High-end Fashion in Small Kansas Town

Hometown Heroes, People
on October 9, 2005

In 1993, the women in Oberlin, Kan., got fed up with their wardrobes. They wanted style and class. In short, they wanted a big-city boutique in their remote farming community of 1,994.

So they pooled their money and talents, formed a corporation and opened The Dresser, an upscale women’s clothing store that has grown into a thriving downtown business.

“Many of the guys said, ‘You’re never going to get that many women to agree on anything,’” recalls manager Karen Metcalf, 62.

However, the only tiff since the store opened has been between Metcalf and investor Judy Shirley, 61, for first dibs on the size 14s. What seemed a marketing mismatch—a high-end clothing store in a two-block downtown—is a perfect fit for the women and town.

“The name of the game is getting people in the door,” Metcalf says. “The gals walk in, and their jaws drop.”

Shopper Kay Gaskill, 66, talks as she flips through a rack of sweaters. “I wear these clothes on trips around the world, and I always get compliments,” she says. “These are the same clothes you’d buy at The Plaza in Kansas City. It’s amazing.”

The Dresser was established when 65 women invested $500 each and formed the Fortune 200 Company, so named because they originally planned to have 200 investors. The women rented a former florist shop, painted and walled in an area for a dressing room, rounded up used office equipment and donated store furnishings from their own homes. Only two owners, Phyllis McKay and Diane Frickey, had retail experience.

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” recalls Metcalf, an original owner and the store’s primary buyer, who keeps her neighbors in mind as she handpicks every charm bracelet and handmade shawl.

“One salesman kept trying to sell us these dowdy clothes for old ladies,” Metcalf adds. “Finally, he said, ‘Well, what do your older women in their 80s wear?’ I said, ‘They wear what we wear.’”

The Dresser is volunteer-run, except for two part-time paid employees. Last fall, the corporation opened to a third round of investors. The store now has 100 shareholders who receive a 35-percent discount on merchandise. A lone male, Patrick Shirley, 41, is among the group after arm-twisting from his mother.

“I said, ‘We need investors, and you’ve got a little money to invest,’” Judy Shirley says.

The bachelor farmer smiles. “It’s a community thing,” he says.

Without the community store, “we’d be in sad shape,” says Fern Jording, 88, while browsing the jewelry. “We’d have to go to McCook [Neb., 60 miles roundtrip] or Hays [240 miles]” Those towns have discount and department stores, but the women in Oberlin wanted more.

“I was tired of wearing shirts with writing on the front,” says investor Becky Vollertsen, 50.

Shoppers are treated royally at The Dresser. Alterations are free, purchases are carried to the car if needed, and clothing can be checked out.

“Physically, it’s hard for some of the older women to try on clothes, so they take them home overnight,” Shirley says. Plus, customers can see if the garment coordinates with something they own.

The Dresser avoids the problem of every woman in town dressing alike by specializing in separates that can be mixed and matched and by stocking only one or two identical items in each size.

The store’s success even inspired a similar venture in Russell, Kan. (pop. 4,696), where 111 stockholders opened Waudby & Co. Clothiers in a historic downtown building last April.

“We had a shoestring budget with donated labor and materials,” says Andrea

Krauss, an investor in the Russell store. “Being in a retail environment is never easy, but the nearest women’s clothing store was a 60-mile drive to Hays.”

More than an at-home store with snazzy handbags and jackets, The Dresser is a community cheerleader. When Decatur Community High School cut funding for yearbooks, The Dresser hosted a fashion show, with shareholders as models, to raise money to help publish the books.

“We’re just a group of women who get things done,” says investor Judy Ostmeyer, 52.

And they look classy doing it.

Call The Dresser at (785) 475-3407 to learn more.