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Rooted in fashion: Vanity goes from dress shop to major corporation

What started out as a dress shop in Dickinson, N.D., more than 50 years ago has evolved into a corporation of nearly 200 stores and more than 1,800 employees in 26 states.

Weinstein and Olker
Vanity CEO Rick Weinstein, left, and Chief Merchandising and Marketing Director Wade Olker display some of the denim fashions available from Vanity. David Samson / The Forum

What started out as a dress shop in Dickinson, N.D., more than 50 years ago has evolved into a corporation of nearly 200 stores and more than 1,800 employees in 26 states.

Vanity is a mall-based clothing retailer that offers fashionable young women's clothing and accessories. The corporate office and distribution center, from which products are shipped to all of the retail locations, are located in Fargo. There are 140 people working there.

Kelsey Retzer, 25, of Bismarck has been a regular Vanity customer for almost 10 years.

"If I go shopping in a two-month period, I will definitely go in there and buy something," she said after a recent visit to the Fargo store, located in the West Acres Regional Shopping Center.

But like many people, she did not realize the company was based here.

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"I'm shocked about that," she said.

The original and current owners have kept a low profile over the years.

In 1957, Dickinson natives Emery and Ann Jahnke bought Dickinson's Vanity dress shop, where Ann had been working.

Three years later, they expanded, and in 1964, they opened a Vanity store in Grand Forks. One-third of the store was devoted to junior women's merchandise. It did so well that the Jahnkes sold their Dickinson locations and opened Vanity 2 in Grand Forks, a 4,000-square-foot store that was the only junior women's store in the state, according to a 1997 Forum news story.

In 1971, Vanity 3 opened in downtown Fargo. The next year, stores opened in Bismarck, at West Acres, and six stores opened in Colorado. Fargo became corporate headquarters in 1974.

In 1997, the year the Jankes sold the company to a local investment group led by four longtime employees, there were about 160 stores in 24 states.

Company president and CEO Rick Weinstein expects the growth to continue, especially in the wake of recent changes.

Vanity started an online store a year ago.

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"It's growing significantly," Weinstein said. "Our main objective is to attract more customers nationally."

The company is offering new environmentally friendly fashions that will consist of products made from recycled materials, sustainable resources such as bamboo, and organic materials. It also has launched a Premium Denim Collection of 15 different styles of jeans, as well as Vampire-inspired clothing that looks like a dressed-up, trendy version of the gothic style.

"That's definitely something that's part of pop culture right now and within that trend are the clothes that go with it," said Wade Olker, chief merchandising and marketing officer.

Vanity also has partnered with the Cotton From Blue to Green denim drive to help rebuild communities affected by natural disasters by recycling denim collected at the store into environmentally friendly, natural cotton fiber insulation for homes.

The company is trying to collect 100,000 pairs of jeans, or about 500 pairs per store, and will insulate 200 homes.

The economy has affected the company because it has affected Vanity's customers, Weinstein said, adding that customers are being more cautious about their spending.

But there have been no significant changes, closings or layoffs, he said.

The May closing of the Moorhead Center Mall location was due to a combination of factors, he said.

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"The mall itself was pretty empty and with West Acres being so close, we didn't think it would be detrimental," he said.

One thing that sets Vanity apart from other clothing stores is the range of sizes offered, Weinstein said. Vanity offers sizes from 0-17 in tops, waist sizes from 25 inches to 34 inches and inseams from 29 inches to 37 inches.

"It's been a significant competitive advantage," Weinstein said. "Particularly in jeans."

Another draw is the personalized customer service, he said.

Olker said employees are able to put together complete outfits for customers.

"From a customer-service perspective, it's fantastic because believe it or not, there are a lot of shoppers out there who aren't able to pull together those outfits," Olker said. "From a company-perspective, it's important for us to be able to build multiple sales."

Business profile: Vanity

  • Location: 1001 25th St. N., Fargo
  • President/CEO: Rick Weinstein
  • Contact: (701) 237-3330
  • Online: www.evanity.com Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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