Business

Czars of Zandale

Just call April and Paul Dutille the resale royalty of Lexington.

The husband and wife team that run Once Upon A Child and Plato's Closet, which sell used clothing aimed at children and teens, have now added a store aimed at women.

Clothes Mentor, which opened Saturday, is in the same shopping center as the couple's other stores, an area that April Dutille jokes is being "cornered as the resale center of Lexington."

Clothes Mentor is the latest business adventure for a couple whose friends thought they were crazy when they started.

Paul Dutille was a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard who had been promoted to a position that guaranteed him a retirement and medical coverage for his family for life.

But shortly afterward, he came home to his pregnant wife and said, "I just don't want to do this anymore," April, 41, recalled last week.

"He only had 91/2 years to retirement, and I was pregnant," she said. "People thought we were crazy."

Crazy or not, the couple, who now have three kids, moved to Lexington, where Paul, 42, took an engineering job at Lexmark International and April decided to make a go at her lifelong passion: frugality.

"I had already been doing years of research and fell in love with the Once Upon a Child concept," she said.

The couple negotiated to buy the franchise, which specializes in reselling children's clothing. A deal couldn't be reached, though, and the Dutilles instead looked at Plato's Closet.

By August 2000, the store was open in front of Kmart on Nicholasville Road. Less than two years after starting his job at Lexmark, Paul "decided he liked my job better than his" and came to work at the store, April Dutille said.

And since then the couple have perfected the science of resale retail.

"My husband always says we make a fantastic team; we just can't be on the field at the same time," April Dutille said.

She handles back office work like marketing and accounting, while Paul has stepped into a management role inside the stores.

And with the opening of Clothes Mentor, "we're doing what we always do," April Dutille said. "I start them, and he comes in and manages them."

They said it suits their skills well.

"He really is an engineer at heart," she said. "I will identify a problem, and he takes that engineering mind-set and solves it."

For instance, the couple noticed at Plato's Closet that mistakes were being made in the purchase of clothing. Flaws like missing buttons or worn-out zippers were being overlooked, Paul Dutille said.

So the engineer wrote a manual. The training became much more standardized, "and it's been a great improvements," he said.

"And that's essentially become a manual for Plato's Closet nationwide," he said. "They put a new cover on it and took out some of the funny jokes I made."

As time went on, the couple continued to expand. By 2004, they had snapped up the Once Upon a Child franchise when it became available.

And they've also overseen moves. Plato's Closet started in front of Kmart on Nicholasville Road but their landlord convinced them to move down to Zandale, which he was modeling, April Dutille said.

Once at Zandale, the couple's stores were in two 4,000-square-foot locations next to each other. But when Walgreen's left for its freestanding building, they moved into that space, expanding Plato's to 6,000 square feet and Once Upon a Child to 7,000.

Now they've come full circle. Clothes Mentor is opening up in their former space just a couple of storefronts down.

Like their other two stores, Clothes Mentor is a franchise. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

April Dutille said the access to advertising materials and proprietary software is invaluable.

But even with the guidance that comes with a franchise, it has presented challenges.

"The biggest challenge for us was learning the styles ... because you're no longer buying teen styles, you're buying the over-25 woman's styles," April Dutille said, adding that brands include Talbot's, Anne Klein and Lane Bryant.

Heather Powell, division manager for the store, said the staff is paying much closer attention to lengths and finding more modest styles.

"At Plato's, it's how high can you get the heel or how colorful can you get the shoe. Here they like comfort, too," she said.

The staff of three full-timers and six part-timers has high expectations. They were swamped on the days prior to opening during which they bought clothing from customers.

"It took us probably seven years to get to the point where we bought as much volume as we bought on the first day at Clothes Mentor," April Dutille said.

It's to be expected, though. The resale business has been booming since the economy worsened, as people empty out their closets and look for the instant cash that comes from selling the clothes.

So far this year, sales at Once Upon a Child are up 38 percent over last year and Plato's Closet is up 26 percent, April Dutille said.

Powell said she thinks Clothes Mentor will be even busier than the staff expects, "which scares me a little bit," she said laughing. "Moms can come and shop for their children, their teens and themselves all in the same place. I think it'll be awesome."

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