With two carefully curated boutiques lining both sides of M St., Marlene Hu Aldaba is a well-positioned entrepreneur in the DC luxury retail market. In 2005, Marlene got her foot in the door (literally) of the industry when she opened Hu’s Shoes. Four years and one recession later, she launched Hu’s Wear with a brand matrix that includes Lanvin, Saint Laurent, Proenza Schouler, Bottega Venetta, Erdem, Balenciaga, Kenzo, among others. I recently sat down with the Georgetown entrepreneur to discuss everything from Madonna to Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe…
Laura: What was your original vision for Hu’s wear?
Marlene: The success we experienced in shoes and accessories the first four years at Hu’s Shoes begged the question – should we take the concept to other markets or should we explore other underdeveloped categories in DC? We looked into Boston, Philadelphia and New York, but given the local market’s economic resilience even during the 2007 financial crisis, we settled on DC. With the vendor relationships we had already developed through Hu’s Shoes, it felt natural to go into ready-to-wear. We created Hu’s Wear to provide Washington women exciting, established as well as up-and-coming designers not found in the District.
LI: Washington’s political scene has always trumped the city’s art and fashion cultures. What would you say to the people who think style is nonexistent in DC?
MHA: Admittedly, many those in government could use a fashion consultation or even an intervention in a few extreme cases. In DC, there is a certain amount of foolish pride in dressing poorly – many think looking good is a vacuous pursuit. So essentially, we are sadists. Seriously, there is a growing population of people here with incredible style. Washington is quickly becoming a world-class city drawing residents from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as chic international cities.
LI: What has your experience been like in running not one, but TWO storefronts? What are some challenges you have faced in running your own businesses?
MHA: We love having two storefronts. We capture traffic on both sides of the street…The biggest challenge for us is finding and keeping good staff. The service community, which we are proudly a part, is a small one. With so many restaurants and big chain stores opening in the area the talent pool becomes even smaller.
LI: Given the homogenization of the retail and luxury industries, how have/are you adapting your businesses to stay relevant and well positioned in this changing environment?
MHA: Unfortunately, the homogenization of the industry has created a landscape in which only chain stores are able to pay the escalating rents. That being said, we are able to be more specific to our market, unlike a national chain, so we tailor our buys to specific customers. Our customers are older but wiser! Over the past couple of years, we have stepped up our social media game, using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and House Account. We also send out weekly emails, so it’s a nice way to stay in touch with our customers without bombarding their email on a daily basis.
LI: Given your experience and success, do you have any words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs in DC?
MHA: Don’t be afraid of the word “NO!” It’s true of financing, landlords…every aspect of your business. Finding the right space is challenging, too. It’s important that your business and financial plans are in order.
LI: How (and in what) would you appropriately dress the following three candidates:
1) Hillary Clinton (she’ll need a power outfit to announce her entry into the 2016 Presidential Campaign…)
MHA: She is such a smart and powerful woman, so I think pieces from The Row would be a nice fit for her. It’s understated, chic and easy. It’s also designed by women and produced domestically.
2) A male, college junior interviewing for a summer analyst position at (an undisclosed) investment bank
MHA: Investing in a proper 3 season suit is a good idea. Invest in quality! The people you’ll be meeting will be well dressed. Isaia and Belvest make beautiful suits. Locally Niccolo Giotto has a nice selection for men.
3) A young, female, Georgetown graduate attending the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in April
MHA: Really? It’s one of the hardest tickets to get in town! If this really happens I think she should keep it age appropriate: fun, feminine and leave something for the imagination!
Marlene Hu’s stores are right next to Georgetown – Hu’s Shoes on 3005 M Street and Hu’s Wear on 2906 M Street!