Fashion Savvy

BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER | PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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Walk through the doors of any Copper Penny boutique, and you’ll find that the calm ambience and upscale products that encompass you belie the rigors of the fashion business—the “blood, sweat and tears” that go along with the glamour and celebrity. Behind the scenes of Charleston’s preeminent women’s clothier is a world ruled by the whims of fashion, high stakes competitors and an often uncooperative economy.

For Copper Penny owners Penny and Fred Vaigneur, 2014 has been a banner year. On the heels of the company’s first franchise grand opening in Columbia, S.C., another franchise opened its doors just weeks ago in Greenville, S.C. These stores are in addition to the six successful family-owned-and-operated stores in two states, not to mention a Copper Penny private label line and inhouse designed footwear and jewelry lines developed by their sons. Copper Penny has indeed nailed down a blueprint for success that was 25 years in the making—and dressed a lot of happy women along the way.

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Back before the family entered retail, when Copper Penny was just a distant dream, founder Penny Vaigneur was an occasional model and stay-at-home mom with a lifelong passion for fashion. Husband, Fred, fished the waters of Shem Creek and beyond until regulations shackled the local industry. Sons, Bryan and Blake, grew up to pursue their own interests, completing USC and Clemson with degrees in business management and finance, respectively.

“It’s a surprise to me that our family life would end up this way,” muses Penny. “The boys couldn’t have been more uninterested in ladies’ clothing even though they grew up with us in the business.”

The Copper Penny story began in 1987. As the fishing industry faltered, the young couple decided to take a leap of faith and make Penny’s dream of opening her own boutique a reality. Fred scaled back his time on the boat and took a 6-month course to help him organize and set goals for a return to the business world. The original store was located in Mount Pleasant’s Village Pointe shopping center with Penny and Fred working every day of the week for 15 years. “It was just the two of us and one employee,” recalls Fred. “Penny was the buyer, the seller, and I paid bills, wrote orders and went to market with her.”

The store thrived, and the Vaigneurs set their sights on Charleston’s renowned King Street. “Penny had helped her friends open stores there,” notes son, Bryan, who was pursuing a career in the hotel business. “She loved the downtown area.”

When Penny and Fred opened their second store, Bryan was ready to take a pay cut to join the family business. He continues: “I’d been putting in 60 hour weeks without much reward . . . I called mom and dad and said ‘I want to work for y’all.’ But they encouraged me to continue on my career path. So I just sort of forced my way in and showed up at the new store a couple of weeks later ready to work.”

That was in the fall of 1999, and soon store number two was a success story, giving the Vaigneurs the impetus to launch the next phase of their plan with the help of their youngest son, Blake. “I had just graduated from college and wanted to go into financial planning,” he recalls. “But the economy had slowed down and it was tough getting started. When my parents asked me to take charge of a shoe store they wanted to open downtown, I couldn’t say no.”

These opportunities would take the two sons, and the rest of the Copper Penny clan, into territory they’d never considered before. Blake says he’s a guy who never had more than three pairs of shoes—soccer cleats, tennis shoes and flip flops. Yet he fell head over heels for the women’s shoe business and for the joy a pair of designer shoes brought his customers. His immersion was total and eventually led him abroad to find the resources for developing his own designer shoe line. His Rowen Footwear was enthusiastically received, winning the Belk Southern Designer Showcase competition in 2012.

Describing himself as very entrepreneurial and always looking for a new challenge, his brother, Bryan, turned a sideline into a successful handcrafted jewelry business. “I was buying jewelry from various vendors to sell online and thought I could make it myself. My aunt was an artist and she showed me the ropes of jewelry making . . . I already had a pretty good sense of fashion from managing the King Street store and could see which beads would look good with a particular pendant.”

His line, Whitley V, was named after his young daughter Anna Whitley. His wife, Liz Vaigneur, would eventually leave her job to join the enterprise. The wholesale company features bracelets, earrings and necklaces crafted with gorgeous gemstones from North Carolina, Colorado, Brazil and Uruguay, all paired with hammered metals and vibrantly colored beads.

“It’s such a surprise and reward that they’re all on board with us,” Penny says of the family. “We couldn’t be growing and franchising without them.”

From fashion to brick and mortar knowhow, the Vaigneurs have parlayed a lifetime of talent, hard work and experience into a strong brand they now offer to other entrepreneurs with an eye for fashion. The team assists with details like identifying store locations, selecting furnishings and providing operations support. In addition, Penny and her trusted buyer, Liz Snyder, accompany franchisees to market, introducing them to designers and helping them place orders. When it’s time for ribbon cuttings, they’re there to ensure opening days run smoothly.

“It takes a lot of time and energy,” notes Penny, “but it’s fun meeting new people, becoming friends and seeing how what we teach them is transformed into a new store.”

Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based writer.