For This Business Owner, It’s All About The Treasure Hunt

By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer.

This, surely, is a concept to blow your mind: Main Line women wearing consignment-shop clothing and footwear, and carrying previously owned handbags.

No cause for panic. The region’s most affluent zone has not hit bad times.

In this instance, consignment means high-end labels such as Chanel, Hermes, Miu Miu, and Alice + Olivia, with much of the merchandise coming from closets in Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

Very big closets, including those of celebrities.

“Their closets are bigger than this store,” said Broomall resident Jan Gilbert, manager of 1,000-square-foot Rachelle Boutique & Designer Consignment on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr.

She goes on merchandise runs to California every six to eight weeks with owner Rachelle “Shelly” Lesse. Typically, they return with eight to 10 white duffel bags stuffed with handbags, dresses, skirts, pants, jackets, and shoes.

“A lot of them have only been worn once or twice,” Lesse said.

She’s a 58-year-old Pittsburgh native and longtime resident of Lafayette Hill who arrived in the Philadelphia area in 1981. Having graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a major in speech and communication and a minor in business, Lesse came east to spend time at the Jersey Shore with friends — and never went home.

While working at U.S. Healthcare Inc. for seven years as a liaison between physicians and the Blue Bell insurance company later acquired by Aetna, she was frequently asked by doctors whether she knew anyone who typed on the side.

She first taught herself and then in 1986 started a medical-transcription business in Plymouth Meeting, MediScribe Inc., which she still runs.

But in July 2013, she could no longer ignore another calling.

“I always had a passion to do this,” Lesse said during an interview at her consignment shop, flanked by 10 designer handbags — including a first-edition VBH made of python, priced at $1,595, and a tortoiseshell Bottega Veneta for $250. By design, the store looks and feels more like a chic boutique, with a sales staff of two, in addition to Lesse, offering fashion advice.

“The treasure hunt” is what Lesse, herself an avid consignment shopper, calls that experience.

“There’s nothing more exciting than finding something,” she said.

Now, as a shop owner, her focus is on finding things her customers will find exciting.

A big assist has come from her significant other, Michael Furman, an automotive photographer whose work has gained him access to many celebrities — and, for Lesse, to their closets. She would not name names, saying they prefer to remain anonymous.

“The thing that’s very nice is a number of these people, all their proceeds go to charity,” Lesse said.

Why they are opting to sell their rejects 2,400 miles away, in a shop few of them are likely to visit, has to do with the commission cut offered, she said. That’s usually 50 percent, up from the more typical 40 percent. Lesse also offers to buy higher-end handbags outright.

She would not disclose her shop’s annual sales. That some merchandise comes from exclusive West Coast closets has turned out to be a popular draw with customers, who watch for the sign in the window announcing new arrivals.

“It’s unique to go into a store and find something no one else is going to have,” said Leslie Levin of Gladwyne, who estimated she had made $5,000 in sales of merchandise she’s put on consignment at Rachelle Boutique. “Then I go spend it again.”

On a recent visit to the shop, Levin was wearing one of her purchases — an Alice + Olivia jacket made of lamb leather that still had the original price tag on it, $1,495, when Lesse acquired it from California. Levin paid $569 for it.

Calling herself a “consignment-shop junkie,” Levin said she finds such shopping much more fun than going into a department store, where the merchandise is not previously owned.

“Can I go to Chanel? Yes, but there’s no sport in that,” she said.

Lesse is working on identifying charities to which consignors could designate their sales proceeds, and on developing more private-shopping opportunities like the half-dozen girls-night-out parties Rachelle Boutique & Designer Consignment has hosted so far after hours. Wine and snacks are thrown in, as well as discounted prices.

Not that Lesse has any immediate plans to exit the medical-transcription business: “I love health care,” she said.

But that line of work doesn’t offer access inside the gates of Italian-style villas with vineyards, infinity pools, and breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.

“We go into these unbelievably fantastic closets,” she said.

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