Win the Sorority Girl, Win the American Wardrobe

Delta Zeta Sorority Members Ally Deason, Halima Amro, Ashley Vulgaris, Emily Soule, and Desaray Fisher admire Kendra Scott Jewelry during a trunk show held at the Delta Zeta sorority house on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, Tennessee on September 16, 2016
Companies such as Kendra Scott, Lilly Pulitzer, and upstarts like Southern Tide see half a million potential customers ready to spend.

The Delta Zeta sorority house at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville is packed on a fall Friday, a few weeks into the school year, as merchants fill its rooms for parents’ weekend. Tables full of Kendra Scott jewelry line the chapter room, shiny trinkets attracting girls like fish bait. Upstairs in the dining hall, students crowd around stacks of sorority-branded apparel. The house mother oversees her flock from the foyer. “I love it, not that I have money for it,” one sorority sister says as she walks out the front door empty-handed. “Well, I have my dad’s credit card,” her friend responds with a giggle.

At the front of the house, in the parlor, Cheyanne Harrington greets a gaggle of Deltas with hugs and squeals. The 20-year-old junior is tall, blonde, and outfitted in head-to-toe prep, her banana yellow dress accented by a turquoise necklace and gold earrings. She’s the campus representative for Lisi Lerch, a budding jewelry label that’s trying to win over more girls like her. Harrington has alerted all of sorority village, a hub of 13 houses, each filled with 30 to 50 sisters, and dozens have shown up to see what she’s selling at her trunk show–tassel earrings and necklaces in such colors as cotton candy pink and kiwi green.

A seasoned pro who has already repped two other brands during her time at Tennessee, Harrington sidles up to one of the shoppers who’s visibly flustered and torn between the many designs on display. “I don’t think the metallic ones are like, you, you know?” she says warmly, pointing to a pair of pale white earrings instead. Done. She swipes the credit card with the Square reader on her iPad and restocks the table with more jewelry. “Here you go, sweetie–now I want to take a picture of you for Snapchat.”

Lisi Lerch Campus Rep Director Cheyanne Harrington at the Delta Zeta sorority house
Photographer: Susannah Kay/Bloomberg

Sororities can be juicy market for fashion labels, an endless font of manna for the designers lucky enough to count them as fans. The sisters share a signature fashion sense, built around a cluster of brands, to whom they are fiercely loyal.

Make a quick dash around a sorority row, and you’ll quickly discern a pattern: J.Crew cardigans, Patagonia pullovers, and Lilly Pulitzer shift dresses in pastel prints. Colorful Kate Spade satchels or Longchamp totes dangling from arms; feet are shod in Tory Burch ballet flats or sandals from Jack Rogers and Vince Camuto. Some newer labels may pop up, too, such as Southern Tide or Southern Proper. During the colder months, there’s no shortage of L.L. Bean duck boots and waxed jackets from Barbour.

If a brand manages to penetrate this conservative enclave, it has struck gold. There are more than 3,200 undergraduate sorority chapters, on upwards of 600 college campuses, that are part of the National Panhellenic Conference, a national sorority organization. Its 26 sororities have nearly 400,000 active members and welcome more than 100,000 new initiates each year. That’s reason enough for many brands to seek out these shoppers, but there’s more value to be mined. Often, they’re considered influencers who bring in other girls who look to them for fashion guidance.

Once one sorority picks up on a brand, it can spread from person to person like a scandalous secret, infiltrating one house after the other until every sorority in the country knows about it. Ta-da: It has become a national phenomenon–and a marketer’s dream.

Take Kendra Scott, a brand founded by the designer in 2002. Sales were at just $1.7 million when the brand opened its first physical shop in 2010–now it has 48 stores and should haul in $200 million in annual revenue this year. Scott achieved success selling delicate necklaces, earrings, and ring sets through the persistent pursuit of college followers, teaming with sororities to host trunk shows and other events. Soon the crowds at college football games became chock full of Kendra Scott earrings in the home team’s colors. These days her customer base is broader, but she still serves that sorority shopper. In September, the company took an Airstream trailer filled with goodies to the Chi Omega headquarters in Memphis.

Campus reps such as Harrington can be found at most universities, seducing their fellow students to buy everything from Apple iPhones to Rockstar energy drinks to Chipotle burritos. Clothing companies are some of the most devoted, with such brands as Rent the Runway and Victoria’s Secret Pink boasting deep networks of agents within America’s institutions of higher learning.

All these brands are battling for the valuable approval of sorority sisters. If you’re selling clothes, jewelry, shoes, or handbags, that means becoming a part of their uniform. Some sororities are more serious than others about style conformity, but it is a common theme. In 2010, IvyGate unearthed fashion guidelines at Cornell University’s Pi Phi chapter. It demanded “casual chic” outfits, warning rushees to avoid short-sleeve shirts, open-toed shoes, and American Apparel jeggings. Or else.

“There’s comfort in looking the same,” said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. “It’s a natural, human thing to want to belong, and one way we do that is to wear the same clothing.”

They’re comrades in fashion, and that’s exactly what a newcomer label such as Lisi Lerch would like to capitalize on.

Shelby Stewart and her mother, Kamela, try on Lisi Lerch earrings during a trunk show held at the Delta Zeta sorority house on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, Tennessee on September 16, 2016.
Shelby Stewart and her mother, Kamela, try on Lisi Lerch earrings during the trunk show at the Delta Zeta house.
Photographer: Susannah Kay/Bloomberg

Lisi Lerch, the designer, sits down at a trendy brunch spot on a scorching summer day in a town on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The 45-year-old mother of three slides her beige Tory Burch clutch onto the table, orders a glass of chardonnay, and immediately dives into a series of personal stories about her former life living on Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side. Lerch is intensely bubbly in her pink Lilly Pulitzer blouse, like a bottle of Champagne constantly threatening to pop as her blonde ponytail bobs up and down. She’s extra effervescent this afternoon–Today Show anchor Natalie Morales wore her jewelry on NBC that morning. “The girl who wears my jewelry is the girl who appreciates the finer things in life,” she says, adjusting the disc earrings she designed.

Lerch loves everything. She loved attending Notre Dame of Maryland University. She loved working on Wall Street in institutional equity sales in the 1990s. When she was little, she loved Estée Lauder, the businesswoman, and wanted to be like her. She’s always loved fashion but couldn’t find a way into the industry until now. She also loves derby hats.

That’s why Lerch got into the hat business in 2001. Growing up, she’d go to Triple Crown horse races–bastions of preppy American style–with her family each year. Or they’d shoot over to the Hamptons to watch polo matches or trot out to Virginia to see steeplechases. Fancy hats are a necessity at these gatherings for the Northeastern elite, so Lerch started selling some of her own.

But when she went to the millineries in New York, she found herself picking jewelry supplies from the stores next door and making necklaces. “I was selling so much more jewelry than the hats,” says Lerch. Once her younger child started kindergarten full time, Lerch went national with her jewelry in 2013. The marquee items were beaded tassel earrings sold in a spectrum of vivid colors. Sororities, especially southern ones, ate them up.

Each August, the search begins for new college campus reps. Lerch’s team sends out e-mail blasts and reaches out to potential candidates on Instagram and Snapchat. (They won’t use Facebook because those girls don’t use Facebook any more, she says.) Most of her shoppers are in college or have recently graduated. Lately she’s found a less likely following among women over 50, perhaps drawn in by their daughters.

It’s the sorority girls who’ve become some of her most important customers, she says. When they pick up on a certain item, such as her earrings, there’s a chance it will become a staple within the group at a specific school. They tell their sisters at other schools. Then everyone shows their moms, opening the brand up to a whole new demographic. This year, Lerch will hit $1 million in sales for the first time. Her sales have tripled, or more, each year since she started selling her baubles, and the business is profitable.

“It’s built-in-fashion camaraderie,” says Lerch. “It spreads like wildfire.”

Lerch distributed these promo materials
Lerch distributed these promo materials.
Photographer: Susannah Kay/Bloomberg

The preppy flame began to spread in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when ­bold, professional women like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were cultural icons who wore the mantle of high society. Handed down from Ivy League elites and the women of the Seven Sisters, American’s original set of women’s colleges, preppy clothing has persevered through endless fashion cycles. Led by such labels as Brooks Brothers and J. Press, the casual, affluent aesthetic worked its way past college boundaries and into American culture for both men and women. Iconic styles included shift dresses and silk blouses with blasts of pastels or navy stripes to give off a clean, upper-class aura for the tennis court or golf course. Even today, modern preppy clothes stick by tenets passed down from that era: casual, youthful, and seemingly effortless.

The queen of sorority style was Lilly Pulitzer, the Palm Beach socialite who opened a store in the resort town selling shift dresses with high side slits. Her vibrant, busy prints became a preppy uniform essential, a pink-and-green symbol of the upper crust. She died in 2013, but her label lives on. Last year, Lilly Pulitzer released an exclusive collaboration with Target that sold out within hours. Demand was so high the discount retailer’s website crashed.

Preppy is no longer the elitist caricature it was in the past. Yet there’s a deep sense of nostalgia associated with preppiness, seeking the glamor of past generations. Shoppers can still acquire a piece of that world through the names of such designers as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, said Rebecca Tuite, fashion historian and author of Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look. “It’s hard to disassociate prep from idealized images of Kennedy football games on the Cape or cheerful Lilly Pulitzer dresses in idyllic Slim Aarons photographs that showcase a particularly colorful and sunshine-filled moment and brand of American leisure,” she says.

Tuite sees some similarities between sororities and the Seven Sisters students of old, which helps explain why they’ve gravitated to the same labels. “I imagine that there’s a palpable sense of heritage and a sense of pride in a sorority,” she says. “And just as female collegians upheld the traditions of upperclassmen, I think that perhaps sororities, to some degree, uphold the sartorial traditions of their own generations of sisters.”

Sorority member Isabelle Karls tries on Lisi Lerch earrings during a trunk show held at the Delta Zeta house at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee on September 16, 2016
Isabelle Karls tries on Lisi Lerch earrings.
Photographer: Susannah Kay/Bloomberg

Back at the Delta Zeta house, one sorority girl sorts through a handful of Lisi Lerch necklaces and earrings that she just bought. “I’m blaming Cheyanne if my mom says anything about it,” she says to her sisters. Typically, campus reps will get a cut of their sales of they host a trunk show or open a sales booth at an event—the percentage depends on the program (at Lisi Lerch, it’s 20 percent). Harrington knows her customers. “This girl is fun,” she explains. “She goes to football games. She goes out. She’s not boring.”

This is Harrington’s third time representing a brand. Previously, she’d worked with accessories label Neely by VNB, which sold items specifically curated for college life out of a traveling trailer, and resortwear seller Hiho Caribbean. It’s not just about making a few bucks–she wants to parlay this gig into something bigger. A public relations major, she hopes one day to work for a high-powered New York City PR firm.

But selling merchandise is only a small part of the job. Harrington often includes the brand on her food, travel, fashion, and beauty blog All Good Things and posts photos of her in Lisi Lerch on Instagram and Snapchat. She’ll go to college football tailgates to hand out Lisi Lerch stickers and tell people about the label. On campus, she sees other brands on the prowl. Women’s boutique Riffraff and Vineyard Vines are particularly active at Tennessee, she says. Of course, she’s always wearing Lisi Lerch jewelry.

“How much are these?” another sorority shopper, mother by her side, says as she holds up an orange necklace.

“Seventy-eight dollars,” says Harrington.

Her customer sighs, clearly dejected.

“Twenty percent off,” Harrington adds.

“Mom!” the girl exclaims. “Twenty percent off!”