It was her first week at Wharton and Dorie Smith was a little apprehensive about meeting her new classmates. There was an orientation event that night and she was prepared to dress to impress. Smith opened her wardrobe to pick out an outfit. She wanted something friendly corporate, stylish, sophisticated, and beautifully tailored. A heaping pile of hangers later, she sheepishly settled on an old favorite: black, sleeveless A-line with a matching gold belt. While she loved it, and had for a long time, she wanted so much more variety in her business attire. Oh, well! A smattering of mascara and lip gloss, and Smith was out the door.
Upon arriving, Smith started to meander around the event. She grabbed a glass of wine and some nosh as she circled the room looking for a companion. Quite serendipitously, she locked eyes with a stranger across the room who would be her future co-founder and business partner, Emelyn Northway. After the mutual once-over, they both smiled. They were wearing the exact same dress! As it turns out, both loved the timeless frock, but neither could find similar quality and style at an affordable price point. That night, the idea for Of Mercer was born.
After two years of research, focus groups, design and planning, Smith and Northway launched their first beta line in Philadelphia. "We realized that no amount of surveys or focus groups could tell us if women would pull out their credit cards and make a purchase," explained Smith. "So we fronted the money for that first order and held our breath." Their gumption paid off. The limited beta line sold out in two and a half hours and they committed to going full-time after graduation. "After the success with our beta line, we knew that there was something missing in the women's work wear market" said Northway. "Even with all the fashion brands out there, our customers still couldn't find great staple pieces. They wanted clean, sophisticated designs made with high-end fabrics at a $200 price point. We could deliver that."
Since then Of Mercer has launched eight new lines, shipped to 38 states and 10 countries. Northway notes that while initially the team thought the dresses would resonate with consultants and finance professionals, their customers hail from a range of industries. There are doctors and nurses, teachers, lawyers, politicians and even some celebrity clients. Actress Emmy Rossum is an adoring customer of the brand along with Melissa Gorga, Tammin Sursok and Olivia Palermo. "It was pretty amazing," mused Smith. "When Olivia Palermo featured some of our dresses on her site, we had a huge spike of orders from Japan. Who knew that she had such a strong following there?"
The growing demand for their clothing encouraged Smith and Northway to expand their business faster than expected. Just a year into the business, they began making plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in the coveted and fashion-crazed Flatiron District in New York City. "It is certainly going to be a transition for us to manage both the online presence and store, but we are experiencing tremendous demand and it seemed like the next logical step" said Smith. The Of Mercer flagship store opens Monday, October 26, at 42 East 21st Street in NYC.