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Carlisle takes fashion to successful women

Buying clothes online isn’t for Cathy Stewart.

The Fredericksburg resident prefers shopping in boutiques, where she can see the colors, feel the fabrics and try the clothes.

Recently, she got a chance to do just that during a trunk show of the Carlisle and Per Se Collection women’s fashions that runs through Sunday at the Fredericksburg Country Club.

“With Carlisle, you can go in, and if there are any issues, they take it right back and find you the right size,” said Stewart, who ordered a pair of pants and a cape, both with leather trim.

William Rondina founded Carlisle in 1981 as a direct-sales company specializing in high-end fashions for professional women and those who need clothes for social events. Customers met with consultants one-on-one during Carlisle’s quarterly trunk shows.

The company was successful from the start, but hit a bump during the economic downturn, when it decided the future lay in online sales.

“They did try to spend money to accomplish that, which caused the company to file for bankruptcy for about 60 days. It was sold as part of the process,” said Jim Brubaker, Carlisle’s CEO.

Carlisle was purchased in 2012 as a joint venture between Tom James, the largest direct-sales company of men’s fashions in the United States and Canada, and Royal Spirit in Hong Kong.

“Carlisle is the largest direct-sales company of women’s fashions,” Brubaker said. “We could see that it’s a great combination.”

Since then, Carlisle has gone back to its roots. It has a website, carlislecollection

.com, that shows off the latest collections, but sales are handled by consultants who hold trunk shows four times a year.

Betsy Stuart Valentine, a Fredericksburg marketing and events consultant, recently rejoined the company after her regional manager position was eliminated three years ago. She’s now a district manager for Carlisle, and organized the trunk show at the country club.

“One of the things the new president wants is for all district managers to sell so that when they go to conferences they can say, ‘I know how hard it is.’” she said. “I think I’m going to like it so much that I may continue to sell.”

Trunk shows feature the company’s collections displayed by color groups on metal racks. Consultants walk women through each one, and can show them how pieces from one group can work with pieces from another—or what they already have in their closet.

Pat Gillen, a longtime district manager who flew in from Tampa to help Valentine, said she keeps a record of everything clients buy from her, and asks them to bring three favorite pieces to her trunk shows “so we can play with them.”

Carlisle’s clothes have classic lines with on-trend touches and are made of the same blends used by many of the high-fashion designers, she said. The current fall collection, which includes a rich cognac brown as well as some winter pastels, features such details as quilting, zippers and Italian lamb suede.

A typical top sells for $235, while a number of jackets are priced at $575 and some dresses run $595.

Carlisle customers fit a common profile, according to the company’s CEO. They’re interested in looking good for professional or social reasons, have money to spend on nice clothing, and either don’t like or don’t have the time to shop.

“The woman who goes to the mall every day looking for sales is not our customer,” Brubaker said.

Liz Ashby of Fredericksburg, whose family owns the commercial interior design company J.M.J. Corp., has been buying Carlisle clothes for about five years. She said she was excited that one of its trunk shows is being held in Fredericksburg.

“I really like the clothes,” she said. “It’s hard to find clothes for middle-age women. We can afford to buy the clothes, but there’s not much out there. Carlisle’s are classics and they never go out of style.”

Ashby took her husband along for her appointment, and he bought her three outfits for her birthday.

“I have my whole [fall and winter] wardrobe now,” she said.

Carlisle currently has 350 consultants, who almost exclusively work part time. They organize and run four shows a year, which takes a total of 20 weeks, including delivery time. They’re often women who had a career and decided to work from home or needed more flexible hours, Brubaker said.

Carlisle is currently expanding, and Valentine is seeking women who’d like to become consultants. She can be reached at 540/842-4795 or

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407