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Marissa Loves the T-Shirt?

Marissa Hartington arrived at Phillip Lim’s Manhattan showroom in a black ensemble, complete with trendy bubble skirt and knee-high boots. Her blue Valentino sweater-coat cost more than some cars. Her hair was styled in a sleek, modern bob.

My first impression, as I stood up to meet the owner of Marissa Collections, was that the 50-something Neapolitan looked incredibly hip, right down to her pale Nars lipstick. Naturally. Then came the surprise as she riffled through the racks of the 3.1 Phillip Lim Spring 2008 collection.

Hartington gasped with delight at a graphic tee. As in, T-shirt. It was emblazoned with Lim’s version of a winking smiley face, with long-lashed eyes and puckered lips.

"Oh, I looove it," Poland-born Hartington effused. "This is so cute!"

True, but certainly not appropriate for dinner on Fifth Avenue South, much less the Angel Ball—
destinations familiar to her customers. Yet there went the T-shirt, from Lim’s racks of possibilities to Marissa’s rack of items to order.

For those of our readers who haven’t been to Marissa Collections, it’s a 10,000-square-foot fashion mecca on Third Street South in downtown Naples. The iconic pink building has window displays that rival Madison Avenue’s, and the kind of merchandise that makes husbands nervous: Manolo Blahnik shoes, Kors and Valentino boutiques, a coat lined with cashmere for about $2,600.

The way I see it, a $2,600 coat should be lined with gold, or play MP3s, or something. But what do I know? At 30 years old, I’m not exactly her target market—or so I thought before joining her for a day on a New York buying trip. She graciously brought me to five showrooms over the course of about 10 hours, and as the insider’s world of fashion unfolded before me, so did my notion of Marissa Collections.

If you think her store just caters to a narrow Naples crowd, think again.

The fashionista’s faves
When Hartington hits the showrooms, she sorts through racks of new designs to find pieces that can work in Naples (nothing too heavy, or too daring). Models try on the selections and pose for photographs, which Hartington reviews later—sometimes until 3 a.m., depending on ordering deadlines. She culls from the snapshots, choosing shapes, sizes, colors and fabrics that tell a story of Neapolitan life.

The process is called "writing" and "editing" collections. Here’s what Marissa wants in hers:

Youthful togs. "Young mothers love to shop with us. We use our knowledge from the high-end to style them in cute dresses and accessories and amazing T-shirts," Hartington said, solving the mystery of Lim’s smiley-face tee.

Among the pieces modeled in Lim’s Garment District showroom, a bright yellow dress with a crocheted neckline stood out. "It’s a great beachy dress with flip-flops," she said.

At Catherine Malandrino’s showroom, Hartington was drawn to fresh, white dresses that hit above-knee—also perfect for the boutique, Hartington said, referring to a corner of her store filled with modern fashions generally priced in the low hundreds, not thousands. I didn’t know she offered this lower price point. I wasn’t alone in that thinking.

"There is competition among downtown [fashion] retailers, but we don’t compete directly with Marissa Collections," said Erik Abbass, manager of Fancy Nancy’s, which is also on Third Street South. "People who shop there want the high, high end, and we serve a mid-range customer."

Clothes that fit. "Good tailoring is coming back," Hartington said. "I like the clothes that hug, but not too tight[ly], the silhouette." I asked whether her heavier clients could wear some of the snugger styles.

"Of course. Put a skinny, gold belt over a knit top and wear a cardigan," she said, and a Kors model demonstrated. "See? The belt draws attention to your waist, but this"—she grabs at her sides—"becomes hidden."

Pieces needn’t be tight to properly fit a woman’s body, she explained. Marissa singles out a boxier, tunic-style Kors dress in a stiffer fabric, which won’t cling to physical imperfections. For this, she said, her middle-aged and younger clients can dress it up with heels, or dress it down with white capris, and she loves the forgiving cut.

African themes. "Everybody is doing tribal prints, but of course Oscar [de la Renta] is doing it best," Hartington said. Fashion magazines concur.

De la Renta turned to earthtones for his safari-inspired fashions. From a brown, geometric-print dress to cream, high-waisted pants, the designer’s pieces were singled out for Hartington’s clients to wear at the theater or "a political fundraiser, not in Naples."

At Kors, de la Renta and boutique-designer consortium CDNetworks, Hartington selected jungle-inspired belts, shoes and handbags, with patterns and textures of snakes and crocs.

She doesn’t like …
Anomalous pieces. At Lim’s showroom, where she wanted to tell "a nautical story" with blues, yellows, whites and creams, Hartington eschewed his bright-red designs. She writes collections that work harmoniously, she said, so "five items can make 10 to 15 combinations."

Her son, Jay Hartington, a co-owner in the family business, said that trick is a Marissa Collections specialty. "Our associates will go into their clients’ homes and actually pack them for a trip, showing them how to make different outfits with a few pieces, so they don’t have to take three suitcases with them," he said.

Too much skin. "Anything that is too mini, I disregard," Hartington said. "In higher-end [fashion], I find it silly." She selected a denim miniskirt for her contemporary boutique, but nothing too revealing for her higher-end customers.

Sheer tops are also off Hart-ington’s list. When considering see-through styles, one of her clients said: "I’m 62 years old. Nobody needs to see my fat."

Fashion risks. "To be successful, you need to know your client, and you need to know your product," Hartington said. The Kors caftan in a bold print was out; none of her Naples clients would wear it. "Somebody will buy it—like, Harvey Nichols will sell it in a minute in Istanbul," Hartington said. "That’s why everybody’s doing caftans. It’s because Middle East business is growing."

Anything "too commercial." In other words, if it looks like you can find it at a department store, Hartington’s not interested. She turned away twin-sets at Kors and most of the fashions at CDNetworks.

At the latter, in fact, she was miffed about some of the lower-quality fabrics and designs, which were particularly noticeable after de la Renta’s über-elegant collection. Hartington grabbed a wrinkled, cotton shirt-dress and said, "How many things just like this have we seen? I’m so over it."

Testing the talk
After our shopping trip in New York, I returned to Marissa Collections to see if it would seem different, perhaps more diverse. This time I found the chic watches and funky sunglasses—after ogling the gala gowns and a slinky red Roberto Cavalli cocktail dress. It seemed a lot of pieces were sizes four and six, which can turn off some shoppers.

"I always felt I couldn’t shop here because it all looked so tiny to me," said Marissa Collections’ client Vicky Smith.

Hartington said she has a variety of sizes and shapes for all women, but her challenge may be in making more women aware of it. Only because Smith got to know Hartington at the Hats in the Garden charity event did Smith give the store another shot. Years later, Hartington keeps Smith in mind on buying trips, and sales associate Debra Newman calls her when new items come in.

"It’s such a personal experience. I [now] feel I know and trust the people here," she said. "I don’t like shopping anywhere else."

Other clients shared similar sentiments. But will those who don’t usually shop at the store receive top treatment? I planted a friend, dressed on the low end of average, in the contemporary boutique to find out.

The verdict: Exceptional service, coupled with an interest in getting to know the customer—just as Marissa Collections’ loyalists say.

If you’re looking for a reason to test that theory, the spring collections are now trickling in. See how you like her choices.

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