Clearwater native Sara Blakely built an empire selling undergarments that make butts look small and tummies look tight. Women everywhere strut with confidence, thanks to her shapewear, hosiery and bras.
About a year and a half ago, Blakely opened her first Spanx store at an upscale mall in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.
On Friday, she brings it all back home.
Fourteen years after starting Spanx, Blakely is opening her sixth standalone store, this one at International Plaza in Tampa, near her old stomping grounds. For local fans, it's like a homecoming for a small-town girl who went big. As in billionaire big. Last year, Blakely became the world's youngest self-made female billionaire. In February, she appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine.
Choosing Tampa for a store was easy. Blakely, 43, grew up in Clearwater and credits her community with giving her the confidence to build from scratch a company with annual revenues estimated at $250 million.
It was also smart. Florida's warm weather means women wear dresses and capri pants year-round and can't hide beneath dark, heavy layers. Underneath soft whites, yellows and pinks, everything shows.
"When I'm in Florida, I'm always in light-colored clothes, and that's when I wear Spanx the most,'' said Blakely during an interview from her adopted city of Atlanta, where Spanx has its headquarters. "It makes all the difference as far as foundation.''
Blakely started the retail stores in late 2012 as a way to connect with customers more intimately and to showcase the entire collection of more than 200 products. Spanx products are sold at more than 11,500 department stores, boutiques and online shops in 60 countries, but the selection varies from place to place.
The new stores carry a broader assortment, from the original footless panty hose to slimming swimsuits and men's undershirts that suck in love handles. Starting this fall, expect to see Spanx's first foray into jeans — skinny ones, of course.
Having its own stores gives Spanx more freedom to test new products and launch limited-quantity items available only in stores and through Spanx's website. Sales associates on the "transformation team'' help shoppers navigate products by body type or clothing need.
"Women walk in, and they walk out with the biggest smile on their face,'' Blakely said. "They cannot believe the difference in how they look and appear. It has been really, really fun.''
So far, cities that have the stores — King of Prussia, Penn., Paramus, N.J., and McLean, Va. — have seen a lift in sales at other retailers that carry Spanx, such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's. (Spanx's other retail stores are in the Atlanta and Detroit airports.) Walking by a store plants a seed for the next time a customer is in a department store and sees the product, she said.
Blakely plans to attend Tampa's grand opening with her mother and grandmother, both test wearers of Spanx who still live in the Tampa Bay area. Her 93-year-old grandmother loves the Bra-llelujah!, named after the cheers of hallelujah that fans say the bra evokes. Her mother likes the high-waisted shaper shorts and body suits that scoop below the bra.
Cutting the "hosiery ribbon'' with them will be extra special. Blakely's mother, an artist, drew the picture of the first item filed with the U.S. patent office.
"I stood in my living room in Clearwater, and my mother sketched me wearing my products,'' she said. "That's the actual picture that started it all.''
Blakely will kick off opening festivities at 10 a.m. Friday with food, music and people dancing around in Spanx. The first 100 shoppers will get to pick a free Spanx product from the "Tower of Power,'' and $100 "Shaping Spree'' cards will be raffled throughout the day.
Blakely looks forward to meeting with customers in person and celebrating their fashion solutions. Several will come with their daughters for a dose of entrepreneurial inspiration, she said. A few will even ask for her autograph on Spanx products they're wearing. And she'll happily oblige.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.