Photo: Samantha Tyler Cooper
When you walk into Sherri McMullen’s boutique in Oakland, California, there’s a warmth that makes you feel right at home. You’re greeted by little things that make the environment an inclusive shopping experience: McMullen has shades of brown mannequins throughout the store and photos of her Oklahoma family above the props wall. His goal ? relatability. “I think even walking into a specialty store, especially a luxury specialty store, often black women don’t necessarily see themselves or it doesn’t feel like an inviting environment. I never wanted McMullen to feel like this,” McMullen said.
Its eponymous store is also home to designers, especially young black designers like Christopher John Rogers and Aisling Camps, who often struggle to enter retail spaces. However, McMullen is not new to McMullen championing talented color designers – she spent 15 years in fashion as a buyer for Neiman Marcus and Pottery Barn Kids before switching to opening her boutique in 2007 This fall, she is celebrating the 15th anniversary of her eponymous boutique. . When it comes to keeping her store, she has a gut reaction when she sees something she knows her customers will love, and 15 years later, it hasn’t let her down.
Here, McMullen discusses how the industry has changed, the challenges it faces, and what makes its shopping experience so sacred and special.
Congratulations on 15 years; it’s a huge achievement. How did you build your community?
Living in California for two decades now, I wanted to create something in Oakland because I felt like it was such an energetic city. The spirit of the city attracted me. I love that the people of Oakland support so many small businesses and entrepreneurs. We built our business on the basis of community – we worked with the Oakland School for the Arts to have interns from the school who helped work in the business, and many of them left for a design school where they start their lines now. It’s really exciting that we got to work with them at such a young age and then help them develop their careers and purpose in the industry.
It’s so helpful. Oakland is also very steeped in black culture.
Absolutely. We opened our distribution center this summer in West Oakland. In the 1940s and 50s there was such a large black-owned business community in West Oakland, and then things changed in the last few decades. We’re now seeing more black businesses going back to West Oakland, and for us to be able to provide jobs there and really get more involved in that part of town is really important to us because there’s so much history there. The Black Panther party was founded in West Oakland, we have such a strong connection to Mrs. Fredrika Newton. They used fashion as part of their message and part of the armor, it was part of a larger social message, so it all matters to us.
What do you think is causing West Oakland to once again become a place where black businesses are moving again?
Community. Just looking at the block where our store is, there are a handful of businesses owned by black women. It’s actually the largest concentration of black female businesses in Oakland, and I think once you see one or two, it really encourages others to come.
I think we need to see more businesses run by black women, especially in fashion. Why do you think there is such a lack of it?
I think that’s a problem in so many industries. There’s just a lack of female leaders, and I think it’s really going to take other women to make sure that we support and hire other women and make sure that we raise the next generation so they can become leaders. They just need to see us more in decision-making positions and in positions of power.
What was your biggest obstacle in starting your business as a black woman?
Accessing capital and securing significant funding is probably one of the biggest hurdles for black entrepreneurs in general, especially in fashion. I opened just before a recession in 2007; people were like, Not only are you opening a luxury business, but one in Oakland? I had to prove I was qualified to do this because I’m an industry expert. I still wasn’t able to get funding, so I had to go see friends and family. I had to use some savings and really figure it out along the way because that was one of the biggest challenges. Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs yet we still receive less than 1% funding; it is shameful. I’ve been talking about it for five years and those numbers haven’t changed. We need to make changes because we know black women will change communities. My plan years later is to create a fund for us.
I like it, and it is necessary. Whenever I chat with an emerging designer, especially a black designer, the first challenge he mentions is capital and resources.
I really invest in them. Not only say, I have one of these designers, but in fact I write checks and I buy the product and I don’t send it back at the end of the season. We talk about ways to move forward together, and that’s what these partnerships are for. How can we get through this industry that hasn’t been so supportive of us and get through this together? For me, that’s what it’s all about. I have such strong and close relationships with all the brands we work with, especially our black designers, because we know what the challenges are unlike some of the other brands who are white labels and have all access.
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