News Column

Working on the First Coast: Linda Cunningham reaches new heights in high-end fashion in trendy San Marco

June 17, 2014

By Drew Dixon, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville



June 17--A flush of color, fashion and artsy dÉcor hits customers entering the Linda Cunningham high-end dress store on Kings Avenue in San Marco.

A quick walk through the winding corridors of the 6,000-square-foot building shows the real inner workings of the variable design tables, sewing operations and cloth storage areas that run the custom-design shop. For Cunningham's designs, it's the payoff of a lifetime in fashion that started in sewing with her mother in Jacksonville and was turned into a fashion design degree from Florida State University.

Shortly after finishing college in 1982, Cunningham returned to her native Jacksonville and worked for Phelps Fabric, a noted local shop downtown. In 1986, Cunningham broke out on her own and started her own fashion store here that now includes another operation in Houston.

Cunningham now charges anywhere from $300 to $4,000 for custom orders that range from wedding dresses to event gowns to high-powered corporate executive suits for women. Cunningham said her annual revenue is about $3 million. That helps run her business and support about two dozen employees at both locations. In addition to custom work, Cunningham offers off-the-rack retail in her shops and she also sells some of her designs to wholesalers in New York.

Going from literally humble beginnings being kind of a pattern maker to running your own business that now has a reputation and a steady clientele, how hard was that?

It's still hard work, but not in the sense where I'm sewing all day and all night. I'm still doing the pattern making and designing which I love. ... I'm busy from the minute I walk in to the minute I leave. But I'm not physically sitting behind a sewing machine like I was the first couple of years of my business. It's a different kind of labor when it's more of a physical kind of labor than it is being an intellectual labor.

It sounds like you've got the essentials of the product, but now you have to be a business person.

Yes, but I'm still balancing being a business person with being an arts design person. I'm still the one who is the designer, who comes up with the product ideas. So, I'm basically doing the product development and designing and overseeing the production of the product. ...

What kind of satisfaction and achievement do you feel now that you've got that high-end kind of clientele now?

They always say that overnight success takes about 15 years. I would absolutely agree with that. At first I thought it was 15, but now I'm not sure it's 20 or 25 because then it's another 10 or 15 years to stay at the same level that you were when you started becoming successful. ...

How do you stay up on the current fashions? How do you determine which way your designs are going?

I look at my clientele and I see what I believe my clientele likes and what their tastes are, what they're buying. Then I add my own twist or take to it.

Do you go to a lot of fashion shows?

I don't go to a lot of fashion shows. But I do a lot of reading. I read all the fashion periodicals. It's mostly reading and visual interests more so than going to other people's shows because I'm too busy doing my own designing and work.

You mentioned your clientele -- who is your clientele in Jacksonville, is it very broad?

It is very broad. We have clients who come in for special occasion needs. ... That can sometimes be a one-time client. ... [But] we try to take the custom client and turn it into a normal everyday client. The basis of our business is the relationship. We build the relationship and the confidence with the client so that they know when they walk into Linda Cunningham we meet all their needs in fashion.

In the whole dichotomy between business professional and artist, which is harder?

I actually think it's harder to be a business professional (laughs). ... After the recession it seemed like the cost of business rose, but the business volume didn't rise. It's like the equation is: OK, how do I squeeze more net income from what I already have?

Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098

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(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)


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