In just three years, Bellissimo Dance Boutique has established a brand all its own by focusing on fashion—celebrated annually with a community-wide fashion show.
Many dance retailers pride themselves on being on-trend with fashion for some aspect of their inventory. But for Bellissimo Dance Boutique, fashion is its DNA. Located in Franklin, TN, part of the greater Nashville area, the three-year-old store is owned and operated by women partners who, like many entrepreneurs, saw a need and leapt to fill it. In this case it was a destination that could offer its customers on-trend dancewear consistent with the stylish apparel they chose for the other facets of their lives. Even the basics that Bellissimo carries (see “Nothing Basic About Selling Basics,” DRN, November 2018) offer edgy appeal.
Living in the Nashville area and being dance moms for most of those years, co-owners Patrice Powell and Kelley Descher, with chief of design Chelsea Drimmel, recognized a desire not just for fashionable dancewear, but also for dance fashion in middle Tennessee. “Because of Nashville’s close ties to the entertainment industry and focus on the arts, it is also a very cutting-edge, fashion-forward community,” says Powell.
The three women identified two customer bases—dancers and dance enthusiasts—who shared a common interest when it came to their apparel needs, which is to say, they went for on-trend and even fashion-forward. The store’s approach to inventory and merchandising grew quickly and naturally out of this point of view. The idea for a fashion show was waiting in the wings. “We don’t really know where our idea for a dance fashion show originated—it was just there from the beginning,” says Powell. “We talked about it before we ever opened our store, knowing even then that a dance fashion show would play an important role in the branding of Bellissimo.”
Nashville hosts many fashion shows throughout the year, including a Fashion Week in the spring and Design Week in the fall. It was an opportunity waiting for these new retailers. The opportunity is now an annual event every September—taking months of planning and preparation as well as financial investment. Nevertheless, the payoff definitely outweighs the pay-in. “We love fashion—and so do our customers. This event is perfect for Nashville!” says Powell.
Mastering the Logistics
Powell has a background in event planning, which brought an element of determination and fearlessness when pondering the production of a fashion show. Understanding the rigor required, the partners built their show team from store employees and, eventually, the greater community of Bellissimo dance customers.
The planning team for the Back to Dance Fashion Show has eight staffers—three in management roles—who help with the various facets of preparation. Everyone working on the event must be a detail person, stresses Powell, able to expertly multitask, proactively solve problems and think outside the box. It’s also helped, says Powell, to assemble a team that really knows fashion and is good at styling. “At Bellissimo,” she says, “we are blessed internally with all of the above.”
The show begins with an opening dance performance, followed by runway modeling—sometimes the models walk individually and sometimes as a duo, trio or even quad. There is no prerequisite to represent particular disciplines of dance. If dancers model together, they are given “choreographed walking” for their set in the show. Turns, tumbling and other special skills may be featured periodically, but only if those models have performed them in competition.
As a thanks for their appearances on the runway, the dancer models receive a discount on the clothing they wear in the show and a “swag bag” of small gifts from Bellissimo.
Stocking Up for the Runway—and the Shop
Planning the inventory of fashion dancewear for the show starts months ahead, too, when decisions are made and orders placed—deliberately and thoughtfully. “We feature three sections in our show: black leos, separates/fashion and colored leos,” says Powell. The show opens with black leos because they are the classic and needed by every dancer. Next come separates. “We feel it’s a natural way to break up all the leos,” says Powell. The climax and finale of the show? Color, always.
In the weeks leading up to the show, the Bellissimo selling floor is stocked with statement pieces and fashion separates that preview the fabulous designs to be featured on the runway. This tactic also helps anticipate the inventory necessary for the audience/customers shopping postshow. Thinking through colors and styles, Powell says, “I almost design ‘sets’ in the show in my head while we are working on orders.”
Setting the Stage
The parking lot right outside the store serves as the stage, with open seating for up to 180, filled by family, friends, teachers and dance enthusiasts. “There is always plenty of standing room behind the seated sections, for overflow,” says Powell.
The show takes place on a Sunday, when neighboring businesses are closed, which allows Bellissimo to use the entire parking lot. Chairs and pipe and drapes are rented. However, says Powell, “because we are located in ‘Music City, USA,’ we have not had to rent sound equipment. It has always been loaned free of charge by ‘friends of Bellissimo.’”
Partnering With Community Talent
To host an event as specialized as a fashion show draws on diverse skills inside and outside the business. A local dance production company consults to choreograph and produce the show’s opening.
Models—whose ages range from 5 to 18—are drawn from the various studios Bellissimo has relationships with. “Each studio is given the opportunity to recommend two dancers,” says Powell. Once Bellissimo receives the models’ names and e-mail addresses, each is sent a questionnaire to fill out, as well as a media release form. All documents are returned via e-mail.
The Marketing Plan
Expenses associated with the fashion show fall under marketing. Studios pay no participation fee. The show does not exist as much to generate revenue as it does to raise Bellissimo’s brand recognition, drive traffic and sales, and build community. “The show has grown in all ways, really,” says Powell. “More models, more studios, more ‘looks,’ a larger audience and buzz. Our followers increase daily at this time of the year.”
Marketing for the show starts up to six months out, in the spring. Bellissimo begins by posting “save the date” banners at the bottom of store e-mail blasts. Promotional materials go to studios just two months before the production. Online marketing starts about one month prior. Social media—Instagram and Facebook—provide effective and thrifty advertising, too. The emanating buzz also elicits independent media coverage; local and online publications usually cover the event. “It’s fun because parents of models like to share those articles on Facebook, providing even more visibility for Bellissimo and the fashion show,” says Powell.
Shopping the Show
Powell estimates the show’s audience has doubled over its three years. Quite impressive for a business just three years old itself. In terms of participation, she reports 30 percent growth each year in number of models as well as in the dance program. Described on Instagram as “Middle Tennessee’s biggest dance fashion event of the year,” this past September, the show featured 55 dancers representing 33 studios and schools from greater Nashville.
Overall traffic to the store is a little harder to gauge, Powell says, since it’s difficult to single out the show’s influence on sales from other factors, including a distinctive and much sought-after fashion edit that brings dancers to the store.
Sales in the immediate aftermath of the show are a factor to be reckoned with, however. While the show exists for branding and community building, the boost to sales is not to be taken for granted. Making postshow shopping seamless and, hence, successful has required some flexibility and fine-tuning. “We open the store for shopping following the show. In year one we quickly learned that we needed to come up with alternative ways to shop, because the lines to check out were, literally, out the door,” says Powell. “The store itself was like a cattle car: wall-to-wall shoppers.”
Now, to accommodate the volume in the wake of the show, Bellissimo creates shopping displays and areas outside its walls in addition to inside. There are two checkout lines inside and two outside. This year they also opened the doors for shopping one hour before the show. “These little tweaks have made for a much more enjoyable shopping experience for everyone,” Powell says.
Postshow, Bellissimo doesn’t discount any of the newly debuted leo or fashion releases, but it does offer special promotions on “easy to replace” items such as sports bras, booty shorts, black leos and even makeup.
Reflecting on Bellissimo’s first three years, Powell acknowledges that the partners’ business goal is to make money and grow the business through everything they do. “But we aspire to more than that,” she adds. The bottom line also must include happy customers and happy dance programs. “We truly want to bring our dance community together, because community is everything. The feedback we receive from customers, teachers and owners overwhelmingly tells us that Bellissimo is doing just that.”
Charlotte Barnard is a writer living in New York who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.
Photography by Solomon Davis