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Matilda Jane: One of Fort Wayne's quietest business success stories

Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:33 am

Matilda Jane just might be one of the best-kept secrets in Fort Wayne.

The company was started in 2006 by Denise DeMarchis, who was asked by a friend to design some little girls' clothing.

“The business started at my kitchen table,” said DeMarchis.

Until that time, the mother of two boys had been repainting furniture and selling it at art fairs. She quickly discovered that hauling clothing around was much easier than furniture.

The business has now grown to occupy a brick building at 435 E. Brackenridge St., along with another building across the parking lot. Her husband David, who was a teacher at Canterbury for 12 years, recently quit teaching and is now handling the financial side of the business. They moved into their space on Breckenridge several years ago.

“We have already out grown of this space,” Lynette Heisler, executive director of the company said.

The company, which primarily designs clothing for little girls, also has some clothing for adult women and, a month ago, launched a new line for little boys. Matt Kelley, founder of One Lucky Guitar, is helping to design the boys' line, “The Good Ones.”

Don't look for their clothing in retail stores; you won't find it. Most of their sales are through trunk shows. They have sales representatives, “trunk keepers,” spread through out the United States. Most are mothers, from their early 20s to early 40s, with daughters who love Matilda Jane clothing. They use the trunk shows for added income. They make a 20 percent commission on what they sell, sometimes up to 25 percent, and there are bonuses as well for top sellers. Their top seller sold $300,000 of merchandise last year. The trunk keepers first spread south -- Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the Carolinas -- 41 states in all now and into Canada.

Her talent for designing clothing came from within said DeMarchis; she never went to design school or ever intended to run a business. DeMarchis is thrilled the lines have taken off they way they have but cannot explain why; the economy was in decline and many companies were struggling while Matilda Jane flourished. The first year, 2006, their gross revenue was $300,000. In 2011, it was $18 million.

Heisler said it might be because some mothers saw it as a way to get some extra income during a downturn in the economy. People have to clothe their children, no matter how bad things are, Heisler said. Of course there is the social side to it too; it really is all about women getting together with their daughters and having fun buying clothing and socializing, Heisler said.

“Growth comes naturally,” said DeMarchis. She said they never realize how much the company has grown until they look at the numbers.

Matilda Jane currently employs 28 people in Fort Wayne, and they have 175 trunk keepers spread across the country. Heisler said they put money back into the company as they need it. Just last year they started a health insurance program for their employees and offer a savings plan that after one year they will match their employee's contribution.

The company offers online sales as well. In addition to what you could get at a trunk show, they also offer a line which is called the Platinum Label. These clothes are made in limited quantities, only 12 in each size. New pieces are constantly added as items sell out.

Unlike the other line, which uses materials that have been custom designed here and then sewn overseas at a factory in China, these clothes are made from materials they buy from fabric companies. They are unique because of their design, so few of them are made, and they are sewn right here in Fort Wayne.

All the clothing is in girls sizes from 6-months to a size 12. For women they go up to a size 12, for little boys they go up to a size 10. Child garments start at $25 and go to $58 and the women's collection starts at $28 and goes to $82.

Sam McDonald, a designer for the company, said she loves designing for the Platinum line because it's always changing and allows her to express herself through the fabrics she chooses and the designs she comes up with. McDonald is in her early twenties and started working for the company as a packer; she quickly moved up through the company and is now a top designer.

“That's what I love about this company, if you work hard you will find your space,” McDonald said.

“Sam came in here like a beam of sunshine,” DeMarchis said.

DeMarchis and her husband are committed to giving back to the community and regularly give to charities in the Fort Wayne area, including Turnstone, Habitat for Humanity, CHASA, the Boys and Girls Club, The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, and they helped sponsor the Fort Wayne Ballet's production of the “Nutcracker,” this year.

Every Christmas they send toys and Matilda Jane clothing to children that customers have nominated in a program called “Spread the Love.” They usually reach out to about 200 people. They get thousands of letters so choosing just who will get the gifts can be a difficult choice.

Every year they have an “Art Fair,” which is really a large sale at Matilda Jane's headquarters. They begin making the clothing for the event at least five months in advance. This year the event will be held June 23. Last year, said Heisler, so many people came into town for the sale the downtown Marriot sold out. Last year 1,200 people attended the fair. They are anticipating well over 1,200 this year. They have a pre-party the day before, but the tickets have already sold out.