Two years ago, Nicole Benoist signed a deal to open her first fashion boutique in what was then a desolate area of downtown St. Louis. Her joint mission with Amos Harris, Director of the Mercantile Exchange, or the MX, was part of a giant rebuilding project to enliven the downtown environment. But with a history of failed retail development, like the St. Louis Centre shopping mall that once stood there, they were working against the odds. But Benoist was optimistic. Having spent 15 years in the fashion industry, including time in New York and Los Angeles, she wanted to help to redefine the fashion scene that was in her hometown. Last fall, she co-founded The Collective at MX, a fashion co-op.
The Collective was a big undertaking, and an even bigger risk, due to the poor track record retail development had in downtown. When Benoist first signed with the MX, she was told that signing 7 vendors for the store would be breaking ground. She opened with 23. She was well-embedded in the St. Louis fashion scene, having been the style editor of St. Louis Magazine and the founder of Mini Pink Book, a site that focuses on the best places to dine and shop. Benoist knew designers who had started their own clothing and accessory lines, but didn’t have a space to sell their creations. Just after one year, The Collective has created quite a buzz and has even spawned a spinoff store at the Taubman Prestige Outlets in Chesterfield.
The co-op at The Collective provides a space for fashion designers to showcase their work for sale. Designers can rent out a mini-boutique space, a clothing rack, a display table, or even a small jewelry display. Benoist takes care of the rest– “staffing, the marketing, supply bags, displays and merchandising,” she says. The purpose of The Collective at the MX is to present the best of St. Louis–apparel, home goods, and accessories. It’s important to her that the backbone of her store says, St. Louis. With places like the Convention Center, and several thousand people coming into St. Louis nearby, Benoist is keen on making sure they can walk into a store and get “a true taste of what we are.” She reflects, “we’re fortunate in that we have great boutiques and designers, and people doing amazing things here that can be featured in this space.”
Our video crew and I met Benoist at her downtown boutique. The 3400 square foot industrial space occupies the ground floor of the MX. Among the clothing racks and wood trimmed accessory cases that divide the space, I spot a tall blonde-haired silhouette rearranging scented candles and bath salts on a vintage table, which is also for sale. She moves the caster-ridden jewelry cases in the middle foreground to the side and makes space for our setup. We repurpose a spare leather couch, and she quickly adds some decorative throw pillows and an animal-hide rug to complete the look. We take a seat, and she exchanges her summer sandals for a pair of leopard-print stilettos.
Coincidentally, Benoist’s love for fashion started just a block away, where the old Dillard’s building once stood. At six years old, Benoist and her mother ventured downtown and shopped the basement sales and Dillard’s. Her face lights up as she tells me the story. “I think it stemmed from my mom, who was always chic on a budget, so she’s been picky about what she buys,” she says. The childhood admiration for her mother’s style followed her into adulthood.
She went to South Carolina on a scholarship to become a marine biologist. “I think that lasted a semester,” she recounts. She ended up with a journalism degree and a minor in media arts, which earned her an internship with Hootie and the Blowfish while she was still in college. Benoist remembers shipping out band t-shirts herself, back when they were a local band. After a gig on David Letterman, they went from doing local bars to 20,000 seat venues while Benoist handled tour relations, taking care of 30 guys from the home office.
“They were like my family,” she says. “It was an amazing experience and probably the best job I’ll ever have!” But Benoist appreciated how Hootie and the band stayed true to themselves. With their rising fame, they consistently maintained a humble attitude from the days of small bars to crowded amphitheaters.
Her four and a half year stint with the band ended, and she moved to New York City at 23 to follow her dreams in fashion. “I was like, ‘I’ll move up. I’ll get a job. No problem!’” she says. “I couldn’t get a job to save my life … because there are few other people there, looking for a job in fashion!” she jokes. Living off of savings, she was cutting it close and only had enough money for one more week. She told herself, “‘in these five days, it really has to happen.’” She got creative and reached out to every possible source, including a fashion headhunter. She landed a job working for highly respected designer Todd Oldham, when he first started his Ready-to-wear line. Benoist got a taste of fashion shoots first hand, and the exhilaration was an affirmation that she was in the right place.
While the time at Todd Oldham was short, it was great exposure to the industry. After multiple rounds of interviews with Chanel, she landed a job handling PR for Ready-to-wear. “I didn’t think I would get that job,” she says. She could feel the competition rising with each round of interviews, and she didn’t know what would end up happening. But if there could ever be a perfect time to work for Chanel, that was it. The company took a spin with its branding and started putting celebrities at the center for the first time. Celebrities are still at the center of their branding today. Benoist also learned “how to handle chaos, all the time,”–an essential in the fashion industry. Even in the midst of the stress and commotion, she could take a moment to “really see the craftsmanship and the art.” It was a different level, and she had a new appreciation for the collaborative effort that went into a design.“There is an amazing pool of talent and creativity to keep fashion lines coming season after season, the current always better than the last,” she says.
Seeing that craftsmanship first-hand made Benoist want to become a designer herself. An opportunity came for her to leave New York and venture to the West Coast with the man who would become her future husband. She landed a PR gig for a former Calvin Klein designer and handled PR for fashion shows that took place in New York. She quickly saw that the constant demand for fresh, tasteful, designs was mentally compromising on designers. Burnout was common in the industry. The intense sacrifice and money needed “to even be alive as a designer,” made Benoist realize, “it wasn’t my thing.” Even though she was driven and accomplished, it was unlike her to sacrifice what was most important to her–her well-being, and relationships.
Still on the West Coast, she started her own communications firm while in Los Angeles. Lower overhead costs made it feasible to work out of her home without additional employees. She represented Deborah Hampton during her early years, and produced the designer’s shows at New York Fashion Week. Benoist and her husband then became pregnant with their first child. She didn’t want to raise Levi, now 6, in Los Angeles. It was important to her that Levi had a solid foundation. With family in St. Louis to help raise him, she decided it was time to come home.
Back in St. Louis, Benoist didn’t have a fashion-savvy outlet, so she paved her own path. She reached out to St. Louis Magazine, pitching a first-ever fashion section. “I was stalking St. Louis Magazine. … emailing and telling them ‘You need this!’” she tells me. Sure enough, after much persistence and a few writing samples, Benoist became the first style editor of St. Louis Magazine.
“I think it’s a rollercoaster,” she admits. “My mother always said, ‘I never envisioned you doing a 9 to 5 job and being happy.’” There are good days and bad days, but “to be professional [and] to work in business, you can’t take things personally,” she says. She looks back at the whole process and how daunting it was to get people to sign up for The Collective, as yet another retail shop downtown. “Beginning that project was very humbling because you knock on doors, and not everyone says yes.” But Benoist’s co-op concept made all the difference. Her impressive achievements coupled with her approachable demeanor gained the trust of the first few designers. After they had signed on, subsequent designers saw safety in numbers. “If people know, ‘ok, there’s 25 other vendors just like me going into this space,’ they feel better about it,’” she says. Benoist was now taking on a role to help facilitate a space for designers. It was important to her to see local designers succeed, and the co-op concept helps them by providing options to meet their needs.
It took Benoist several years to be fully satisfied with her move back to St. Louis. But looking back, it was the best decision she ever made. She allowed her heart to guide her decision to leave Chanel and move to the West Coast. Once again, she trusted her heart, and moved away from the West Coast as a soon-to-be mother, and protector of her future child. She loves being back in St. Louis, and while recently divorced, her two children, Levi, 6 and Georgia, 3 “are my everything,” she says. “I want them to grow up with this love for experience, which I certainly have.”
She had not intended on enjoying fashion from this perspective, as a facilitator. “I find the more experience I have, the more I don’t know … with time, I get how much there is out there.” She recounts the common attitudes of 23-year-olds, on graduating college and wanting it all right away. “Now approaching 40, I realize that it’s pretty great there’s so much more to learn!”
With exposure on the Style Network and countless local press, Benoist never dreamt The Collective would be the success it has become. Implementing the co-op concept has not only allowed her business to sustain the downtown environment, it has helped numerous designers in the area. Designers who have sold their pieces at the co-op see the appreciation for their work in this city. Just 10 years ago she was managing hectic runway shows in New York. But today, she’s in St. Louis and a model for ambition and change.
For more information on Nicole Benoist, visit www.collectivemx.com.