Morgan’s of Delaware, which started out life in 1979 as a pricey executive women’s boutique in Trolley Square, has moved downtown to 723 N. Market St.
The new Morgan’s sits smack in the middle of Buccini/Pollin Group’s Market Street makeover. It faces a pawn shop, but it’s steps away from a Starbucks and the future site of a brick-oven eatery.
Owner Martha Morgan said she’s happy her new store is surrounded by established businesses that stayed faithful to the central business district for decades.
Morgan’s best selling item hasn’t changed in 38 years — Martha Morgan and her fashion IQ.
State Sen. Stephanie Hansen became a fan last spring when she served as a model for a charity fashion show where Morgan was the stylist. She wound up buying two of the dresses Morgan selected for her to wear in the show.
“Martha picked out a number of dresses for me that I never would have picked out,” Hansen said. “She has a real eye for style.’’
Morgan, who left a DuPont chemistry lab for the fashion world in the ’70s, carved out a rarefied niche with her original Trolley Square shop: Offering executive women the same personalized service that male executives expected. She’s dressed at least two generations of local execs.
Her current customers range from eighth-graders shopping for their first formals to 80-year-olds searching for special-occasion dresses. Last week a heavy-set woman in an oversized jacket timidly peeked her head into the shop. She asked if they had anything that would fit her.
“I wear a 16,” she said. She wanted a gown she could wear for a formal photograph with her daughters. Impeccably dressed, Morgan led her to a stunning confection dotted with gold embroidery. “That would fit me?” the woman asked, incredulous. Morgan assured her it would.
She said things like “it has some give” and “when you raise your arms, the dress does not hike up.” The woman said she had to get to work, but she promised to return on Saturday. She gave Morgan her email and walked out of the store with a smile and a straighter stance.
As major retailers struggle, Morgan has re-created her shop as “an uptown store with a downtown edge” and a place where “every client is treated as a celebrity.”
It’s still uptown with prices that start at about $38 for daytime wear on the sale rack and gowns generally running $268 to $498 but occasionally higher.
There’s a downtown city vibe, too: “This is a very diverse area,” Morgan said. “It’s diverse in income. It’s diverse in age. It’s diverse in ethnicity. This is like a little United Nations down here.”
The adjectives women use to describe what they want have changed with the location. In Trolley Square, customers wanted “quiet” outfits, Morgan said. On Market, the most-used adjectives are “sexy” and “glam.”
She has adapted the inventory accordingly. Or, as she put it: “We don’t ignore the curvy girl market here. Sizing is much fuller here. We’re known for being able to fit you. “Sizes here can go from zero up to size 22 plus.”
Intuitively, Morgan has created precisely what retail analysts recommend: a mix of clothes that are hard to find online, a solid niche and extras like expert fitters willing to work on fashion-emergency deadlines.
The key driver of performance for small stores is having the right merchandise at the right time. Although Morgan follows a European merchandise concept that calls for smaller in-store inventory than some American shops, her longtime relationships with New York manufacturers mean she can have dresses shipped swiftly in several sizes to assure a perfect fit. When a bride shopped for her early-December wedding in November, Morgan ordered the dress in two sizes, mindful that Thanksgiving dinner was coming up.
Morgan pooh-poohs the notion that women who live in the low-income blocks surrounding her shop might not be able to afford her fashions: “Women who find what they want for a special occasion will pay for it. That runs across all income levels. People pay for what they want.”
She’s betting the block-long Residences at Mid-Town Park and other residential buildings opening in 2018 will hike her foot traffic, but she said she is already cleaning fingerprints and even nose prints from her front window as passers-by peek in at her dresses.
“It’s the most energetic, engaging and intimate environment being right on the street,” she said. “You have the city energy. You have younger people. This is like the Times Square of Delaware. Everything’s in the process of change. They’re renovating the hotel. You have renovations almost from river to river.”
The street is dotted with empty bays, but Morgan said Buccini/Pollin Group maintains their Market Street buildings so they don’t appear abandoned.
Six months in, Morgan’s is already drawing shoppers to Market Street. Patty Madia, an executive assistant at Chemours, was pleasantly surprised when she spotted Morgan’s downtown. “People are afraid to come to the city anymore, but I think they will come if they know she’s moved in,” Madia said. “There’s nowhere else to shop downtown anymore. It’s not the days of Braunstein’s and Arthur’s and The Little Heel.”
Morgan recently opened the shop at 7 a.m. to accommodate a DuPont executive who needed something to wear to an 8 a.m. work event. “We took off what she had on and put her in this dress,” the shopkeeper said. “It worked with the leopard shoes she had on. We changed her jewelry and sent her off. We specialize in fashion emergencies.”
Because she promises to give a woman a perfect look in 30 minutes or fewer if they are willing to try on what she suggests no matter how it looks on the hanger, customers try on the clothes, making returns are much less likely — about 3 percent nationally, compared with at least 25 percent for online sales.
While businesswomen come for her Clara Sun Woo casual line, popularized by Hoda and Kathie Lee on the “Today Show,” Morgan’s has expanded its reach. Her current clients are a mix of execs, prom girls, passers-by, art students, downtown workers and special-occasion shoppers.
“We want all of the above,” she said. “This is retail. The money’s green.”
Morgan reaches the older women on Facebook; she uses Instagram and Snapchat to woo the younger ones. She is forming bricks-and-mortar relationships, too — teaming with Collars ’n Cuffs Men’s Store at 716 N. Market and the Christina Cultural Arts Center at 705 N. Market on events, working on fashion shows and joining a block party.
“She’s a good addition, and we need more like her, more retail, said Scott Brown, who owns Collars ’n Cuffs. Brown is staying put, but he recently sold his building to an independent investor.
Renee Watts, manager of the Rainbow Shops, a longtime tenant at 700 N. Market St., was unaware of the facelift coming to the block, but she said a man was running around the area with a gun one night last week.
“My girls are scared to walk to the buses at night,” she said. There were 129 shooting incidents in the city this year; only an accidental shooting at Second and Market was on the business end of Market Street. Wilmington Police did not return repeated calls from a reporter.
“The city has problems, there’s no doubt, but I think there’s a lot of good people who are truly working toward a better city,” Patterson Woods agent Will Minster said.
He predicted Buccini/Pollin’s Residences at Midtown Park will change downtown dynamics because there will be enough people working, living and visiting downtown to support small businesses that stay open in the evenings.
“It’s 200 apartments with 400-car parking, and I think that takes care of a lot of the issues downtown. There will be enough people here from the businesses to make a living off people living here and not just off the people who come to work here.”
Minster said he’ll soon announce a new tenant a few doors up from Morgan’s, and he’s signed Arte Osteria, a Main Line brick-oven restaurant for the old Kennedy Fried Chicken spot at the end of the block.
Minister said his 10 listings along Market Street have been garnering calls from in-state and out-of-state developers. “There are people who are looking at Wilmington as an investment opportunity, but they want some more confirmation on a lot of things. They are definitely interested,” he said. “No one ever wants to put their foot in first. Now that Buccini did, others will follow.”
Sarah Lamb, Buccini/Pollin’s director of marketing, said the company is hoping retail is the next wave of the downtown revitalization process, and they hope to fill their properties in the 700 block with it. Lamb said they hope someone comes forward to run the Ninth Street Book Shop as a bookstore when owners Jack and Gemma Buckley retire in January.
“The 700 block is pretty unique because it’s almost all single-bay retail uses of the buildings except the Christina Cultural Arts Center. It’s all kind of plug-and-play retail, and we think it will continue to be that,” she said.
Leonard Simon, owner of Wright & Simon men’s shop at 911 N. Market, has lived through small and international businesses coming and going since he went to work at his parents’ shop in 1972. He is heartened by three developments near his shop — Westover Companies’ purchase of Market Tower at 901 N. Market St. for a residential development and Buccini/Pollin’s Hotel du Pont makeover and its Midtown project.