"Who doesn't need a ribbon cumberbund for $70 to wear with their old Calvin Klein Pajamas?" -- Alida Morgan
Sophie Engelhard, heiress to the Engelhard metals fortune, is standing precariously, shoes off, on the back of a peach chintz-covered sofa, spray-cleaning a large mirror. "Vacuuming is new for me, too, but I'm getting it down," she says, laughing.
Alida Morgan -- of the Whitney, Vanderbilt, Harriman, Morgan clans -- is making discoveries of her own. "Did you know that Fantastik on anything removes spots? And fingernail-polish remover on a calculator removes ink stains."
Engelhard, Morgan and friend Josephine Kerr were busy preparing for today's opening of their trendy Georgetown shop called The Right Stuff. They admit to being novices at the day-to-day business of running a store; they've led the privileged life and tease each other about it. "When I first met Sophie," says Morgan, "she had never been in the kitchen at her house. Now she is really a good cook. It's the same thing with vacuuming."
But they've all been interested in clothes since their days as classmates at Foxcroft School. All the girls wore uniforms: khaki poplin skirts, green cord jackets, hairnets, gloves, strudy shoes and, on drill days, a piece simulating a rifle on their backs. Engelhard, Morgan and Kerr had one thing in common: a dislike for the uniform and a penchant for silk and lace udnerwear that a mutual friend had brought them from Paris. It made them feel beautiful underneath.
The three, all about 30, separated after college but are together once more in their business venture. The shop features the kinds of things they might wear themselves. The items, most of which come from New York artisans, include Wendy Johnson handknit sweaters ($250 to $350) with extra yarn and Dear New Owner letters attached, Lisa Versaci ribbon jackets ($450), Stephen Maniella's quiver bag in purple satin ($200) and ballet slippers by Harley Whimwear hand-painted to match certain clothes.
They have passed up the expected Seventy Avenue names. There's a group of clothes made from four cartons of old linen tableclothes that Engelhard bought at the William Doyle auction gallery in New York and had a friend at the Rhode Island School of Design make into skirts, camisoles and dresses. And there are hand-painted T-shirts discovered on a beach vacation in Bequia. Only a line of basic clothes done in quality fabrics and unexpected colors by Reminiscence appears in other stores in town.
"We were buying for the store at a very expensive designer -- I won't say who -- and we were going hog wild," says Engelhard. "Alida said, 'Hey, girls, maybe we should get a calculator.' At the beginning we were just drunk with the glory of the whole thing. Now we are learning more."
Architect Pierre Lutz, who builds houses in Nantucket and restores salt boxes in Connecticut, designed the store's interior. The furniture is from the three women's families' houses and includes a painted white desk that was in Engelhard's old bedroom. The yellow upholstered bench is from decorator Sister Parrish. The Chippendale glass-enclosed display case was made for the Danbury hatters and comes from Morgan's mother's gallery.
Diana Vreeland, a family friend, has been consulted. "She nursed me through my first heartbreak," Engelhard says. "She gave me this red plastic heart on a licorice-like string and said, 'Just hold onto this and you will always feel good.'" "A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids, made up a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move high and higher and even -- ultimately, God willing, one day -- that you might be able to join that special few at the top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself."
-- "The Right Stuff," by Tom Wolfe
They all loved the book and talked about it all the time. Someone suggested they use the title for the store; they adopted the ziggurat as a logo.
They randomly selected a president (Morgan), vice president (Kerr) and secretary (Engelhard) and in a year will rotate the jobs. Equal partners in the $100,000 investment, they are still discovering who is best at doing what, says Kerr. At last two of the trio plan to be in the store during store hours -- Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. "Not too many people buy clothes before lunch," Engelhard says.
"We're all so different, we will appeal to different customers," says Morgan, who looks like a walking Avedon portrait with lean figure, sharp featurtes and dramatic hair. She's wearing a silk knit sweater, linen pants, a suede belt with an elaborate buckle. "My uniform," she says. Her appeal is to the older, more conservative type, says Morgan, who once worked for Harper's Bazaar. "At Bazaar they always gave me the young marrieds or the young woman going back to work who didn't want to look bizarre," says Morgan.
Engelhard, dressed in black silk camp shirt and turquoise Bermudas ("I look like my father looked in the 1960s"), says "I'm good with the Washington career type."
And Kerr, in velour cardigan and short skirt, says her customer is the more individualistic customer, "the fringe," as she says. She admits that as she was growing up her family would often send her back to her bedroom to change her clothes.
When the first things arrived at the shop C.O.D., none of them had enough cash to cover the delivery. "I called the Neam brothers to see how much cash they had on hand," says Engelhard. "I call up the Neam brothers when I don't know how to cook something."
They've returned a number of things shipped to them in less-than perfect condition -- with a pen mark or a button not properly covered, for example. "Quality is diminishing, and with a store like this we can have control over quality and allow people to feel that they have a little more control. We are so numb with ideas that are mass-produced, it is an awakening king of thing," says Kerr, who has brought her chaps-making business from Oregon to the basement of Morgan's home.
Kerr's strength is Engelhard's weakness. "I'm the worst at quality control. I'm the least observant. I guess that shows what a good customer I am," says Engelhard.
Engelhard says she's always been a great shopper, but she's slowed down a bit "now that I know what the markup is." The measure of a good shop is how nice the people are to you, she says. For herself, her favorite shopping is in New York on Madison Avenue at Betsey Bunky Nini.
"I hate to shop," says Morgan. The new shop is her way to never having to shop again.
"Everyone goes through different phases in their life. Maybe this is the past-30 stage," says Engelhard, who has a foreign-service degree from Georgetown University and a degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She had worked for Mike Mansfield in the Senate, then for the family business, Engelhard Minerals and Chemicals, for a year. Now, business.
"This is similar to politics. You are dealing with people all the time. Both are people-oriented businesses. And both are a question of style and manner. You need different skills. Now I need an eye for clothes or putting things together, as opposed to knowing how various policy issues would fit together and how we'd push them through. But it is the same basic thing."
When Engelhard's boyfriend, Redskin tackle George Starke, likes what she's wearing, he starts with "Hey, Foxy," she says. He particularly likes her get-ups for the Redskins' games -- always a Redskins knit cap, jeans and other things she finds in burgundy and gold. "Sharon Mosley [wife of the kicker] told me she always felt sorry for this impoverished girl in front of her. She always noticed I had a beautiful handbag, beautiful boots and a beautiful watch but the rest of my outfit always looked terrible," laughs Engelhard.
She ordered scarfs for the shop in burgundy and gold.
Engelhard occasionally still wears the shirts and khaki skirt from her old Foxcroft uniform. "I'm really glad I had to have a school uniform," she adds in retrospect. "It was kind of nice to get up in the morning and not have to complete in clothes with all the other girls.