Executive Spotlight: Judie Culver, owner of Purple Plume

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PITTSFIELD — It doesn't take long to learn Judie Culver's favorite color.

She arrives for an interview either clad in or toting several items that are colored purple. They include purple eyeglass frames and purple nail polish.

"It's in my DNA," Culver said, referring to her interest in that color.

So, maybe it's no surprise that Culver owns a small clothing and gift store in Lenox called Purple Plume. What is significant is the store's longevity. In an era when online shopping has eaten into traditional retail operations' profit margins, Purple Plume has been open for 38 years.

According to Culver, 60 stores have come and gone in downtown Lenox since the Worcester native opened her business in 1981, after being laid off from the first teaching job she had out of college. She sells mostly women's clothing and accessories at Purple Plume, but she recently added a men's line.

We spoke with Culver recently about how she founded her business, how she has been able to keep it going, her background in clothing and fabrics, and, of course, her love of her favorite color.

Q: So, why is purple your favorite color?

A: I was born purple. I have been purple since I can remember. I went to kindergarten with these purple outfits. I had toothbrushes that were purple before anybody else did.

Q: Why did you include your favorite color in the name of the store?

A: I didn't want the store to have something about me, like Judie's Closet or Culver & Co. I wanted it to have something that was special to me, but not with my name in it. So, I ran with purple. It took awhile to come up with (the rest of the name). We tried all kinds of names — Purple Petunia, Purple Penguin.

Q: How did you decide on "plume?"

A: Actually, it was a friend of mine who said it. "Plume" is French for "feather," and I had been doing feathered jewelry, so, it was a great connection.

Q: You told me once that your store was an extension of you. What does that mean?

A: When I would go shopping in department stores, I could never find anything that I liked. So, I used to sew my own clothes. ... I started to sew at 12 years old. And I sewed everything I wore from that time until I opened my store. ... From way back when, I liked things that were a bit unique. I liked buttons, I liked zippers. I liked details. I like textured fabrics.

So, when I opened my store, I wanted to have clothing that was unique, that was kind of artsy but not priced too crazy. And that's what my customer comes to me for. If it wasn't special and unique and I didn't have fun clothing, you don't need me.

Q: Did it take awhile to find the right formula?

A: It did. When I started in business in 1981 I was a handcrafted gift shop because I was making feathered jewelry and macrame items and all kinds of crafts. I opened up with about 40 local craftspeople on consignment.

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Shortly after I opened, fashion jewelry became very trendy and popular. ... [That trend] made fun jewelry that everyone wanted to wear.

I've always been a jewelry person, so, I jumped right in. I filled the whole room with jewelry, and that changed the focus of my business. Then I started with scarves, and then I put in one line of clothing. The one line of clothing I put in just happened to be very unique, very artistic, and it just flew out the door. From then on, I started buying more clothing and less and less gift items.

Q: If you hadn't been laid off from your teaching job in 1981, would there have been a Purple Plume?

A: No, because I think I would have taken the safe road and continued teaching. I think people have to be pushed sometimes in a direction they don't know is going to be good for them and it turns out to be great. I was lucky. I lost my job before I had children, so, I could do something else.

Q: Why has Purple Plume lasted so long?

A: I think that I have a great collection of clothing and jewelry, and people come to me for something different. They're bored going to stores and seeing 20 of the same blouses. So, when they want to go somewhere, they come to me to look special. ... I'm going to a wedding, I'm going to a bar mitzvah, I'm going to a reunion, and I want to look great.

Q: But, people can buy those kinds of clothes online by ordering them from catalogs now.

A: But, you can't touch it. You can't feel it. You can't try it on. Women want to be able to touch that material and see what it feels like. ... And the color in a catalog or online is not the true color, because it's a photograph.

Q: Why is it so important for women to touch clothing before they buy it?

A: Because they want to make sure it's perfect for them. They may be buying things online, but they're returning 90 percent of the things they're buying. That's a lot of time and money and effort and shipping.

Q: Have women's clothing habits changed since you opened your store, or are they still the same?

A: No. ... Women shop nine times more than men. ... Shopping is not just something that you do when you need to buy something. Shopping is an activity.

Women who are on vacation, that becomes part of their vacation. You see the sites, you take in the culture, you go to dinner, you go shopping. It hasn't changed in the aspect that people want to go shopping. However, with the internet, it's grown more interesting to have a business. ... You have to have great employees and you have to know what your customer wants.

Q: I would think that's even more important now, when you're dealing with the internet.

A: It's tremendous right now. The one thing about owning your own store is, you are not confined to your bosses telling you what to do. I can see a fashion trend or an item that's trending and jump on it. ... I'm the only one I have to answer to, so, if I've made a mistake, I can correct it and I'm the one that I can yell at.

Q: Do you yell at yourself a lot?

A: (Laughs) No, I try not to. You have to be kind to yourself.


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