The Forked River retailer Dress Me Up, a unique boutique, concentrates on special occasion dresses with an emphasis that changes with the seasons, said owner Hollyann Nicolette.
One signature constant throughout the year is Scooby, her well-mannered, little white Maltese dog.
“He greets you at the door and then waits for the ladies at the dressing room,” Nicolette said.
She said that when it gets busy, she makes sure to keep on eye on her official greeter to make sure “someone doesn’t walk out with him, he’s so friendly.”
Nicolette, 43, of the Forked River section of Lacey Township, has an accent as distinctive as her greeter, acquired growing up in Secaucus, Hudson County, and familiar these days from the “Jersey Shore” TV series.
“I lived in Texas two years and that didn’t do anything” to change what some call the Jersey accent.
What Nicolette does change is the marketing emphasis of Dress Me Up, accenting prom dresses ahead of prom season, wedding and mother-of-the-bride dresses in spring, and homecoming dresses last month.
Yes, there are even preferred styles for homecoming appearances by the well dressed: “usually a shortened and sassy dress,” she said.
Nicolette is prepared to guide customers to the appropriate dress for whatever the occasion, including sweet 16 celebrations and eighth grade graduations.
“Whatever somebody is looking for, I get it for them, and the prices are very reasonable,” she said.
“Atlantic City wear” is its own category at Dress Me Up, the store’s designation for club dresses for evening since that’s where most of them will be worn.
Nicolette said she worked in the fashion industry two decades ago for Liz Claiborne and for private labels, eventually transferring to Texas.
That’s how her daughters, who help in the store, came to be named Dallas and Nevada. They’re 18 and 14, respectively.
Nicolette has a full-time staffer in her mother, Dolores Cuozzo, 77, of Bayville, and a part-time one in her friend, Cathy DeRosa, of Forked River.
Besides the special occasion dresses, Dress Me Up offers casual clothes including blouses, leggings and sweaters, and accessories that range from casual to dressing, including earrings, hats, necklace sets, pocketbooks, bracelets, scarves and evening bags.
When she opened in 2011, Nicolette knew starting a business in a downturn would be a challenge, but she said she and her husband immediately faced another challenge when his job transferred to Texas and he had to let it go.
“He was out of work for 18 months. He’s back to work now, but because of Sandy his office in Manhattan was displaced,” she said. The store had no problem in the storm, but the couple’s home was flooded.
Women’s clothing stores in New Jersey bounced back in 2011, with 12,662 employees, 408 more than the year before. But in Ocean County, such stores dropped another 18 workers, down to 366 from a peak of 443 in 2008.
Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics also show the number of women’s clothing stores declining in the county, from 58 in 2008 to 49 last year.
Business at Dress Me Up, like the store’s lineup, has varied by the season, with a busy one followed by slow months, then busy again.
“Everything I’ve made I’ve put back into the business. I haven’t drawn a dime out it,” she said.
Her big challenge coming up, she said, is deciding whether to relocate when her lease is up. “A tuxedo store is looking for me to move in next door,” she said, at a more appealing monthly rent than her current landlord.
And then she thinks maybe her offerings are more varied than is good for business.
“I’m still unsettled about what the focus of the store will be,” Nicolette said. “Some weeks we’ll sell more casual clothes, then others more formal dresses.”
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