DESIGNER PROFILE – Mary Ellen Vernon
RM: What was your inspiration behind Fresh Produce and how did you get the brand started?
ME: Since the beginning, I’ve drawn from color and the coastal lifestyle for inspiration. Color is the heart and soul of what we do – it can uplift, relax, transform or inspire. We pair color with easy, beach-inspired style that blends to create a vibrancy and spirit that’s all our own.
My husband Thom and I started selling clothes in a parking lot across from the coliseum during the 1984 L.A. Games. We sold these bright silk-screened tees out of our Volkswagen bus in Long Beach and after two weeks we had made $40,000. The business just took off from there. Now, nearly thirty years have gone by and we have 27 company-owned retail stores, a handful of franchised stores and a healthy wholesale business with more than 500 partners we’re proud to work with.
RM: Starting a business of this magnitude is no easy task. What are some challenges you faced early on and the obstacles along the way?
ME: We’ve learned a lot over the past 30 years. As we’ve continued to maintain and evolve the brand we’ve had some great successes, but not without missteps along the way and that’s okay. Thankfully, by staying true to ourselves, we’ve never stepped so far away that we couldn’t bounce back. By understanding who and what we are as a brand, and with a little bit of luck on our side, we’ve been able to avoid major pitfalls.
Like a lot of retailers, we were impacted by the recession around 2008. Fresh Produce had a strong footing as a brand with the support of amazing and loyal customers when the recession initially hit. Thankfully, we were able to weather the storm and bounce back by 2010. We’ve been marching forward with our heads held high ever since.
RM: What makes Fresh Produce stand apart from other brands in the same industry?
ME: Fresh Produce has always been about the women who wear our clothes and always will be. We design with every woman in mind. We want her to be confident, carefree and comfortable every time she steps out her door. It’s all about feeling good and adding color to her life with inspired, effortless style.
RM: It’s so amazing that you were able to make the transition from simply t-shirts to many more apparel options. Was this part of your original vision or did things develop this way?
ME: It started to become a reality when Thom and I were eating at one of our favorite spots in La Jolla and came up with the name Fresh Produce. It was catchy, memorable and gave you a sense, that this was something different. By then, my twin sister Jennifer and I were busy designing our first line. In 1988, Nordstrom picked us up and it kept growing from there; we opened our first company store in 1994.
Fresh Produce was always destined to be more than silk-screened tees. Since I started designing my own clothes in high school, I had dreams of building a fashion brand, I just wasn’t sure what form it would take. Influenced by my own values and interests, it took shape as something soulful, spirited, inspiring and feel-good that fits a woman’s lifestyle. The brand really developed naturally from there.
RM: You seem to be a one-stop-shop for women and kids. Any plans for a men’s line?
ME: Fresh Produce is a brand that is for women, by women, inside and out. We do not have plans to expand into a men’s line. We did just launch our first ever beauty product, a nail polish called SHINE ON. The colors are inspired by our favorite coastal destinations with names like “Emalia love Maui” and “Mellow in Montecito”. We see opportunity in creating a 360-degree experience for our customer beyond the clothes she wears – beauty and home feel like a natural progression.
RM: What advice would you give to those seeking to run a successful business like Fresh Produce?
ME: First and foremost, believe in yourself and what you’re doing and you’ll do great things. Be open to change and the inevitable chaos that life will throw at you – take it in stride, be patient, positive and persistent. Surround yourself with friends and teammates you can count on. Never stop growing, personally and professionally. Over the past 30 years, I’ve watched Fresh Produce grow from my backseat to retail stores all along the coast, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Along this journey, I’ve stayed true to myself, my roots and this brand – no regrets.
RM: When you’re not working hard, what do you like to do relax?
ME: There’s nothing better than quality time with my kids on the coast. I love to travel solo and find inspiration to carry back with me. Time for my family, time for friends, time for work, and time for me. It’s all about balance.
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