In September 2015, Melissa Latin founded Charlotte Fashion Plate as a way to showcase her love of fashion and food. She now looks to local markets for food inspiration and constantly follows current trends in the fashion industry.
“I have a strong appreciation towards all aesthetics,” she says. “I’ve created a style that’s comfortable and classy, pairing classic and edgy, feminine and edgy, and always adding a fashionable dose of food. My company allows me to communicate directly with ‘every woman’ and offer style inspiration and advice along the way.”
Melissa spent most of her life in the Pittsburgh area and was an accounting professor for 16 years at a private university south of Pittsburgh. She’s called Charlotte home for the past four years with husband, Steve, and their two golden doodles, Viva and 7.
CharlotteBusinessResources.com (CBR): When did you first become interested in being an entrepreneur? Did you always envision an online store like Charlotte Fashion Plate (CFP)?
Melissa Latin (ML): I think I have always been interested in becoming an entrepreneur. My prior position at the university afforded me the opportunity of not being “stuck” in a 9-5 position. As a professor, I was given a tremendous amount of flexibility in scheduling without a lot of oversight. I always knew I wanted to be my own boss. Charlotte Fashion Plate has given me the opportunity to share my passion of both fashion and food. I must say that I never envisioned the company to be where it is today in just four months.
CBR: Was there an “Aha!” moment (or several) that led to the conception of CFP? How and when did you realize that you wanted to open a store like this?
ML: I’ve always had an eye for fashion and a desire for food and cooking. I recall my students always asking me why I never wore the same outfit twice. I may have; I just paired items differently over the course of the semester. I often had “closet clean-outs” while living Pennsylvania. I was known for these and would have women from all around to shop my closet. When I moved to Charlotte, I became a member of several local “selling” groups on Facebook. I was overwhelmed by the response I received when I listed my own items for sale. Often, women would ask me when I was going to open my own store.
My “Aha!” moment came when I had a dress for sale on one of these sites. I must have listed it several times over the course of nine months. It wasn’t selling, and it was super cute. So instead of putting it on a hanger and taking a picture to post, I decided to put it on and take a selfie. I posted the picture to one of the sites with me wearing it, and it sold immediately. I thought to myself, Maybe I have something here. I tried it again with another dress. This time, a gentleman bought it for his wife within minutes of me listing it. All of this, combined with the voices of women who were buying my clothing telling me to consider opening a store, led me to what I call my “trial run.”
I ran into the closet and wrote down the labels I wear. I contacted the first designer to place an order. I was rejected at first because I didn’t have an established business. A few hours later, I received an email from this same company who had changed their mind and would allow me to purchase wholesale. I placed an order for two styles of dresses, 12 in total. On Wednesday of that week, I advertised on one of the selling groups I belong to on Facebook that I would be getting two dresses in on Friday and, if anyone was interested, I would hold for them. I posted a picture of myself in a similar style of dress that I would be receiving. By the end of the day that Wednesday, I had over 128 comments and over 100 likes. All 12 of the dresses had been reserved, and all were sold by that weekend. That Monday morning, I went Uptown and officially created my business, Charlotte Fashion Plate.
CBR: What were the early days of entrepreneurship like for you? Based on your experiences, what advice would you offer fellow entrepreneurs starting a business for the first time?
ML: The first month was overwhelming. I have a strong business background, so I was quite knowledgeable about how to get started. I had a pretty clear vision of how I wanted the business to be structured and just ran with it. I hired a great person who helped me with my website, social media and photo shoots.
I would advise anyone who wants to start a business to do some research first on how you want the business to be structured. Keep in mind what your goals are, and set tiny benchmarks along the way. Consider what your capital requirements will be, and keep reinvesting in your business and its growth during the initial stages. I cannot stress enough the importance of social media and word of mouth. There is a lot to be said about the power of social media. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
CBR: You spent many years as a professor in accounting. What was it like to transition from one industry to the other? And how did your previous experience benefit you as an entrepreneur?
ML: The transition for me was quite effortless. As I stated earlier, I was given a lot of freedom as a professor. I almost felt like I was my own boss. As an accounting/business professor, I am very familiar with the business industry. When I moved to Charlotte four years ago, I was really “lost.” My husband has been in professional hockey his entire life and accepted a position here with the Charlotte Checkers. It was quite a life-changing experience for me. I came here during the season and knew not one soul. I was trying to find my way. I knew in the back of my head that I really didn’t want to continue teaching. Sixteen years was a long time spent in the classroom. I did further my education during this time and am currently working on my doctorate and am ABD (all but dissertation). I started making friends and eating my way through Charlotte. It has taken me four years to get here, but I know in my heart that this is what I was meant to be doing.
CBR: One of the most fascinating aspects of your business is that there’s no storefront. You advertise and sell all of your clothes online. What are a few of the unique benefits and challenges of running a business like this?
ML: One of the most unique aspects of my business is that I have set out to brand myself and my own fashion. Having an online storefront or boutique is not “proprietary.” What sets my business apart from other online businesses is that I personally pick out all of the fashion, and it is based on what I would wear. I also model every item of clothing I sell. I’ve strived to make this business as personal as I can. I don’t sell something just to sell it. I’ve often been asked why I don’t sell pants. My answer is, I rarely wear pants. My motto is “I only sell what I wear.” I understand one of the challenges is that not everyone is going to like my style, and that’s okay with me. I have a niche market, and that’s exactly how I want it. The reason I decided not to have brick and mortar is based on my passion for this business. I never want to lay in bed at night worrying or trying to calculate how many dresses I need to sell just to pay rent. Having very little overhead, in my opinion, gives me very little stress. I never want to equate my passion for this business with stress. It is what I love to do. One of the drawbacks to any online store is that the customer has the inability to touch or try on the item. I have overcome this problem a bit by meeting my local customers.
CBR: Besides the online boutique, you also do cooking videos and restaurant reviews on social media. In fact, you were recently on WBTV for a cooking demonstration! Tell us more about this part of your business.
ML: As a youth, I remember going out to dinner and coming home and trying to replicate a recipe I just tried at a restaurant. Or I would look up recipes and try to make them at home. I’ve always had this desire. I’m not professionally trained. I’ve taught myself everything I know about cooking. I definitely consider myself a foodie. I believe that in order to call yourself a foodie, you must be able to both cook and have the palette to distinguish great food from bad food at any restaurant. I love filming the cooking videos. I think it gives the at-home cook a sort of guide to be able to conquer those recipes that they may be scared of preparing at home. For the past four years, I have been trying out restaurants all over the Charlotte area. I do not consider myself a food critic, but I do highlight any restaurant on my social media accounts for that one item(s) that is a must try. I keep everything positive. I never critique a restaurant; if I did not appreciate the food, I just don’t mention it.
I have collaborated with a number of local businesses. One in particular is The Carolina Fish Market. I prepare a lot of seafood dishes in my cooking videos and always use seafood from this market. Seafood is one of those items that many people are nervous about preparing at home. I was asked to appear with Jim from The Carolina Fish Market on a segment at WBTV to demonstrate how a home cook can prepare seafood dishes with ease.
I have also done a number of podcasts with TV Williams about restaurants in the Charlotte area. We basically video our segment talking about what dishes I think you need to try from restaurants in Charlotte. These are currently available on YouTube at The Famous Podcast.
CBR: When people purchase your clothes online, you personally meet your customers to deliver their order. What inspired you to do this, and how do you think it makes your business unique?
ML: Currently, about 70% of my business is local. As a member of some of the local selling groups, you are allowed to advertise your business on certain days of the week. I list the clothing items I have from my boutique then schedule to meet the women locally for pickup. I cannot express enough about how much I love this unique aspect of my business. I love, love, love meeting these women personally. The inspiration came from the rules that were set up on these sites to sell your personal items and then set up a local meet for pick up. I just transitioned this concept to my business. There are times when I meet these local women, and we are there for a half-hour or longer just talking about fashion, food, etc.
CBR: What are some of the most common things people want to know about your business?
ML: I must say that the feedback I have received thus far has been nothing but positive. Most want to know how I started and what the future holds. I have also been contacted by a number of owners of online boutiques to meet and discuss how I am doing it. I am always willing to meet these women and offer advice and receive it at the same time.
CBR: What has been your proudest moment to date? And where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
ML: My proudest moments come when I receive pictures from my clients in the clothing they purchased from me, with big smiles on their faces. I have one client who has a special section in her closet designated for the items she has gotten from me. I have a number of repeat customers, and over the last four months, I have seen positive changes in them just from how they carry themselves. I would like to think that I had a hand in this in making them look and feel beautiful.
I have been thinking strategically and, for now, would like to keep my future plans under lock and key. Let’s just say that I would eventually like to see CFP go nationwide.
CBR: How can people find your store to shop today?
ML: I am currently selling out of my Facebook page, Charlotte Fashion Plate. There is a designated area on my page to shop. Customers can also call me direct, or send me an email at email@example.com, and I can invoice them directly via PayPal.
CBR: What’s the one thing about CFP that you’d like for people to know that they don’t know now?
ML: This company is my passion. I did not start this business just to sell clothing and make money. I did it to empower women to look and feel good about themselves.
CBR: What else would you like to add?
ML: I’m deeply grateful and appreciate all of the support I have received over the past four months. I have every intention to grow this business based on my initial concept and keep the personal touch. I also will continue to collaborate with local businesses. I think it is so important to build relationships with fellow entrepreneurs.
Thank you so much for your time, Melissa. In addition to her online clothing store and food videos, Charlotte Fashion Plate also offers closet clean-ups, as well as shopping for an updated wardrobe or special events. Visit them on Facebook for more information, and be sure to follow Charlotte Fashion Plate on Instagram!
Have a question for us? Tweet it to us @CBRBiz!