Hey, Victoria, the real Secret is out.
You’re not the only retailer of fashionable and functional intimate apparel in Southern California to have raving fans. Have you heard of Carol Gill’s wonderful downtown Glendora shop, Undercovers?
If not, you should. You see, Carol, who boasts a fashion merchandising background, and Undercovers are about to celebrate their 20th year in business in Glendora, a testament to her great customer service ethic, unequaled product knowledge and scintillating and engaging personality.
The moment you walk into her shop, she’ll literally size you up and take full measure of you to ensure you’re wearing precisely the right undergarment. The last thing she wants to do is sell you something off the rack unless it’s absolutely perfect for you.
“People tell me I was measured at so-and-so, and I’m this size, and I say, “Every manufacturer cuts a little bit differently, every fabric fits differently and every style shapes differently,’” Carol said. “The truth is, the same person can wear three different sizes.”
Why is all this underwear business so important to Carol?
“If you have the appropriate undergarment, you can make something from the Goodwill look good,” she replied. “By the same token, if you’re wearing a $500 dress and you don’t have the appropriate stuff under it, it’s not going to hang any better than that garment from the Goodwill.”
When it comes to lingerie, Carol, who learned to sew when she was six and knit when she was eight, sells everything from G-rated stuff to Gee strings. But mostly, she is a great listener and problem-solver.
“I listen to what ladies say their problems are, and then I go out into the marketplace and try to solve them,” said Carol, standing next to a stack of fashion publications, including California Apparel News and Women’s Wear Daily.
Carol, who attends all the major California and Las Vegas apparel shows each year, simply has knowledge that the average clerk at Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s is unlikely to possess.
For instance, linger in her shop more than a few minutes, and you might get a quick lecture on Modal, a semi-synthetic fiber spun from reconstituted cellulose found in beech trees and manufactured into pajamas, towels, bathrobes and underwear. Because it’s smoother and softer than cotton and 50% more hydroscopic (water absorbent) than cotton, as well as resistant to shrinkage, it is gaining an expanding place on Carol’s shelves.
“There are new fibers and fabrics out there that a lot of people don’t know about,” Carol said.
Again, why does Carol care? She knows the knowledge can help some of her customers.
Many new intimate apparel fabrics, for example, feature heat-release technology, so you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night feeling all sticky and sweaty.
“These fabrics,” Carol said, “are perfect for women going through menopause or taking thyroid or blood pressure medications. With heat-release technology, the moisture evaporates and the fabric stays dry. Even though you’re going to wake up, you’re going to fall right back to sleep.”
To be sure her customers get exactly what they want, Carol maintains a macro-view of the world.
“Right now, we’re facing a worldwide cotton shortage,” she said, sounding like a Wharton business college professor. “There have been floods in India and China, so cotton prices have shot through the roof. Many people don’t realize that it’s a two-year span from the time you plant to the time you get your product in the store. There’s the growing and processing and fabrication.”
Fortunately, Carol knows, and, accordingly, knows how to order from her suppliers, many of whom she has developed deep ties and relationships with her over the years. Carol, however, is most proud of her California contacts. She’s all about “Buy California and buy America first,” when all other things are equal.
“If I have a choice – and I don’t always have a choice – I’m going to carry an American- or California-manufactured product first,” she said.
That’s the reason you won’t finder her carrying Hanes hosiery any longer. “I changed from Hanes to Berkshire because Berkshire is still made in the United States,” she said. “When Hanes decided to manufacture overseas, it dumped 6,000 American jobs.”
When you hear Carol explain it, all of a sudden, those Hanes tee shirts and briefs heavily marketed by MJ (Michael Jordan) start feeling a little uncomfortable and tight around the collar.
Although Carol features lines from 16 U.S. and California companies, her favorite just might be one by PJ Harlow.
It’s a total Southern California product,” Carol said. “The designer, Tina Mac designs in Orange, she produces in downtown L.A., she dyes in the City of Commerce, and the man who dyes for her lives in Glendora and his son is in San Dimas. So, all the jobs and all the money stay right here in Southern California.”
Carol is just as enthusiastic about her local links to her accessories suppliers. She eagerly points to something called a Chick Stick.
“It was invented and is produced by a guy right here in Monrovia,” she said, her cheeks brightening. “It’s a shaving stick for men or women. You don’t have to be in the shower, you don’t have to be in the tub. You don’t have to have a bunch of messy stuff or foam on you.”
Then she whirls and points to an array of lotions by Terra Nova.
“They’re out of Berkeley,” she said. “They were started by a lady who had cancer. She found that when she was doing chemo, her skin got really dry, and she wanted to use lotions that didn’t sour on her. So she developed a line of fragrances that wouldn’t turn.”
Carol talks about suppliers as if they were friends. She knows their stories and they know hers – her fashion merchandising background and before that, serving as a director of Christian Education. Ultimately, they know her as a problem-solver. For example, at a recent show, Carol went in search of helping women who are constantly losing their cell phones in the big Black Hole, better known as a woman’s purse.
“The hot ticket right now is women wearing these great big handbags,” she explained. “But when their cell phone goes off, they can’t find it.”
So, Carol found and now sells something called a Pouchee, from Australia. It’s a tiny leather purse that fits inside a handbag, but is large enough to hold a cell phone, credit cards and other essentials. “My challenge was to find something to help people organize what’s inside their handbag,” Carol said.
Carol is just as selective when it comes to staffing her store. Rachel Walker is an accomplished artist and costume designer, who actually designed several fashions for Escante, one of the lines featuring baby dolls and chemises that Carol carries. Lori Burke, meanwhile, used to work for the 3M Company in customer service. “She and Rachel are both really great with people, and that’s 90 percent of this,” Carol said. “Talking to people, finding out what their problems are, and making sure we’re filling their needs.”
Carol’s honesty is as fresh and reassuring as the merchandise she carries. Her business grew every year until the Great Recession hit, but she is a survivor and one who is thankful for small, unexpected blessings.
Trends, for example, have become her friends. When Madonna and Cyndi Lauper started wearing undergarments as outerwear, their bold fashion statements produced a new generation of customers. Believe it or not, the airlines’ increasingly restrictive baggage policies also have indirectly contributed to her business.
“Because people can’t carry on as much as they used to,” Carol said, “they’ve learned how to use their undergarments in multiple and more creative ways. There’s even a name for it, ‘transition-wear.’ It’s stuff that can be taken from bedroom to lounge to sport.”
The bottom line at Undercovers – and Carol knows a lot about bottom lines including problem areas that Spanx-like products can fix – is that Carol cares. She’s a giver.
Besides sitting on the Glendora Chamber of Commerce, she is especially passionate about helping women entrepreneurs. She remembers how people helped her get started in business. “A couple of people went out of their way, first, to express to me that what I was doing was important, and, second, to tell me that their door was always open.
“So, if you have a problem, come see me, and we’ll work it out together.”
Carol is a remarkable woman and she runs a wonderful store whose door is open seven days a week.
Don’t keep her a Secret!