First cousins Alexandra Wilkes and Leslie Decker had heard the question what seemed like a million times.
They would handcraft their jewelry and showcase it every year about this time at Mistletoe Marketplace, the Christmas shopping extravaganza held at the Mississippi Trade Mart. Almost without fail, a customer would make a purchase and before leaving would ask the two, “Where’s your store?”
For three years, there was no store. Now there is.
Named after the owners, Alex and Lele opened in February in Canton Mart Square. Wilkes and Decker have a place of their own to sell and market their earrings and necklaces that they make themselves. Decker’s mother, an artist who had spent years collecting vintage jewelry, was the inspiration behind the two’s decision to get going in the business.
“She’s the one who got us in jewelry,” Wilkes said. “She gave us a box of vintage beads and we got going.”
Entertaining the idea
Entering into a business partnership was an idea Wilkes and Decker had frequently entertained.
“We’ve always said we wanted to do something,” Decker said. “If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said we would probably be designing handbags.”
Wilkes and Decker have been making and selling their jewelry for four years, first while they were students at Ole Miss. Upon their graduation, they moved back home to Jackson and were confronted with the question most recent college graduates are forced to answer: What now?
They were still showing their jewelry at various trade shows and doing home shows, but that wasn’t enough. The answer came in the form of a fellow vendor at last year’s Mistletoe Marketplace.
“There was another girl there who had a store over here and she said, ‘Y’all have to open a store. I have the perfect spot for y’all,’” Wilkes said. “So in December we came and looked and said, ‘OK, we like it.’ We moved in in January and opened in February. It was a really quick decision. And it was one of the best decisions we made. We’re really happy to be in this shopping center. We love it. It’s a great community of shops to be in. It’s just real fun over here.
“We were lucky, because we’ve always just put all our money back into the store. And since we were in school, we didn’t have to have a real income. We had enough saved up that we didn’t have to borrow (when we opened). We had a year of rent put away so we could pay a year of rent without worrying about it. So our parents weren’t that stressed out about us doing it. We decided we would try it and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. So financially, it wasn’t as scary as it could have been for other people.”
In addition to the savings, Wilkes and Decker’s overhead was reduced dramatically by the fact they were not forced to spend much on labor and inventory costs.
“We make our own inventory. We don’t have that much invested in huge amounts of inventory,” Wilkes said. “It’s really nice. We have enough chains and beads for the world, but it’s not as expensive as carrying furniture or something like that.”
So with a ton of cheap inventory and plenty of entrepreneurial pride, the two opened their store. Veteran retailers would have said the two were committing retail suicide, because February historically is one of the least profitable months of the year, falling so close after Christmas.
‘Don’t be scared’
“We were told, ‘Don’t be scared. February is a slow month.’ And it was great,” Wilkes said. “We didn’t have a lull until summer, which we expected, because our clientele is at the beach. They’re not here. We moved in and we had such a great following already of people who wanted us to have a store and people supporting us. It was really exciting. We did our first month and we realized we could do this. So we haven’t yet been stressed out about that. There are always people around here and people need jewelry all the time. It’s a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. It’s not as stressful as having a whole bunch of clothes that nobody wears. That would stress me out a little.”
Among Alex and Lele’s regular customers are actress Courtney Cox-Arquette and singer Sheryl Crow. Checks from both, with account numbers blacked out, hang on a wall just inside the door.
The celebrities were turned on to Wilkes and Decker’s work when Decker was vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. In the middle of showing jewelry to another customer poolside, Decker was approached by Cox-Arquette and Crow, who made a purchase on the spot and have continued to order jewelry from the store. “We’ve sent more to Courtney,” Wilkes said. “She’s just been a lovely person to send jewelry to. She writes thank-you letters and she’s just really nice.”
That isn’t the store’s only brush with fame. Celebrity chef Paula Deen’s magazine has tabbed the jewelry as one of “Paula’s Picks” and is set to feature Wilkes and Decker in an edition in early 2008.
Before that, though, is the 2007 holiday shopping season, when most retail outlets’ years are made or broken.
“We have absolutely no clue what to expect,” Wilkes said. “We’ll just see. We have a lot of stuff put away and we’re ready. We’re prepared. Hopefully it will all go away and we’ll have no jewelry left when this is over. That would be just fine.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Clay Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org .