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Fashion with passion
How determination, good taste and downright hard work carved a niche in Ottawa’s fashion market

Marlene Shepherd bursts through the front door of her company’s head office, brimming with enthusiasm. She has just come from evaluating a fashion show and silent auction to benefit the Youville Centre, supporting young, unwed mothers and their children. “Forty-five thousand dollars!” she exclaims, clearly ecstatic about the sum raised for a cause close to her heart.
Quite apart from sensing her obvious zest for life, a first meeting with Marlene is akin to poking a hole in the stereotypical perception of fashion professionals. Her look is classic, casual yet versatile, the accessories attractive and appropriate, her hair and makeup smart, but understated. Call it relaxed chic.

As owner and operator of Shepherd’s Fashion Accessories, Marlene runs a bustling business in Ottawa specializing in the latest clothing and jewelry finds. In an industry where trends are always changing and it’s easy to become another fashion victim, Shepherd’s has endured and celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.

Marlene has built a solid career and reputation as one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs, but in recent years the 55-year-old has started to change her focus. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to carve a secured niche for her business, so now she’s taking more time for herself, her family and charitable causes.

Marlene’s practical approach to her own personal appearance underpins the marketing strategy of Shepherd’s, which operates out of both the Rideau Centre and Bayshore. She values the importance of dressing well and is known as a barometer of what to buy in Ottawa.

“My client is 35-plus and busy,” she explains, adding that her typical customer is not a trend setter, but places importance on looking fashionable without making it a preoccupation. Durable quality is essential in styles that flatter the figure; fabrics with a degree of flex, soothing to the touch and virtually carefree. A walk through Shepherd’s is a feast for the eyes, with racks of classic blouses and skirts in a range of jewel tones, elegantly turned-out mannequins and an array of sumptuous suede jackets. There’s also a strong focus on jewelry, with enticing displays featuring the latest must-have necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

The origins of this fashionable enterprise can be traced back to 1978 when Marlene and her mother, Trudy, inaugurated their enterprise in a kiosk at 240 Sparks St. At that point, it was all about accessories.

“I had observed how many European women dressed with simple elegance,” Marlene remembers, “and how skilled they were at transforming an outfit by imaginative use of jewelry, belts, scarves, shawls and handbags.”

The partners saw an opportunity to fill a void in the Ottawa fashion market and plunged in. This vision was soon recognized by prominent fashion industry figures. Legendary New York jewelry designer Kenneth J. Lane, consultant to Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, offered to make Shepherd’s his exclusive Canadian distributor in the store’s early days. Shepherd’s has since gone on to feature leading Canadian fashion designers, including award-winning designer Linda Lundström.

Marlene also keeps her eye out for promising local talent and store displays currently highlight a colourful line called Originals by Andrea. Marlene was also the first to recognize the talent of Karen McClintock, one of the city’s hottest up-and-coming jewelry designers. Her intricate creations, which feature chunky semi-precious stones, sterling silver and Swarovski crystals, are featured prominently in both stores.

As a strong player in Ottawa’s fashion circles, the dedication at Shepherd’s to bringing something new to the capital has had a significant impact. Tu Ly, official clothing designer for the Canadian Olympic Team in Turin and for next summer’s games in Beijing, can testify to that fact.

“As a teenager, I was obsessed with fashion,” he recalls. “Marlene and Mrs. Shepherd understood that. They hired me at 16 and took me to New York on my first buying trip. Shepherd’s was the rare place in Ottawa where you could see really different things, jewelry especially.”

The mother-and-daughter team have also built a devoted following among Ottawa’s fashionistas. Micheline Charlebois McKinnon, who has been a loyal customer since day one, says the store’s fashion selections have been ground-breaking.

“They brought New York and California and even (styles seen on) Oprah to Ottawa,” she says with appreciation. “Plus given my ongoing interest in women’s issues, I observed with pleasure the sure instincts of developing women entrepreneurs.”

However, this story of entrepreneurial success doesn’t actually begin in 1978, but on a day in Marlene’s early childhood when her parents purchased a sizeable house and a cluster of associated cottages in Cumberland near the then-new highway to Montréal. They converted the buildings into a summer hotel, and the family moved in.

By age 10, Marlene had mastered the art of hotel housekeeping. Eventually, the business acquired restaurant and bar services as well as a catering facility, all of which afforded the family’s youngsters unique opportunities to develop more skills and study human behaviour.

“It was hard work,” recalls Marlene, who watched her mom take a strong lead with the family business. “As owners, you can’t pass the buck. You have to take responsibility. But we had fun too – we made it fun.”

After high school, Marlene entered Algonquin College’s broadcasting program and she was soon employed by Contemporary News Radio, covering the Montréal Olympics and NATO meetings in Brussels. On CBC-TV’s local “Sports Huddle,” she pioneered the

Then Europe beckoned. For six months, Monte Carlo was Marlene’s home, French her language and the city’s American-style casino her workplace. During that time, the future became crystal clear: Marlene longed to be her own boss and emulate the example set by her mother.

And so she has. The Sparks Street kiosk is history, but her stores in Rideau Centre and Bayshore are headliners. Despite heavy competition from national chains, they consistently rank among the top three producers at both locations in sales-per-square foot. Marlene’s mom retired a few years ago, but remains her daughter’s confidante and sounding board.

This support system and unwavering trust in her team of sales professionals has allowed Marlene to create more balance in her life.

“Family is my focus now,” she affirms. “There’s no other place I want to be.”

Marlene and her husband, Francis LeBlanc, have two children, 13-year-old Robert and Rachel, age nine. They thrive on competitive sports and both parents are single-minded about supporting their interests. Happy times for the family include entertaining at home or, in warm weather, at their 100-year-old summer residence on Lucy Lake.

This focus on family has meant a shift in Marlene’s work duties, but she has found a good balance that satisfies both her kids and her career commitments.

“I’m responsible for buying, marketing and advertising – period. I no longer work nights or weekends,” Marlene says, adding that she’s still committed to strengthening the Shepherd’s brand. “Be assured, though, that if my name is attached to something, I want it to be a success and I will invest whatever amount of interest, ability, time and energy are required to make it so.”

-- Written by Shirley Taylor

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