How Hampden Boutique Beat the Small Business Odds

After a tumultuous fifteen years, luxury seller Stacy Smallwood celebrates a major milestone with Proenza Schouler and friends.

by Diana Tsui

Hunter Abrams/Courtesy of Hampden

When Stacy Smallwood came up with the idea for Hampden, her Charleston-based luxury boutique, she was living in Dallas and working as a buyer for Neiman Marcus. Her job gave her the opportunity to interact with a wide range of fashion brands but she always thought the designers she was most excited to buy seemed more suited for an intimate retail experience. “I saw a niche in the market when brands like Rag and Bone and 3.1 Phillip Lim were gaining traction. It was a cool moment in fashion and I knew [they] were better served in a specialty store,” she recalls. So when a 1,500 square foot space opened up on King Street, one of the city’s major commercial thoroughfares, she decided to take a leap of faith and open up her own boutique.

Over the course of a decade, Hampden quickly became a cult favorite among women across the country who liked to discover smaller, harder to find designers or buy practical luxury pieces that made sense with their urban lifestyles. Up until 2020, the boutique was in good company among similar independent retailers like Brooklyn’s Bird, Seattle’s Totokaelo, and Need Supply, the Richmond, Virginia store turned promising e-commerce platform. While those all shuttered, as casualties of the pandemic, Hampden has not only survived but scaled up: Smallwood’s space on King Street is now more than 10,000 square feet and she also has a 7,200 foot distribution center for her brisk e-commerce business.

Stacy Smallwood with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez at Hampden’s Proenza Schouler pop-up shop.

Hunter Abrams/Courtesy of Hampden

Achieving financial success wasn’t guaranteed, especially since one year into her boutique’s opening came the economic crash of 2008. While mainstream retail was struggling, it was a blessing in disguise for Hampden. “I noticed the foot pattern of shoppers on King Street. They didn’t want to walk that extra block to find my store. So when a spot opened up that was closer, I decided to go for it.” The new space, while conveniently located, was also double the size for the same amount of rent. It was a big commitment, since she’d need to fill the store with more merchandise but Smallwood knew she had to go for it. “Taking that risk at that moment when things were the worst was the best decision I ever made then,” she says.

Though the boutique now occupies a formidable section of its block on King Street, nearly 70% of its customers are actually out of state and shop online. Smallwood had the foresight to diversify her audience from the get-go, knowing that relying solely on brick-and-mortar would not be the smartest way to grow her business when she opened up in 2007. While other brands and retailers were reluctant to offer e-commerce at the time, Hampden did the opposite, “I’ve actually had a website since the day I opened the store,” she says. That decision turned out to be especially prescient when 2020 hit, and the pandemic forced her to temporarily suspend in-person shopping. While other boutiques were forced to furlough employees or shut down for good, Hampden was able to keep seven employees on full salary and survive a pandemic.

Hampden’s robust national clientele also serves as a buffer given how polarized the political climate has become. Along with the pandemic came two years of racial reckonings, mask and vaccine mandates, and other thorny situations. There’s an expectation for businesses and brands to stand up for their beliefs, which then can either attract or repel customers, depending on your personal beliefs. Charleston, a relatively progressive city, is still a part of the conserative South, and one Instagram story or post can be enough to turn off a large portion of the state. But thankfully that may not matter when the majority of Hampden’s customers hail from all over the country.

Smallwood's instincts aren’t just limited to real estate and e-commerce decisions, she also trusts her gut when it comes to buying for the store. “What ends up separating us from a department store is our unique voice and saying, I am passionate about this. I'm gonna take a risk,” she says. To that end, Hampden currently carries over 175 brands that range from luxury labels like Stella McCartney, Marni, and Proenza Schouler to smaller brands like Brogger, Kika Vargas, and Victor Glemaud. Smallwood’s mix is working — in the past year the store has seen nearly $1 million in Proenza Schouler sales alone, proving that the store's customers won’t hesitate to spend money on anything that Smallwood has put her seal of approval on.

While Hampden may be unique in the South for its fashion forward offerings, Smallwood has a more inclusive view on sizing, which is less common among luxury shops. The store offers a wider range, within the limitations of what fashion offers, and Smallwood isn’t afraid to drop a brand if customers can’t fit into pieces. “I’m not a size two so when I'm in a market appointment I think about who the customer is. I can look at something and know that's going to be great on someone who's a size 10 with a larger chest or a size 12 who doesn’t want to show her arms but still wants to look feminine,” she says.

Understanding and connecting to her target audience is probably Hampden’s biggest secret weapon to its survival. Her boutique has seen women at all stages of their lives whether it’s starting a new job, recovering after an illness, or mourning a lost one. “You’re in an intimate space with a woman who's getting undressed and, and she's there to say, help me look good and tackle the world. The greatest gift we could ever have is to be there for those moments,” she says. She achieves this with a personable staff, which is evident on social media, as the team shares their travels and behind the scenes snippets on Hampden’s Instagram account. It’s not uncommon for a shopper to tell Smallwood and her team that they made a trip down to Charleston, specifically to visit Hampden.

Making Hampden a destination for out-of-town shoppers and locals alike also includes hosting ambitious events that are on par with the ones you’d commonly see at bigger retailers in major cities. In the past Smallwood has lured designers like Tibi’s Amy Smilovic and Christopher John Rogers to come and chat up her most loyal clients at trunk shows and parties.

In honor of the boutique’s milestone birthday, Hampden isn’t holding back on parties. “I believe that all that we've been through the past 15 was worth celebrating throughout the year. It’s a monumental thing as a retailer and small business owner,” says Smallwood of the full slate of events, which kicked off with a small 40 person dinner with New York-based label Sea back in February. Given Proenza Schouler’s history of profitable sales, just this past week Hampden threw a two-day affair that included a restaging of the brand’s fall 2022 show at their e-commerce distribution center. After the runway presentation, 150 clients meandered over to a pop up space where they were able to shop the brand’s pieces. With a steady line at the register, it was a rousing success. Later in the year Smallwood plans on activations with Marni as well as trunk shows with Rachel Gilbert, Brogger, and more.

Hampden might be celebrating 15 years, but Smallwood is also thinking about the next 15, especially as the South has become a buzzy place for luxury brands. As labels take interest in Charleston, she knows Hampden is set up for success in the future, “I welcome any new store on King Street because it helps elevate our city as a shopping destination,” she says. Although if you ask any of her devoted fans, Hampden has already done more than its fair share to already establish Charleston as a fashion spot, thanks to Smallwood’s hard work.