Style

Who sets Charlotte’s high-fashion agenda? This woman – and it’s been a 20-year mission

When is Charlotte 'exotic'? A fashion star explains

Laura Vinroot Poole talks about how Charlotteans can look their most exotic. She celebrated the 20th anniversary of her leading-edge boutique Capitol with a fashion-star-studded party at North Corner Haven Farm.
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Laura Vinroot Poole talks about how Charlotteans can look their most exotic. She celebrated the 20th anniversary of her leading-edge boutique Capitol with a fashion-star-studded party at North Corner Haven Farm.

Laura Vinroot Poole has spent the last two decades cultivating Charlotte’s fashion reputation, until top-notch designers from around the world saw it not as a backwater but as fertile ground.

To celebrate, she threw a party – on a farm.

It had rained buckets all week, but the skies cleared last Friday, and by the afternoon, the weather was flawless. The party, feting her Capitol boutique on its 20th anniversary, seemed plucked from a storybook: Designers and stylemakers flew in from both coasts and across oceans; Charlotte’s A-list inhabitants mingled in dreamy floral dresses; and all of them posed among tiny goats and wildflowers at the serene North Corner Haven Farm, 45 minutes outside the city. Prominent magazine photographers snapped away: Town and Country. Garden & Gun.

The scene, like so much of what Vinroot Poole, 46, does with her three shops – Capitol, Poole Shop and Tabor – had an effortless feel. But it capped 20 years’ worth of gritty determination to make Charlotte a fashion destination, and to introduce those outside to what she deems the best of Southern culture.

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Anniversary-party guests donned flower headdresses. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

In the process, she’s brought major fashion influencers and trendsetters to the Queen City. And she’s transformed the way people here dress and celebrate – not only those who walk through her stores’ doors but, in a trickle-down-effect, customers of other places and both partygoers and those who pore over photos of the city’s social scene.

Seems a lot of work in Charlotte for someone who, in the mid-1980s, couldn’t wait to get out.

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The 20th-anniversary party – with hayrides, goats and a crowd dressed to impress – sprawled across North Corner Haven Farm in Lancaster County. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

‘So opinionated, even at 10’

She grew up in Eastover, the middle of three children of Richard Vinroot (who served on city council, became mayor and ran for governor) and Judy Vinroot, a lifelong educator who served on community boards. Bank of America’s Hugh McColl and his family lived across the street; the Dalton family, leading patrons of the Mint Museum, in the house behind the Vinroots’.

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Vinroot Poole (right) had a taste for gowns (and color) even at an early age. Courtesy of Laura Vinroot Poole

Every Christmas season, Richard Vinroot would take young Laura uptown to women’s specialty shop Montaldo’s, where she would help him pick out presents for mom: a church suit, a peignoir set, a piece of art or jewelry.

“She was so opinionated, even at 10 or 11 years old,” Richard Vinroot recalls. (“I’d say, ‘Yes – this. No – that,’” Vinroot Poole laughs.)

In middle school at Alexander Graham, where she played softball and supplemented her wardrobe at the Junior League’s thrift shop, she felt an unease brewing.

“It was too much pressure to be here. My dad was mayor. It was a small town,” she recalls. She also wanted broader vistas. “I was the president of my class in junior high; I was the editor of the yearbook. It wasn’t enough. ... I wasn’t challenged. I just knew there was more.”

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Among family photos is this shot: Young Laura, in red, holding the hand of her father, Richard Vinroot. Courtesy of Laura Vinroot Poole

She and her parents took a trip to visit New England boarding schools and settled on Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

She moved north, and felt relief.

“When I was here, I was supposed to be this thing, because of the way I grew up,” she says. “There was a person I was supposed to marry, a thing I was supposed to do, (a) way I was supposed to look. Andover made me totally get rid of all that and say, ‘You’re just going to do whatever you want to do.’ And I just was never afraid.”

But she did get defensive.

Classmates were clueless about the South, or, worse, laughed at its stereotypes, her father remembers.

“I think she got her back up about that: We’re not yahoos, we’re from the South. We’re conscious of style, we know a lot about the world that you don’t give us credit for. We don’t need to have anybody look down on us,” Richard Vinroot says.

Vinroot Poole recalls: “At Andover I heard it so many times: ‘Oh my God, Jesse Helms is from there. You guys are monsters!’ ... From the first second, I was fighting back and being like, ‘You have no idea who we are. You can’t believe who we are. Just watch me.’”

This would become a clear calling: To force others to see Charlotte, and by extension the South, as a place of deep-seated style and sophistication.

After graduating from UNC, with a stop at Penland School of Crafts, she married, and with husband Perry enrolling at UNC Charlotte’s architecture school, she returned to her hometown and looked more closely.

Montaldo’s had closed while she was at Andover. Though there were designer brands and good quality to be had in town, the best-dressed women were traveling to New York, Atlanta or overseas to buy. And certainly no one was traveling to Charlotte to shop.

She saw what she deemed a big hole in the market for women like her mom: a place to buy the world’s best fashion without leaving Charlotte. But there was more to it than that.

“I realized really pretty early on that if this was just going to be about clothes,” she says, “it was going to be pretty boring.”

CLT fashion B.L.V.P.

She was 25 when she opened Capitol, and she honed in on three things that would set her store apart: the physical space, the service and the “edit” – the specific pieces she’d offer.

“Until she came along 20 years ago, never ever would you have considered Charlotte a fashion capitol,” says Joan Zimmerman, creator of the wildly popular Southern Shows franchise and a lifelong observer of Charlotte style. Department stores like the now-defunct Ivey’s, for example, she says, “had great quality, but (the clothes they carried) were so readily available in other places.

“What Laura has is not.”

(An example, from Capitol’s current lineup: Vintage Louis Vuitton handbags and duffel bags – but deconstructed, bedazzled and reconstructed by a Tokyo artist. One bears Mario from Super Mario Brothers; another a constellation of stars. Selling new bags straight from the factory would never cross Vinroot Poole’s mind. “I think people reach out to us because they understand our taste level, and I think there are things (about which) they’ll say ‘She could sell this and she would understand this.’ A lot of people wouldn’t.”)

Charlotte’s gala scene – those fashionable high-end parties that celebrate and fund-raise for the city’s arts and cultural organizations, nonprofits and more – has changed, too.

“When people are at a gala or special event, they will say, ‘Oh, did you get that at Capitol?’” Zimmerman says. “It’s the feel and the look.” The store is such a go-to, it keeps a list so no two women arrive in the same dress.

With NASCAR’s headquarters in Charlotte, Vinroot Poole also gets credit for upping that organization’s fashion game. (It helps that gallery owner, former model and NASCAR spouse Chandra Johnson is both a customer and a business partner of Vinroot Poole’s: Johnson’s SOCO Gallery shares space with men’s shop Tabor.)

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Vinroot Poole at this year’s Mint gala (in Gucci), flanked by Chandra Johnson (left, also in Gucci) and Lisa Dargan (in a Valentino dress, Saint Laurent cape and necklace by Dries Van Noten). Chris Edwards Courtesy of the Mint Museum

Charlotte TV personality Barbara McKay, a fixture on the city’s party scene, says she was Capitol’s first customer 20 years ago: She bought a black Calvin Klein suit on opening day. McKay says Vinroot Poole’s down-to-earth demeanor has spilled over into the functions she clothes women for.

“She brought a coolness and a freshness and fun to all of the events,” McKay says. “They’re not snobby anymore.”

That may stretch the imagination, when one considers that Capitol, now located in Morrison Place on Sharon Road, sells $15,000 earrings, $550 sneakers and dresses that cost in the thousands. But Vinroot Poole’s confiding manner and quick, hearty laugh do set people at ease.

And she’s got a uniquely Southern strategy for selling – one that kept her afloat in a time that should have drowned her business.

‘That Southern thing’

In the 2008 recession, she says her CFO told her, “You need to just turn in your keys and leave.”

“I think for a minute – I’m talking like literally a minute – I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And then I said ‘I’m going to do this,’” she says. “You come in every day, you put your head down and you work.”

All stores felt the economic anemia. Hope Nichols opened the funky-bohemian boutique Boris & Natasha in Plaza Midwood the year after Capitol debuted, and sweated it out too. Both have survived by honing in on a customer base willing to support them.

“(Laura) has cultivated a very individual and stylish and artistic kind of customer that gets fashion in the long run,” says Nichols. “In that way I think we’re very similar stores, just at vastly different price points... If you are a shopper that says ‘It needs to say Louis Vuitton or something logo-y,’ you don’t shop (at Capitol). Because she’s bringing in lines you’ve never heard of before. Lines that aren’t even in magazines yet.”

As digital shopping heated up, Vinroot Poole launched an app called House Account, enabling shoppers anywhere in the world to access her goods, and that of other carefully selected stores, too. “I had this incredibly special inventory that nobody had in the world, and I was like, ‘Nobody can see it,’” Vinroot Poole says.

Nichols says House Account elevated the city on fashion’s national stage: “Here’s this amazing taste-making kind of store that’s in Charlotte, not in Atlanta or Dallas or San Francisco.”

Creating that inventory requires crisscrossing the Atlantic regularly: Vinroot Poole figures she sees at least 300 collections a year. Just maintaining the Gucci account – fewer than 10 U.S. specialty stores are allowed to carry the line – means four yearly trips to Milan. (And Gucci’s on its own schedule, so those trips don’t fit into the regular buying seasons.)

But here’s where Vinroot Poole’s strategy goes two steps farther:

First, she views her job as an import-export business. Bringing top designers (and their work) and fashion celebrities into Capitol lets her introduce them to the South – and her clients to the people who make their jewelry and garments.

“For me,” she says, “it’s always been that Southern thing – I want to introduce you to this person I met who’s really talented, this artist who I think you would really love. It’s not, ‘Oh my God, you’ve never heard of him?’”

Clients love that – and visitors tend to be equally charmed.

She started carrying the work of current-jewelry-designer-to-the-stars Irene Neuwirth 14 years ago. “Laura ... embodies what she has created” at Capitol, says Neuwirth. “You go to these events in Charlotte and the women are dressed better than at any fashion event in New York or anywhere I’ve been to. That’s all her.”

(And although she’s got high fashion at her fingertips at home in Los Angeles, Neuwirth says she buys all her clothes from Capitol. “Nowadays, when everything is accessible to everybody, she seems to find what no one else has.”)

Vinroot Poole’s second key: Having a specific client in mind for every buying decision.

She knows who has a packed wedding season, who will be making college trips with their kids, who’s transitioning from carpool mom to working mom. “Every single (order) we write has somebody’s name by it. When you’re selling $2,000 dresses you’d better have somebody in mind,” she laughs.

That kind of pavement-pounding stuns the brand reps whose lines she carries: Lisa Natt of Bajra, whose $1,000 scarves are a huge seller at Capitol, says that Vinroot Poole sits down with her at least twice a year to hand-choose pigments and designs for scarves that will coordinate with clothing she’ll offer the next season. One Vinroot Poole style edict: Wearing a lightweight, colorful shawl is an everyday way to brighten the complexion and cope with over-air-conditioned chill.

There are few other edicts. Yes, Capitol is awash in color and patterns, and she will tell anyone that Southern women are more comfortable in color than their New York counterparts. There’s a depth to that, she says, that’s a defining factor to Southern style: “It sounds kind of simple, but color is really about bringing light to your face. Not only because you’re raised from the minute you’re born to put some rouge on … but it’s a self-respect thing that Southerners innately have.”

When the Mint Museum exhibited “Charlotte Collects” earlier this year, featuring incredible gowns owned by Charlotte fashionistas, many had been purchased through Vinroot Poole and Capitol. It was, she says, “a little bit of a deceiving show.

“It just looks like there’s some dresses there. But those dresses – I left my child for a week at a time to get some of those dresses. One of the dresses, I had to fly out to California to pick up at the atelier, drive it to Vegas to the client, and hem it on the client an hour before the event. That kind of stuff is not visible.”

TV and the accessory racks

If you watch much local TV news or own an antler-horn necklace, you’ve gotten a taste of Vinroot Poole.

Ashley Anderson, news host on WCCB’s “The Edge,” is a Capitol devotee whose love of fashion is on-air on a nightly basis.

A few years ago, she and her husband and two children moved to Paris for a year. As a gift for her 40th birthday, husband Scott gave her a trip with Vinroot Poole (already a friend) to the Paris Couture shows and a gown of her choice.

That year in Paris made Anderson take style more seriously, she says. When she returned to WCCB, she wanted to express herself more through her clothes. Because her role doesn’t require a prim-and-proper look, she can wear kimono-robe tops and jackets with feathers, often sourced from Capitol.

“I get more compliments now,” Anderson says. “People say, ‘I love your sense of style. I tune in at night just to see what you have on.’”

Sisters Elizabeth White and Jacquelyn Buckner, creators of the soaring Charlotte-based jewelry brand Twine & Twig, say they have Capitol to thank for their success.

Their necklaces, with branded-leather straps, chunky shell and wood beads and big tassels or antler horns, seemed unusual-looking back in 2013; that’s when they threw a few together while on vacation. They were planning a trunk show in Jacqueline’s home that fall when a Capitol buyer saw them, told them their prices were far too low, and scooped up some to sell at Poole Shop for double the price. Vinroot Poole’s staff tipped the sisters off to creating line sheets, proximity clauses and appropriate pricing. Now they sell to hundreds of boutiques worldwide (and knockoff versions are seemingly everywhere).

Without Capitol’s influence, Buckner says, “we could never have been a company.”

Everybody needs meaningful work

It’s sometimes hard to stay on the topic of fashion itself with Vinroot Poole, because she frequently veers to the human side of the business: mentoring young women to forge strong careers.

“Women’s lives are so layered and complicated, really. … (but) I believe very strongly that everybody, but especially women, needs to have meaningful work.”

She remembers announcing her pregnancy to clients 13 years ago. (Daughter Fifi is now in middle school.) “I had multiple clients say, ‘Oh, you’re going to close the store?’ I’m like, ‘What? No!’ They would never say that to a man.

“I think still in the South you’re taught that a man is going to save you, and you need to find somebody who can provide for you... It’s really scary.” And she’s galled when women tell her they’d like to work, but their husbands would require they make enough to pay for child care. (“Isn’t that insane?” she declares.)

Vinroot Poole has long worked at her own blend of power and femininity.

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Vinroot Poole at the Mint’s “Coveted Couture” gala, for which she served as event chair, the night after Capitol’s anniversary celebration. Chris Edwards Courtesy of the Mint Museum

At the Mint Museum’s 2018 gala, held the night after Capitol’s farm party, she took her seat at the center of the VIP table, wearing a regal white-and-red gown, surrounded by well-known musicians, actors, designers and fashion editors. As event chair, she’d chosen the decidedly Southern menu: grilled quail, collard greens, biscuits.

The festivities bore her hallmarks, and the room was dotted with movers and shakers there at her behest, but she didn’t rise to give remarks.

She didn’t need to. The crowd knew how she’d fashioned this evening.

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