Balliets clothing boutique celebrates 80 years in Oklahoma City
After 80 years in business, the formidable Oklahoma City clothing boutique Balliets is still keeping pace with the latest trends.
While one side of the store's Classen Curve showroom at 5801 NW Grand is devoted to more classic women's fashions, the other half caters to a younger crowd and new, cutting-edge designers. There are also more shoes, accessories and handbags to lure shoppers.
The store has to keep evolving to continue to attract new customers, said store owner Bob Benham.
"We are very fortunate that we have a lot of long-term customers, but the problem is they age out. Their husband dies or they move. You have to constantly cultivate the younger customers," Benham said. "We need a lot of younger ones who are much less loyal to one store."
Barbara Jansen, shoe and apparel buyer for Balliets, is helping to keep the store's looks fresh. Jansen comes from a family of doctors and was pre-med in college, but long nurtured a love of fashion.
She now stays up to date on the latest runway looks and scours social media for burgeoning trends.
"It's been a slow evolution," Jansen said. "You don't want to change too much right away, but you want to evolve the matrix of brands to attract a younger customer."
Edna's legacy lives on
Oklahoma City businesswoman Edna Balliet founded Balliets in 1936 in downtown Oklahoma City at the corner of Robinson and Park. The business was initially known as a "carriage trade," meaning it catered to wealthy clientele who traveled in private carriages, Benham said.
"Edna was a courageous woman," Benham said. "Mrs. Balliet was one of the first to bring European fashions to the Midwest."
The store quickly became the place for Oklahoma City's most fashionable women to shop.
Lolly Sweeney, 89, began working at Balliets as a model at age 16, and has continued to work at the store off and on for more than 70 years. Sweeney's mother, Cleo Johnston, also worked at Balliets for several decades up until age 92.
Sweeney had worked as a teenager at the downtown department store John A. Brown until Edna Balliet spotted her while she was visiting her mother at work. Edna Balliet insisted that Sweeney quit her job at John A. Brown and come to work at Balliets.
"She really was a stern person," Sweeney recalled. "She said. 'If you are working any place in Oklahoma City, you are working here,' and I'm still here."
Edna Balliet had high standards for her employees.
"You watched your p's and q's around her, but I got along with her well," Sweeney said.
One of the secrets to Balliets survival has been that the store has had three stable, long-term owners over its history, "with a few banks in between," Benham said.
Leo M. "Buddy" Rogers bought Balliets in 1967 and helped expand the store from its 5,000-square-foot downtown store to a 25,000-square-foot home at 50 Penn Place, where the store resided for the next 25 years.
At one time there were three Balliets stores, the downtown location, another at NW 122 and May and at 50 Penn Place. The downtown store closed in 1987. Rodgers consolidated the two remaining stores at 50 Penn Place in 1990.
Benham purchased the store in 1991 with silent partner Bill Cameron, chairman and CEO of American Fidelity Assurance Co., who owned 50 Penn Place at the time.
"Coming out of the oil crisis in Oklahoma, we had a great benefactor in Bill Cameron," Benham said. "He invested significant funds in Balliets to keep it afloat during tough times and buy the business."
Cameron remains a minority investor in the business.
In 2010, Aubrey McClendon, founder of Chesapeake Energy Corp., recruited Balliets as the anchor tenant in the Classen Curve shopping center. McClendon envisioned Classen Curve as part of the new image for Oklahoma City he and other business leaders were trying to create at the time, with better entertainment, food and shopping, Benham said.
"Aubrey McClendon built this magnificent 17,000-square-foot palace for women and helped us realize a new vision for the store," Benham said.
Balliets continues to reinvent itself, because it has to, Benham said.
"We have to keep recreating Balliets and create a new business cycles, because when you are on the downside of an old cycle, you've got to change and find a new one," he said.