Call them Charlotte fashion expats.
Shelton Wilder and Heather Hawkins both grew up in the Charlotte area and graduated from East Coast colleges. But when it came time to answer the call of fashion careers, both pulled up stakes and headed for Los Angeles.
This spring, Wilder, who was raised in Charlotte and Gastonia, will see her line of slips, called the Shemie, reach boutiques and online shoppers nationwide. She debuted the line last fall during an episode of the ABC-TV reality show Shark Tank.
And Charlotte native Heather Hawkins, already a big name in the luxury handbag world, is now garnering a new following as a jewelry designer, landing contracts with boutiques and retailers zappos.com, amazon.com and shopbop.
The Observer caught up with them recently by phone to find out whether becoming a hit in Hollywood is as glamorous as it sounds (it isnt), and whether they would do it all over again. (They would.)
Hawkins, 35, graduated from Myers Park High School and attended the College of Charleston, where a sculpture class transformed her life.
Art had always been in her blood both mom and one of her two sisters are painters but creating art in two dimensions just didnt come naturally. She took a college sculpture class, and something clicked. Creating pieces in 3-D made much more sense.
When she ruined a handbag she was trying to clean, she took it apart, studied its construction, and re-created it with a new twist. During her last year of college, she started her own handbag line, and moved back to Charlotte after graduation. By day, she worked at the Charlotte boutique Poole Shop and in her free time she sold her bags at the Atlanta Apparel Mart.
Hawkins set out for California in 2003, settling on the warm sunshine of Los Angeles over the cold winters of New York. Los Angeles is a lot more friendly to young designers, she said.
She didnt have enough saved to work on her handbag business full time, so Hawkins took a job at the high-end jewelry store Jennifer Kaufman, where for 3 1/2 years she forged relationships with jewelry designers, celebrities and stylists. She learned the technical aspects of jewelry making and got to know the business end of the shop.
When she launched her eponymous handbag collection, she instantly had the connections she needed, thanks to her years at Jennifer Kaufman. Celebrities from Reece Witherspoon to Paris Hilton were photographed carrying her bags (Kim Kardashian bought a clutch and has worn it seven times, Hawkins says), and her creations landed on the pages of dozens of national fashion magazines.
To diversify in the face of the still-sour economy, Hawkins started making leather and exotic leather cuffs with gemstones and Italian hardware. Within the past year, jewelry has turned into her new passion.
Although she still creates handbags from exotic materials, her focus now is on her Heather Hawkins jewelry line, sold on her website, www.shophh.com, as well as retailers that include www.shopbop.com, amazon.com and at the Charlotte boutique Fresh (813 Providence Road). She just signed a deal with zappos.com.
Her advice to aspiring designers?
Stick with it. Success definitely does not come overnight. It took me 10 years and its not easy by any means, but you have to believe in what youre doing, she says. Its like a roller coaster.
Shelton Wilder was working at the boutique Capitol in Charlottes South Park area nearly a decade ago when she realized something was missing in her clients wardrobes.
Often, a client would fall in love with a dress or top, but it would be just a bit too sheer or low-cut for her taste.
Wilder, a stylist and boutique manager, would run around town trying to find the perfect undergarment often to no avail. The idea for the Shemie was born.
Wilder, 34, a University of Georgia grad, left Charlotte for Los Angeles six years ago and worked as a personal stylist and event planner while creating her slip line.
She paired up with a childhood friend to create her first line, the Sheltini. After the two parted ways, Wilder refocused and came up with a new line all her own, the Shemie.
Her three products a camisole, a slip and a two-piece camisole/short have catchy nicknames such as The Paparazzi Protector and The Meet the Parents. The slip, which comes in four colors, is designed to function as a slip or a stand-alone dress.
Spanx brought the girdle back, and Im bringing the slip back, Wilder says.
Wilder debuted the collection last October on the ABC-TV reality show Shark Tank.
Her pitch to the potential investors on the show was an emotional one she disclosed her struggle launching the line and her two-year sobriety and while the investors didnt offer her investment money for her business, she says the show gave her incredible exposure thats helped her move forward.
She launched a kickstarter project and raised $33,000 in a month. Sales reps in Los Angeles, New York and Miami are lining up businesses who want to sell the Shemie line. All pieces are made in California, and prices range from $48-$68.
Wilder recently went on a trip to meet with the editors of Vogue, Glamour and Elle magazines.
Wilders Shemies are due to hit store shelves next month, in Charlotte at Coral and at Cottage Gifts in Gastonia.
She says she hopes women appreciate the message she is trying to send through her products, which are designed to be comfortable while flattering. Her business motto? You are beautiful. You are enough.
My whole goal is to tell women, Dont feel like you have to squeeze into something. You are beautiful just as you are.
Wilders Shemie line will be available online at www.theshemie.com or at Coral boutique, 1405 East Blvd., in April. Her Shark Tank episode, which taped last summer and first aired in October, is scheduled to be re-run on WSOC-TV on March 14 at 7 p.m. Wilder also runs a styling business, www.sheltonstyle.com.
Heather Hawkins jewelry line is carried at Fresh Boutique, 813 Providence Road, and is also available on her website, www.shophh.com, on amazon.com and shopbop.com.