, who together with her husband Kevin owns and manages In Style, says, Losing everything [both home and business] at the same time was incredibly shocking, but you quickly realize that material things are just materials. The things that kept going through my head in that time right after the storm were The Lord Gives and the Lord takes away and the story of Job when he lost everything.

The day before the storm hit, Reimherr and two employees spent the morning moving items from the first to the second floor of the store. The store closed at noon, and she then went to her mothers house to do the same there and then evacuate the area. She laughs about that now, knowing that moving items higher was futile since the high winds peeled off parts of the roof and most of the area remained under water for nearly four weeks. The insurers civil engineer determined that water had reached one and a half feet into the second floor. Everything on the first floor was lost, and the few things that could have been salvaged on the second floor were destroyed in the landlords rush to gut the property (which still remains in a pile, as seen in the photo above).

The only account Reimherr had of the stores condition was that some friends had seen the top floor with its In Style sign on TV. The Reimherrs were not able to access the store for five weeks. During that time, she and Kevin had fled to a Mississippi hotel, then to her sons house near Baton Rouge, La., and finally to her father-in-laws house. There they remained until Dec. 1, 2006, when they finally were able to move into a new home and re-open a new, though much smaller, combination store, office and warehouse in Pass Christian, Miss.

We kept the career customer business going, but it was all from a dining room table at my father-in-laws house. We were able to keep most of those accounts, and of course many of them needed all new things because they lost everything too, Reimherr says. Kevin worked to rebuild the customer base, and she took a job with a Miami-based school uniform company. She says to this day she is indebted and grateful for the opportunity that was afforded to her by the owners of that company, lifting her spirits at a time when things seemed hopeless.

Then I had to make a decision about whether to stay with them or to start In Style again as our full-time business. Ive been in the rags business since 1971 in all facets of it from manager to buyer to marketing. The couple had worked hard to own their own company, only to have it destroyed by the storm shortly after opening. She says it was hard when her husband asked whether she wanted to work full-time again at their own business. After much thought and prayer, I came to believe that it was a no-brainer.

Because Katrina hit at the height of the 05-06 back-to-school season, In Style owed a lot of money to suppliers. Kevin and Gloria used their personal account to pay a little each month. Most vendors were patient and understanding, Reimherr says.

I am happy to say that we were able to pay every supplier everything that we owed and only have one outstanding debt to be settled in regards to our expanding to the Chalmette location. Even though it didnt leave us with much money, we were able to start again with a clean slate with our vendors, she says.

On the flip side, In Style was more sympathetic with money owed to it. Joan (who withheld her last name), who had worked with Gloria for many years prior, was called in to help with the bookkeeping in May 2006. As Joan says, The bills that were out were mostly forgiven, and when a customer called who had kept a receipt for a layaway that had not been picked up, we replaced the items. Everything was lost, so all the inventory was a complete write-off. It was hard to pick up because we didnt even know where to start.

The insurance settlement finally arrived in March 2006. By October, they had found a suitable, albeit much smaller, location in Pass Christian, Miss., just 65 miles from the abandoned store. Though Pass Christian had been hit head on by Katrina as well, the building was structurally sound and had been gutted and redone.

This locations selling area is maybe one-sixteenth of the space of the old store. This is more of a front-counter operation now, where we get everything from the storeroom and have only a few samples on the sales floor to show customers, Reimherr says. My husband did a wonderful job putting up white slat walls on the sales area, so that makes it appear larger.

The new facility is a total of 1,300 square feet, compared with 3,500 at the old location. The previous showroom was 1,000 square feet, one-third of which held career apparel items and two-thirds for school uniforms and accessories. Now, a 300-square-foot sales floor holds most of the same products, just as display items.

The staff is also smaller. Prior to Katrina, In Style had an assistant manager and six part-time employees. The new store opened on Dec. 1 and currently has four part-time employees, and Joan keeps the books one day a week.

Reimherr says, Were planning on staying here. Weve already doubled the size of the warehouse. Were going to build a customer service waiting and fitting area with tables, books and toys so we can have more than two families in here at the same time and have things to help keep the children occupied while they wait to be fitted. Once it continues to grow, we plan on moving the office area to a different part of the building and then use that area for more selling area.

The 16 public, private and nursery schools In Style School & Career Apparel served before the storm in Chalmette were drastically consolidated because there just werent enough students. The widespread destruction meant a huge majority of the families relocated to other parts of the country. In the year after Katrina, just one school opened in that area, offering all grades. That was another factor when deciding to relocate the store instead of returning to Chalmette.

Prior to Katrina, school uniforms accounted for two-thirds of In Styles sales volume. Instead, the current version of the business sees 85 percent of sales coming from career apparel orders. Oddly enough, that was supposed to be the primary focus of the business when the Reimherrs originated it in 1999. Gloria had been working in marketing and production for a shirt manufacturer when she mentioned to Kevin that there was a great need for someone knowledgeable in the industry to serve the corporate identity apparel and promotional products market. They quickly identified that such a business would be most effective if they served customers on-site and delivered quality, customized products. It wasnt until February 2003 that In Style expanded to a storefront and added the school uniforms. Kevin concentrated on the career apparel clients, while Gloria managed all aspects of the school uniforms. Since the hurricane, they have been working both ends jointly until the school uniform side can be developed again.

Approximately 50 percent of our career apparel business is in the New Orleans area, so Kevins on the road part of the week taking orders at their places of business, picking up jobs from our embroidery and silk-screening contractors, and delivering orders to the customers. The strength of our business is our personal service. Our customers are used to that attention and that personal touch. They like that we go to them, take measurements and orders, and deliver it to them when its ready.

Kevin also handles designing custom logos, generating customer price quotes, purchasing and marketing for the career side of the business.

In Style serves corporate identity clients in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee. It utilizes a combination of suppliers which range from SanMar, Edwards and Fame/ERB on the career end to Tulane Shirts, SAI, W. Dickies, EeDee Trim, Vickie Marsha Originals, Creative Knitwear, and Willits Shoes & Classroom on the school end.

A customized print catalog and an ecommerce website help boost sales for the career apparel and promotions side of the business. Reimherr says the website is a good thing to have because its the way of the world now, but most of the customers still prefer the attention of a personal visit, measurement and delivery.

As businesses move back to Pass Christian, sales have continued to grow. With another hurricane season in full effect, Reimherr says they simply pray a lot. We dont ask for the storms to go anywhere else, we just pray that they dont come at all. We wouldnt wish this on our worst enemy.

Joan agrees and adds that the people of Pass Christian and the Gulf Coast area have lived through hurricanes before and will continue to do so. Both women stress that things are not back to normal, as some people in other parts of the country may think.

Things are never going to get back to normal, Joan says. It will be five or six years before things will be built up again to where they were pre-Katrina, and a lot of the businesses in the worst-hit areas like Chalmette, New Orleans East, Wavelane, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian are only just now starting to come back. But were all getting by, and it gets a little better every day.

In Style School & Career Apparel
212 E. 2nd Street Suite C
Pass Christian, MS 39571
Phone: (228) 452-7407
Toll Free: (877) 276-1369
Fax: (228) 452-6091

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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