shop talk | Jan 17, 2024 |
These shopkeeping sisters count both designers and the Dallas Cowboys as customers

In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with designer Kelli Ford, who co-owns the Dallas home stores Madison and Off the Floor with her sister Kirsten Fitzgibbons.

These shopkeeping sisters count both designers and the Dallas Cowboys as customers
Kirsten Fitzgibbons and Kelli FordCourtesy of Kirsten Kelli

Over 30 years after they formed their interior design firm, Kirsten Kelli, and 20 years after opening their first store (Madison), Ford and Fitzgibbons opened a second, larger retail space right in the Dallas Design District last fall. As Ford explains, the 7,500-square-foot Off the Floor showroom was in response to the clamoring pandemic need: for product, any product, that was available at that very moment. The inventory includes accessories, art, antiques, upholstery, case goods and rugs, and fellow designers can also consign products they can’t presently find a project for. Ahead, Ford discusses the sisters’ interest in expansion and connecting with fellow tradespeople, and shares where they see their business going in its fourth decade.

Where are you and Kirsten based?
I’m in Dallas and New York. Kirsten is in Greenwich [in Connecticut]. But we talk literally 12 times a day. We work on every project together. We’re always on the same page, which is fantastic. Rarely, one of us will have a better vision than the other, and then that one takes the lead. It’s so fun working together.

What first inspired you to go into retail?
I moved to Dallas and got married, and [my partner’s] home was beautiful but it lacked a lot of the details to make a house a home: cozy things, scented candles or cashmere throws. I found myself calling New York, calling our favorite store, Gracious Home—when it was big and booming—and we would ship things, and Kirsten would help. Then one day, I was driving around and it was raining, and I called her and said, “You know what? We need to open a store here.” That’s how Madison started.

Luckily, without ever having retail experience, we landed a location in Highland Park Village, which was very hard to get into. Once you open a home store—we called it a “home couture store”—that opens the door for bridal registry. We carried stationery like Mrs. John L. Strong and The Printery, leather goods … We curated everything we loved, everything we would put in our home or a client’s home. That was our mantra. We called it Madison in an ode to New York, to Madison Avenue, Bergdorf’s, all of that.

Tell me about the new space, and why you wanted to expand after two decades of Madison.
Decorating during Covid was pretty tricky. Madison stayed open the entire time, working out of the warehouse, and we had people calling to say, “I can’t look at these plates one more time. What do you have?” There were not a lot of things shipping. Everyone was talking about the supply chain. Nothing was in stock. Nobody was printing things. Nobody was building frames. Everything was shut down. We’d buy an item, repurpose it, reupholster it, rebuild it. We thought, “Designers need a place to buy things off the floor, where they don’t have to wait the yearlong lead time.” And designers need a place to release their inventory—they have warehouses full of beautiful things that either they bought thinking a client would love it and they didn’t, or they just happened upon it. Other people will have the benefit of their great taste.

These shopkeeping sisters count both designers and the Dallas Cowboys as customers
The Off the Floor showroom in Dallas was born out of a pandemic-era need for in-stock home goodsHector Sanchez

What is the merchandising process like between the two stores? Are they similar vendors?
Madison is more accessories for the home bridal registry, all the brands, all of the special things we find that are not so well known but that we love. Off the Floor has a lot of accessories too—but bigger things, like hurricanes, baskets, chairs, tables, rugs, which we can’t necessarily put in Madison. It’s a different clientele, but we’re really trying to marry the two together. We’d like to establish a destination in Dallas. If you need anything for your home, come to us. You want to buy the table, set the table, do the napkins? You come to us.

Are you going to markets? How do you find vendors?
A lot of it is markets, and we have these long-established accounts and relationships. Round Top is fun; we go once or twice a year. We go to Europe and find things that we love. Again, we only buy things that we would put in our own homes. A lot of times, with both stores, we are buying with specific people in mind, like clients whose [corporate gifting] we always do. We’ve done gifting for the [Dallas] Cowboys for 12 years, which is really an honor for us. We also have our own workroom and make our own things—sofas, end tables—which is the most fun.

How would you describe the stores’ aesthetics? Does it relate to your style as a duo?
I’d say it’s pretty traditional, eclectic. We went heavier on midcentury modern a few years ago. It’s funny how you morph back—chintz is really in now. We always like a pattern in our room. I am drawn to plaids, we like stripes, floral has really made a big comeback. That, but with a contemporary table or a piece of art. You never want to have to make it work. If you have to make it work, it’s wrong.

Who is the typical customer?
A lot of it is foot traffic. We have really dedicated customers, which is really nice. I’m very flattered and honored. When we go to a market, we have a list of people that we’re looking for. We’ll see something and say, “Oh, my gosh, so-and-so would love that. We have to get that.” It’s almost like personal shopping for our customers.

These shopkeeping sisters count both designers and the Dallas Cowboys as customers
The duo’s original retail concept, MadisonStephen Karlisch

What’s a product or category that moves the fastest?
It changes. When we first opened, we had these scratch pads—leather pads that you flip open and write on. They are all different colors, faux croc. They were really cool, but when we were stocking the store 20 years ago, I thought, “Who’s going to buy this?” If you’re on the phone and you’re writing something, you have to cradle the phone on your shoulder, flip it open, and then write. We took a chance, and we cannot keep those things in stock. So that was a surprise to me. Monogramming is a big business—holiday napkins, bags, towels, bed linens. Herend is huge for us; all those figurines—little bunnies roller skating! People are craving that. The latest thing are those Estelle glasses, which are well-priced in beautiful colors. Those are really good for us. And Nest candles are huge. We sell like 3,000 Christmas candles every single year.

What’s your favorite category?
I’m addicted to china. I love setting a beautiful table. I do it every day when we have dinner at home in the kitchen, which is 98 percent of the time. I love crystal, I love china, I love napkins. I love tabletop.

What’s your approach to e-comm?
We are working on a website right now. It’s not the same, but people can call us and order, and they do that all the time. If we post something on Instagram, it flies out, which is nice. I know it’ll be much better [once our e-commerce channel is set up]. We have yet to master our website, which has eluded us, but not for long. We’re on it!

Can you tell me about where you fit within the Dallas scene? It’s such a thriving market, I’m surprised something like Off the Floor didn’t already exist there.
I don’t know why it didn’t. Nothing exists until somebody creates it, right? There are other consignment stores, and I don’t think they have the aesthetic we have or curation we provide. And there are others that, I don’t know, are lacking spirit, or a look. We like special things that can make a room better, and that can be the next heirloom. I think we’re going to do well, and I think this is something very transportable to additional cities. The designers I know are thrilled about it because, again, every designer—ourselves included—has this stockpile of great things that are just not moving. They need a venue, and this is going to be really helpful to them.

These shopkeeping sisters count both designers and the Dallas Cowboys as customers
The Off the Floor showroom features an eclectic assortment of furniture and accessories that serve a wide-ranging clienteleHector Sanchez

How does it feel to be expanding after all this time? How do you figure out what’s next, or what you have the capacity for?
We’re learning every day. We’ll think, “OK, now we’re going to wind down on the design projects so we can fully immerse ourselves in Off the Floor.” Then we get these amazing clients!

Hard work and luck played a part. And circumstances. And introductions. It’s amazing how life can change in a second, and you go someplace you didn’t expect to go. Our heads are down, working on Madison, on Off the Floor, on Kirsten Kelli. We’re very busy, but we love to be busy.

What is your hope for the future of the business?
We’re hoping to get a rhythm going, with all of the [arms of the business] synergistically working together. We’d like to bring more of Madison—more of the cashmere throws, the monogramming—to Off the Floor. And I don’t know where we’re going to expand next, but we will. We’d like to have Off the Floor in different cities. We have to do our research.

What’s your favorite kind of day in the shop? Are you ever on the floor?
Oh yeah. I’m there a lot. The Kirsten Kelli offices are in Off the Floor, so everybody is there. Best day is having people come in and find something that they love and didn’t know they had to have. Taking orders, making contacts, finding things that can fill the space of what was just [purchased]. That’s my perfect day. And then coming home, setting my table and cooking dinner.

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