On the eve of Copper Penny boutique’s 30th anniversary, Charleston Style & Design caught up with founder Penny Vaigneur at home in Mount Pleasant to talk about the demands and rewards of life in the fashion lane.
Let’s start at the beginning. What led you to the women’s fashion business?
I was always interested in fashion. When I was a young girl, playing with dolls, the dress-up part was what I loved most. As I grew older, I went on to do other things but never lost that love for fashion, and wished I could have my own store but financially never thought it was possible.
You worked in Charleston?
Yes. I worked at some friends’ boutiques and modeled for fashion shows, magazines, newspapers. I did wardrobe planning and personal shopping and also in-home sales for fashion companies. I did everything I could related to fashion.
So when was the turning point?
It was 1986. My husband, Fred, had been involved in the local fishing industry when it came under tighter regulations. We knew we needed to make a change, and since it was my dream, we decided to open up our own store. I didn’t have a lot of background in managing a store but I learned through trial and error.
Did you face obstacles as a woman in business?
Not really. I faced obstacles being a new person in the business. I went to market right away. I had been to New York before to help a friend buy for her shoe store, but not to buy clothes. I used a buying service to get started, then went on to buy in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas and New York. Fred helped in the beginning. When we opened Copper Penny Shooz, I went to shoe market myself, which I had experience in, and it all came together.
Describe your approach to style.
Fashion changes every day. I stay very up to date with what’s setting trends without being too trendy. I know what my customer is going to wear and buy accordingly. I look for pretty colors and unique items she won’t find in other stores—things that will make her say, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” I don’t buy a lot of one style. We work closely with our vendors to keep our lines exclusive.
Who is your customer?
Each of our stores caters to a slightly different client. For example, the Coleman Boulevard store has more clothing for people my age. Our King Street stores trend younger. We have something for almost everyone. I have customers coming in now whose mothers shopped with me when they were babies. I love that connection!
You have a demanding calendar, flying to markets almost monthly. What drives this?
I have a passion for what I do—I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have good energy and I’m in good health. I especially enjoy making someone feel really good about herself. I love dressing women.
You are a breast cancer survivor. How did this challenge impact your life?
I’ll never forget the date: February 20, 2006. I had had a mastectomy and reconstruction, and I lost my sister to lung cancer. It was a really difficult year. It was a struggle at times, but I felt like I had to put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. Put it behind me and keep faith. I got back to work quickly. The stores are so much a part of me—that’s what keeps me going. I’m a longtime supporter of breast cancer research and many other nonprofits in the community.
Copper Penny is local, family owned, and operated. You must be proud of your contribution to the community.
Yes. My sons Bryan, Blake and Ty are all involved in the business. Without them my husband and I would not have made as much progress as we have. And they are at the age I was when I began my first store with new ideas, every day.
Does your sense of style influence your home’s interior design?
My home is what you would call eclectic. I love antiques, and I make everything work around favorite possessions from my mother and grandmother. The color palette is a sea blue— Copper Penny blue—the same as all my stores.
How do you spend your downtime?
I like to play bridge and entertain. I love to go to Shellmore—our house in McClellanville, South Carolina. That’s where I relax and recharge. I can read on the porch and watch the boats go by. And I also love to spend time with my grandchildren: Caden, Bennett and six-year-old Anna Whitley, who is a lot like me—she likes to spend time at the stores. I take her to get manicures. She’s already very fashionable. It’s a delight for me since we’re an all-boy family. Fred and I love to travel when we can—but I really don’t have a lot of downtime.
Latest good read?
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
You are very involved with Copper Penny’s franchisees. How do you feel about your role as teacher and mentor to these young women opening their own boutiques? I find it very exciting—the hard work and sense of accomplishment involved in the start-up of a business. It can be a challenge working with all the personalities, but when you get down to it we’re all working for the same thing. These young people are opening a Copper Penny and I feel humbled by that. So far they’re all successful, and we have a few more in the works.
Six stores, five franchises and 30 years in the business. Thoughts?
Where on earth did the time go! When I think back to how we began, it’s unbelievable to me, the ups and downs we made it through—I feel so blessed to be where we are. I wish that my mother and my father were here to see this. I learned only recently that my father’s family’s stores were wiped out during the Great Depression. I’m very thankful.
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston based freelance writer and marketing consultant.