August 10, 2005
In Plenty’s new store on Oak Street, quotes about beauty adorn the walls above clothes racks and in the dressing rooms. Some are dictionary definitions: “to stimulate to creativity or action,” says one. Another is from D.H. Lawrence: “the human soul needs actual beauty more than bread.”
The quotes are not just wall decorations. They go to the very heart of Plenty owner Glacier Kingsford-Smith’s philosophy, which, in a nutshell, is to inspire beauty in her customers. But her philosophy doesn’t fit neatly into a nutshell. It’s more complex than that. Still, she tries to sum it up:
“We are at a place where we don’t see the importance of the aesthetic,” Kingsford-Smith said. “It’s something lost on Americans. It is missing in our lives as a culture and we are starving as a result.”
Last month, Kingsford-Smith moved her three-year-old store from its former location on Third Street into the new building at 310 Oak Street. The space is 50 percent bigger, which Kingsford-Smith is pleased about. But more important to her is that the new store, with its carefully thought-out design and layout, will provide a greater opportunity to “have this dialogue with people” about aesthetics, beauty and what she thinks of as a sort of Slow Food movement for women’s retail. (Slow Food is an international movement meant to counter the fast food culture; it’s based on the philosophy that eating is fundamental to living, and that by elevating the quality of our food and taking the time to enjoy it, our daily lives will be made richer and the world will be a better place. Substitute “beauty” for “eating” and “clothing” for “food” and you’re getting to the heart of Kingsford-Smith’s convictions.)
Before launching Plenty, Kingsford-Smith had been involved in retail — including as owner of a clothing rep company and as a buyer for two different retailers — in the Seattle area for much of the 1990s. When she moved to the Gorge in 2001 with her husband, a teacher at Henkle Middle School in White Salmon, she decided to pursue her dream of opening her own store.
Along with vast experience in retail, her philosophy about aesthetics was fed by living in Europe as a child and again as a college student, as well as a lot of traveling there.
“The cultures there view aesthetics differently than we do,” she said. “We are so practical here. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think aesthetics and practicality have to be mutually exclusive.”
Kingsford-Smith’s philosophy has much to do with knowing and valuing where products come from.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find clothes that are not made in countries where I’m not entirely sure about the labor practices,” she said. She calls the clothing industry “a very, very dirty, hard industry,” and says labor practices in many countries exist in a “gray area” where governments are looking the other way.
“We try our absolute best to deal with countries where we know the labor practices,” she said. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but we really try. It comes back to valuing truthfulness in craftsmanship. It means really respecting where those products are made.” She also seeks clothes that are well-designed (a characteristic that often goes hand-in-hand with better quality clothing) and practical.
“I like practical, beautiful clothes,” she said, noting that most of the clothes she sells are machine-washable and easy to care for.
Kingsford-Smith acknowledges that she caused a stir among some customers when she first opened Plenty because of the relatively high prices of her goods.
“I sticker-shocked people because I brought in things that had a country of origin,” she said. “It’s the same thing as Slow Food; how many people have to touch a garment before you buy it off the rack? There’s a person — many people, actually — behind that clothing. It’s a matter of being respectful with our choices.”
Kingsford-Smith gambled that there was enough of a market for her clothes — and her philosophy — in Hood River and the Gorge to make a high-end women’s clothing store work. Three years later, the opening of her larger store in the polished new 310 Oak building seems evidence enough that her gamble has paid off.
“My customers are amazing people,” Kingsford-Smith said. “I love them. They are why I’m here. This is a team effort as far as I’m concerned.” But she admits that she’s “swimming upstream a little.”
“It’s not a new story,” she says of her philosophy and goals that drive Plenty. “It’s not a story everyone can hear or wants to hear.” But for those who are interested, she’s eager to engage.
“We’re a store about women — women, beauty and inspiration,” she said. “I want the feminine to really be celebrated here.”