Not Just a Dress: My Story of Becoming with Caché
I bought the dress when I was 19 years old, working at a chain boutique called Cache on King Street in Charleston. I’ve been wearing this dress on every occasion that allowed a gown - black tie events, Halloween, educational banquets back when I was a student of Trident Technical College, and of course my first professional modeling photoshoot. To me, this dress is significant, and as long as I fit into it, as long as at least one sparkle remains on it, I will continue wearing it. So here is a story of the dress, and the company behind it - and my own role in the course of its life.
It was the summer of 2012. I successfully completed my first two semesters of tech, all A’s. It was challenging, but I felt like I could handle a part-time job, though I was taking a full course load that summer. I’ve always loved Cache, though I never had the chance to shop there, nor an occasion that called for such clothes. The boutique sold cocktail dressed, prom gowns, outfits for stylish professional women. The designs were colorful, the patterns were striking, and the clothes were shape-fitter, curve-hugging, feminine, sometimes borderline provocative, yet appropriate in length and crafted with fabrics that offered much-appreciated “support” for the body and figure of a woman wearing them. That’s where I wanted to work, I decided.
The only work experience at the time under my belt was my high school job - I was a server at the “fine dining” type restaurant within an upscale retirement facility in Mount Pleasant. But my relentless dedication to exploring the world of business and entrepreneurship, even in high school, lead me to the discovery that even the seemingly unrelated job experiences can come together and support each other if presented in a skillfully crafted resume. So I prepared one that I felt confident coming into the store with.
There were two Cache boutiques in the Charleston area, one in Mount Pleasant, and one in Downtown Charleston, on King Street. Of course, I wanted to work on King Street, but my intuition suggested that I first apply to the one in Mount Pleasant, and see how that goes - and then, go apply to the one I actually wanted to work in. Today, I see business experts online suggesting that one should pursue their goals at an angle, never moving in straight lines - perhaps, that tactic is applicable to my experience back then.
My intuition was right. After leaving the Mount Pleasant store, I had the feeling that I didn’t strike the cord, and though the present manager said that they “might” give me a call, I wasn’t too hopeful. Being a harsh self critic by the age of 18, I spotted many “misses” and blunders in my presentation. I was blushing while walking back to my first car, a Honda Odyssey minivan circa 1989.
Yet, I pulled myself out of being hard on myself, and focused on what I would do differently at the store I really wanted to work in. I went there almost immediately after writing down some notes in my journal.
At the store on King Street, I spoke with more confidence, and mentioned that I left my application at the one in Mount Pleasant already, but really wanted to work in this one. The cashier seemed very pleased - she told me they were hiring, and that the GM of their store would be there the next day, and that I should just come in around 3 pm the next day, and expect an interview.
So I did. First, though, I developed a kind of a proposal - going beyond my resume, highlighting the values of the corporation that I thoroughly researched online. I aligned the values of the company with my own personal values, and backed the connection by writing out some professional goals. During the interview, I used that research to answer questions and to ask my own. Lisa was impressed. She promised that the regional manager would call me for a phone interview, and that after some standard procedures take place, I will receive an offer, if all goes well. She said to give it about a week.
I did some additional research in preparation for my second interview. It lasted about 10 minutes, I felt confident, yet still had some concern about how short it was. In a few days, while traveling with my tech college Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa, to a nearby conference, I received a call - I got the job!
It payed $8.50 an hour, and I’ve never been more excited to say yes. There was a promise of commission for sales over a certain amount, but just the chance to work at a store I admired so deeply was rewarding enough for me. Since the very first day, I fell in love with the environment of the boutique. Our tasks involved knowing the merchandise, knowing how it fits, even trying it on. We steamed the new arrivals, often competing for the opportunity to arrange the clothes on the rack when they were ready. We sized up our clients in a loving, transformative manner, encouraged to be inspired by each feminine shape to find the perfect piece of couture to compliment it. We studied the details, the colors, the accessories, and the style vision brochures to learn how to complement the clothes with jewelry, and, ultimately, “up-sell”.
We wore the clothes we were selling. What united us, the women of Cache, was our personal love for the styles of the boutique chain. We picked clothes for each other when we had some down time, and we wore our personal purchases proudly to work. While living with my parents and attending a tech college on a scholarship, I spent a lot of the money I made right where I made it, building my Cache wardrobe. I loved being able to do so - after all, loving the style of the clothes is the main reason I felt like I would love having the job of selling them.
The summer turned into fall, fall into winter, and then came the opportunity of a lifetime (at least at the time) - having now worked at both the King Street store as well as one in Mount Pleasant, when they ran short on sales associates, I was convinced that a part-time manager opening that came available was right for me. Again, I applied with a self-made proposal. I was interviewed by the new GM, the Regional Manager (this time in person), and was offered the job. The rate was only one dollar more than I used to make, $9.50 - I was happy to say yes, once again.
Suddenly, my work hours increased - never quite reaching the 40 hours a week, to perhaps cleverly avoid paying “over-time” rates, the company had me working just under: 38 or 39 hours, often running 12-hour shifts, open to close. I did not complain. I still loved it. I felt accomplished, being a part-time manager at 19. I struggled “directing” sales associates that were often more than twice my senior, but I quickly learned that leading by example, or tackling challenges together inspired others without me having the need to “order” or attempt to “boss” my coworkers around.
While at it, a company went through a major transition. The long-time CEO left the company, and a new CEO came in to replace him, bringing his experience of turning around companies like Burlington Coat Factory, as well as a new vision & a promise of greener pastures and brighter future for all the boutiques across the country. I saw an opportunity in this change. An avid follower of all of the company’s social media channels, I saw an unfortunate “gap” in their efforts to utilize their YouTube content. The company was posting videos each month - those were professionally shot, beautifully edited, tastefully directed, and overall worth a watch for the dedicated Cache fans… Yet each video had a ridiculously small amount of exposure - some had 2 views, some 15, some reached a max of 50 - but I knew there were many more women that shopped with us and loved our newsletters. So why not YouTube?
I did some preparation. I wrote another proposal - this time, for the new CEO of the entire corporation. I planned my approach, and without telling my colleagues, one evening I wrote the letter, attaching my proposal to it. I got the response the next day, and since I wasn’t scheduled to work, another manager forwarded it to me. The CEO thanked me, promising to look into the issue. I was over the moon. I offered my support and anything he might need from me, and he promised to give me a call to discuss this further (though, never actually did).
At the time, I’ve noticed another thing. Being interested in the company as a whole, I was watching its performance on the stock market. Out of nowhere the stock prices dropped suddenly, right about the time the new CEO had taken over. It happened so that I received a refund from tech - my scholarship exceeded my education expenses, and, trusting my gut feeling, I invested all of the $2,000 I received into the Cache stock. It dropped to $2 and change per share, so I was able to buy 800 shares exactly.
As my Trident Technical College career was coming to a conclusion, I had several out-of-state conferences coming up. I was scheduled to graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA, and a Summa Cum Laude distinction; I was also awarded the New Century Scholar honor by the State of South Carolina, ranking me at the very top of the tech college students of my state. One of the conferences called for a formal dress, and each spring, Cache became the prom destination for many high school girls. I knew the prefect dress when I saw it - The Dress, the one I wear to this very day.
The day it came into the store, I was all alone, un-packaging new shipment and welcoming the first morning customers. The moment I opened the box, I knew it was My Dress. I carefully hung it and put it on display, one in each size - two in some. There was only one of them in mine, size 12. When an associate joined me mid-afternoon, I took the dress to one of our dressing rooms and slipped into it. It fit me perfectly. Unable to contain my excitement, I walked out and called the associate to see what she thinks. “That’s the one,” she gasped, as I twirled by the wall-length mirror. I knew that, too.
I wore the dress at the conference. I felt like a princess. I celebrated my academic success in it, feeling more magical than ever before. It was the perfect dress. I deserved that dress. I worked hard for it, both at the store and in school.
As my graduation approached, I planned a month-long trip to Moscow, Russia - the place where I grew up. Cache wasn’t too keen on the idea of one of their managers being gone for such a long time. I felt like it was time for me to leave. I got accepted to the University of South Carolina for the following fall, and I was pretty sure that my new schedule would allow little time for a job. So promptly, I quit before my trip to Moscow.
A year passed. No longer an employee of Cache, I was still a stakeholder. In the early spring of 2014, the stock prices of Cache suddenly rised to twice the price per share than what I originally paid to purchase my small holding. I was using Scottrade, and had an alert set up to automatically sell when the stocks I own hit that threshold, and was automatically notified of the sale via an app on my phone. I was so excited, I called my parents and relatives - I just had $4,000 deposited in my account, and I felt like millionaire. This financial advance funded my internship in Dominican Republic with the Social Entrepreneurs Corps, dedicated to introducing entrepreneurship to women and aspiring youth in the Latin American countries.
After my internship (which is a story all on its own), I returned determined to change my life in the US. I realized that my continued education at the University of South Carolina was not worth the increased financial investment it required. Though many of my friends had a different experience and enjoyed their time at USC, my personal journey called me to drop out. I was no longer receiving the “refunds” granted by my scholarships, and in fact was required to get financial loans to continue studying. Additionally, I found the quality of education to be much lower than that I grew accustomed to at Trident Technical College. My professors rarely remembered my name, the class sizes were much larger, and I was required, despite all the assurances I heard previously, to “re-take” the classes I previously aced. Having graduated with a degree in Human Resources Management (granted to me by the state-accredited technical college), I was forced to take Management 101, which deeply upset me. Moreover, I was excluded from the Honors College, having “acquired too many credits at tech,” which made absolutely no sense to me. Here I was, a South Carolina scholar with a technical degree, treated like a freshman, and instead of academic privileges, I faced only additional, unexpected barriers.
Fast forward a year - no longer a student, two internships in Moscow (Forbes Russia & Pfizer Russia), an enterprise I successfully attempted (teaching TOEFL prep, which is an English Proficiency Exam, to advanced students in Moscow simultaneously while interning that summer), a life insurance sales experience which I only lasted at for 3 months, and a telecommuting part-time contract with a Market Research company located at Roebuck, SC, I was looking for additional income while living in Columbia.
A Store Manager of Cache located in Columbiana Mall on Harbison in Columbia that I knew from my original job with the company posted something on Social Media that caught my attention - she announced that Cache went bankrupt as a corporation, and was consolidating all of its stores across the country. The Columbia location was looking for part-time staff to help see the store through its last days, and to liquidate the remaining merchandise. I wrote to Denise, knowing that my managerial experience and previous training might come in handy. Once again, my intuition did not lie to me - she responded almost immediately, asking about my availability. She remembered me, too; the corporate culture of Cache always united the staff from all the locations across the country.
In the spring of 2015, I helped close one of the last Cache stores in United States. We prepared the store for its ultimate un-doing. We sold clothes at the previously unthinkable discounts. We comforted our long-time shoppers, relating to their sadness, assuring that we we will miss the brand as much as they do. We all spent our paychecks at the store, for the very last time, buying the clothes that we were selling - there were no more collections on the horizon. This was The Last Chance.
Then, that was it. All the stores closed. All the business ceased.
Where did the loyal customers of Cache go? Where do they shop now?
Perhaps they scattered across other brands, perhaps they found new favorites.
But it is inspiring, exciting, deeply encouraging for me to see women today, three years later, wearing their Cache styles. They have kept their dresses - and so have I. The styles are timeless, and the high quality of the clothes keeps them relevant to the personal fashions of many women to this very day.
So what of the Dress, my Dream Dress, the one that I bought almost 6 years ago?
It will never go out of style, that I can guarantee you.
Why would that be?
Because it is more than a dress to me.
It is a story of my debut as a business professional.
It is a timeless tribute to my passion for beauty.
It is an example of feminine style that exceeds the limitations of time.
It is the beginning to my American Dream - and as long as I chase it, I will keep wearing the Dress, to remind myself of my sustained commitment to excellence, of the rewards of true commitment to my ideals and my path.
This is a Story of the Dress - more than that, this is a story of me.