Downtown Farmington prepares to say farewell to its beloved Dressbarn

Usually, when a national chain’s CEO announces that its 650 stores will be shuttered by year’s end, the news doesn’t feel particularly personal.

But then, downtown Farmington’s beloved, high-performing Dressbarn store has – since its late ‘80s launch – come to feel more like a local business than a corporate retailer.

“I remember years ago, my father passed away, and I needed the proper clothes for the funeral before I flew out of town later that day,” wrote Farmington Hills resident Barb McHenry on NextDoor. “I got (to Dressbarn) early and knocked on the door because the store wasn’t open yet. A saleswoman came to the door, and I explained the situation. She let me in and put me in a dressing room. She and the other saleswoman kept bringing me clothes to try on until I had what I needed. I will never forget their kindness that day.”

“It’s definitely a neighborhood store,” says Stephanie Clement, store manager of downtown Farmington’s Dressbarn. “We’re unique because we’ve got this 11,000 square feet corner spot in a strip mall, but it doesn’t feel like a strip mall, because right outside, there’s the farmers market and there are all these other community events happening year-round. I don’t know of any other stores that have this kind of atmosphere. … It’s not like being part of an outlet mall, where there’s this quick turnaround time, and people are only there to shop. Here, people sometimes come in just to say ‘hi,’ because it’s been a while since they’ve come in to see us.”

Dressbarn store manager Stephanie Clement. Photo by David Lewinski.
Dressbarn is owned by a New Jersey-based company called Ascena Retail Group, which also owns the apparel stores Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, Catherines, Cacique, and Justice. On May 20, Steven Taylor, Dressbarn’s CFO, released a statement to announce that the chain would close all its stores by year’s end because it “has not been operating at an acceptable level of profitability in today’s retail environment.”

“We were totally blindsided,” says Clement. “We’d heard that Dressbarn wasn’t doing fantastically, about a year or 18 months prior to that and that the company would be looking at stores on a case-by-case basis, and … maybe scaling back the fleet. So we knew some drastic changes were probably happening, but we were in a little bubble, because we always do well here. So when the news came out, it was a shock.”

The closure announcement came on a Monday; and although the Farmington store does about $3,000 in sales on a typical Tuesday, they did about four times that amount on Tuesday, May 21st.

“It’s funny,” says store assistant manager Martha Burkmyre, who’s lived in Farmington Hills for more than 30 years. “There were no big sales going on then. People were here to buy full-price clothes. … They weren’t looking for deep discounts. They just wanted to come to get their favorite things while they could.”

Dressbarn. Photo by David Lewinski.

Nationwide, Dressbarn employs about 6,800 people, with stores in 45 states. 53 Dressbarn locations were slated for an August shutdown, including the nearby Novi Town Center location.

Clement and her ten employee team don’t yet know when Farmington’s store will shut its doors, but because merchandise deliveries are expected through November – and because, in terms of sales, Clement believes the Farmington store is one of the top 15 or 20 performers in its 100-store region – it’s likely to become one of the last Dressbarns standing.

This can be stressful for employees, of course, but Clement’s team appears to be staying intact. “In fact, after the announcement, when thing got crazy, I realized I needed more staff,” says Clement. “ … I reached out to two former associates and asked if they’d like to come back. … I feel super-fortunate that everyone is committed to staying until we turn off the lights for the last time. That makes me very happy.”

Dressbarn. Photo by David Lewinski.

Clement’s career at Dressbarn began on the first day of her senior year of high school, in 1998, when she wanted to save up to buy a car. She first worked at the Brighton store, but over the course of 21 years, she’s worked at Dressbarn stores in Howell, Novi, Grosse Pointe, Shelby Township, and Farmington – where she returned four years ago, for what’s turning out to be her final Dressbarn assignment.

Though the store has aimed to be accessible to a broad range of professional women on a budget – carrying a broad range of casual-to-formal clothing, sizes 2-24 – Clement and her customers also regularly cite Dressbarn as a go-to place for special occasion apparel. When there’s a wedding, baby or bridal shower, holiday celebration, funeral, or job interview to go to, customers have long flocked to Farmington’s Dressbarn to find the exact right thing to wear.

“A lot of our customers are upset (about the closing),” says Burkmyre. “I get asked about it every day – people saying, ‘I’m so sad you’re closing.’ They’re just heartbroken.”

“Dressbarn wants all of its customers to feel like individuals, and we want to know them and have them know us,” says Clement. “But here, that definitely goes hand-in-hand with the sense of community downtown Farmington has. … There’s one lady who, for years, has come in regularly, … like, every other week. And probably six weeks after the announcement that Dressbarn was closing, she finally came in, and she was in tears, saying, ‘I’ve been wanting to come, but I knew the moment I did, I would cry – for you guys, for your jobs, and for the store.’ … It’s really nice to know that not only do we think about our customers, but they feel the same way about us.”

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