Vanessa Williams made a name for herself as the only Miss America to give up her title. Now Royal Silk is counting on Williams' face to make a name for the company.
Prakesh Melwani, founder and chief executive officer of Royal Silk, the world's largest resource for silk clothes, sold mostly through mail order, says he decided to use Williams as a model "because she is a victim being victimized. We think she is remarkable woman."
In the Royal Silk catalogue mailed in December, Williams is featured in seven of the 55 photographs, and a letter from Melwani on the back of the order sheet makes sure customers know who she is:
"How often have you looked at a photo and thought to yourself, 'Gee, that face looks familiar?' Well, this time you were probably right.
"That lovely lady with the green eyes and the glamourous face is none other than Vanessa Williams.
"She is a friendly, young woman endowed with the same remarkable beauty, charm, poise and self-confidence that carried her through in Atlantic City. And we believe that, in Royal Silk garments, she is as regal as silk. We hope you agree."
Apparently most people do. "Along with thousands of orders," says Melwani, who figures that this catalogue produced 25 to 30 percent more business than the previous issue, only about 25 negative letters were received. "There are many variables, but we consider this immensely successful."
There has been an added bonus for Royal Silk. "Her picture has gotten us exposure and carried us into an area -- video," says Melwani, referring to television. "It has triggered inquiries from people we always wanted to reach and couldn't otherwise get interested in our company."
Royal Silk, with a volume of $22 million last year, was started by the Indian-born Melwani, now 37, while he was working in his specialty gift boutique in the World Trade Center in New York. He learned the import business from an uncle, for whom he worked after graduating from Columbia University.
Royal Silk, which designs, manufactures and markets silk or silk-blend clothes made in China, India, Hong Kong and Japan, was launched in May 1978 with an advertisement in Cosmopolitan magazine offering a silk shirt in five sizes and six colors at $22 each. Melwani was astonished by the response to the ad, which generated more than 3,000 sales. (The same shirt is still in the Royal Silk collection, now priced at $25.)
Two years later, "after going three steps ahead and two steps backward," Royal Silk sent out its first catalogue, and in 1984 the company sold to almost a half-million customers with 13 million catalogues. Listed in 1983 and 1984 by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest growing privately owned companies, Royal Silk now has four retail stores and one planned for eventual opening in Washington.
"We are an exciting company. I like to break the rules once in a while," says Melwani. He asks himself a question: "Would I do the same thing using Williams as a model if I were General Motors or General Foods? I don't know," he says. "But we think she's a remarkable woman."
Royal Silk's catalogues have in the past featured tennis champion Martina Navratilova as well as top models Iman, Esme and Carol Alt. Melwani is counting on Williams' being remembered as Miss America, not for her Penthouse photos.
"Who remembers that Marilyn Monroe was photographed in Playboy? The attention span factor here is very short," he insists. "But I think she will be one of the most remembered names in Miss America pageant history -- maybe the only one."
With luck, Royal Silk will be remembered, too.