Exercising the right to be chic

Glenwood boutique offers women affordable, year-round options in casual wear

Business profile Sports Styles

November 29, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Teri Abrahams and Julie Knolmayer had been taking tennis lessons for about a year and were ready to trade in their sweats for a more stylish look on the courts.

So they turned to Sport Styles, a boutique in Glenwood selling exercise clothes and other chic clothing. During a recent visit, the two Montgomery County women, still flushed from a tennis lesson at the nearby Triumph Health and Fitness Center, browsed and tried on, but they didn't buy.

Instead, they told owner Elaine Smart-Hoffman what they liked, and their sizes. They planned to send their husbands to the store to pick out holiday gifts.

"I see you have good shoes on," Smart-Hoffman, who plays tennis, said to Knolmayer. "That's the most important thing."

Smart-Hoffman opened Sport Styles in Ten Oaks about six years ago. She closed that location in May and opened the Glenwood site in August. The new store is about twice as large, with more display space, she said. And it is closer to her home.

The store sells women's clothing for golf, tennis and exercise, as well as a small selection of dresses, jackets, sweaters and other apparel. Her goal, said Smart-Hoffman, has been to create a miniature department store that offers excellent service.

Her customers, she said, want items that nobody else has. "They don't want to see themselves coming and going," she said. "They want to have their own style."

Smart-Hoffman also provides clothing at a discount for many local United States Tennis Association teams, she said. She keeps track of which team is at which level and makes sure no teams on the same level have the same outfit. That way, she said, "no two girls go to the prom in the same dress."

Smart-Hoffman travels to New York every six weeks or so to shop for clothes for her store. She looks for unusual pieces, suitable for active women who travel and like sports. But she makes sure the price points are similar to what customers might find at one of the big chain stores in a mall.

Pants and skirts rarely top $100, for example. A chunky cardigan with oversized buttons from Doki and Geki has a $79 price tag, while a more elaborate piece, such as a red leather cutout jacket from Kanar, sells for $279.

Smart-Hoffman grew up in the world of retail clothing. Her grandparents were the founders of Louise Apparel and Louise Fashion Corner, clothing stores that were adjacent to each other in the Bronx, N.Y. Her uncle, Arnold Gallo, owned a men's clothing store on the same block, also named Louise.

"I was 8 years old, working in my parents' store," she said. But Smart-Hoffman chose a career in advertising instead of retailing. Before moving to Maryland in the mid-1990s, she was an executive with a firm in Miami, she said.

When she moved to Maryland, she planned to focus on her family. She played golf and tennis in her spare time. Before long, she got restless. Opening a clothing store seemed like a logical thing to do. "What do I know?" she asked herself. "I know tennis, golf and clothes."

So, she opened the Ten Oaks boutique. At first, the focus was almost exclusively on sports apparel. Over time, she added more nonsports items. "The way the business has evolved is because of the requests of the customers," she said.

Smart-Hoffman keeps index cards with information about the brands and styles that her customers like. She also orders items for them at no additional charge. If a woman comes in to buy clothes for a vacation and has no idea where to start, Smart-Hoffman will help. "We do a lot of personal shopping," she said, meaning she will find clothes that would suit the customer.

Smart-Hoffman makes a point of carrying all kinds of clothing year-round. She knows that her customers go on cruises in the winter and hiking in Colorado in the summer. That policy is a plus for athletes like Abrahams, who went shopping recently and could not find tennis clothes in the major sporting goods stores. This time of year, they carry ski items, she said.

"This is good because this time of year, you're going to find what you need," Abrahams said of Sport Style. "We'll definitely come back," she added. "They have very nice things."

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