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Elaine Turner

Beautiful, Brave, and Bold: Elaine Turner on Fashion, Philanthropy, and the Future

in Profiles/Shopping & Style by

Odds are, you haven’t met Elaine Turner, the Houston designer and philanthropist who’s reshaping the retail landscape with her fashion and lifestyle brand. But step into one of her eight eponymous storefronts, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what she’s about—gorgeous, glam, and community-oriented, each Elaine Turner space sparkles with the personality and passion of their founder.

Open the door, and it’s like stepping into your fashionable best friend’s massive walk-in closet. You’re greeted by glittering jewelry displays, plush, hot-pink couches, and a mirrored, floor-to-ceiling shoe display that would make Carrie Bradshaw swoon. It’s the sort of place that creates instant comfort—a bold boutique where you can play dress-up with your glamorous girlfriends.

No surprise, Elaine’s story is just as compelling—an entrepreneurial saga that journeys from Houston to New York and back, from Tootsie’s to Neiman’s, from a traditional retail space to the ever-changing digital landscape of tomorrow. (Beautiful brick-and-mortar boutiques are just the half of it—this is the digital age, and Turner is busy innovating new and modern ways to serve the best of her brand to her customers.)

She was raised in a home headed by business owners, a pair of independent spirits who successfully instilled the values of entrepreneurship in each of their children. With her parents’ example to guide her, Elaine knew she’d march in her own unique direction.

“I think of myself first and foremost as an entrepreneur,” Elaine shares. “Really, I’m a creator. My dad was an entrepreneur, and my mom is, too. Each of my siblings has created their own path.”

“It’s a unique breed of people that choose something like entrepreneurship, or working for an entrepreneur,” she continues. “All the way down the pipeline, there’s a vibe of not following the norm. You invest so much of yourself, and you have a unique responsibility. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of risk.”

That degree of wildcatter confidence is a rare trait, but it’s one that defines Elaine Turner—her brand, her team, and the community she’s building. Like all forms of strength, it was developed over time. Like all journeys, the road was winding. It’s sprinkled with the glamour of success and the charming, chin-up determination that defines true Texans. If you don’t know her, you want to. This is Elaine Turner.

Elaine Turner BLVD boutique. Photo courtesy of Elaine Turner.
Elaine Turner BLVD boutique. Photo courtesy of Elaine Turner.

On the Come Up

Born and raised in Houston, Elaine and her husband Jim were living in New York City when the seed of the Elaine Turner brand took root. Elaine started to experiment with making handbags, producing her take on classic designs of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But she and Jim were ready to start a family, away from the bustle of New York.

Though the move back to Texas was family-oriented, it also led to Elaine’s first big break. “When my husband and I moved back to Houston, I decided to start making samples, which I sold to Tootsies,” Elaine explains. Since 1975, Tootsies has been a leader in luxury style. As the first Houston boutique to carry European imports, its reputation is dazzling, and its shelves are coveted real estate.

But Elaine wasn’t done. “As my work evolved, I thought ‘What am I trying to do with this?’” Determined to explore her options, Elaine started expanding her reach and diversifying her skills. “I began selling wholesale to Neiman Marcus, and I learned more about being a merchant,” she explains.

The experience revealed a whole new world of possibility. She was already creating fantastic products—why not sell them on her own terms? “I began to think, ‘I want to service and express my products in my own way,’” she recalls. Over time, that idea evolved into their first brick-and-mortar location, a pretty pink boutique in Houston’s Rice Village, one of the city’s oldest and most eclectic shopping districts. Needless to say, it was a success.

The glamorous undertone of what I do is rooted in being from Texas.
-Elaine Turner

“Elaine’s aesthetic and brand sensibility speak to the Texas woman,” explains her husband and Elaine Turner CEO Jim Turner. “We are glamorous, yet down-to-earth and REAL. The community in Houston is like no other. It’s a ‘can-do’ city with a big heart. Entrepreneurs thrive here, and the city gets behind its own. I honestly can’t imagine being any other place.”

“Texas is a huge part of my story,” Elaine agrees. “I like to think of Texas women as having very bold spirits. They’re known for not being afraid of color, for not being afraid to express themselves. The glamorous undertone of what I do is rooted in being from Texas.

It’s an influence that goes beyond mere style. “Texas is a huge part of not just my company, but who I am as a human being, and the way I’ve raised my kids, and how I engage in my life,” she adds. “We truly are the gateway to the West. We’re the frontier. We’re not dependent on anyone. I think Texas represents this idea of no holds barred, can-do spirit. We overcome. And when you live here, you feel that energy around you.”

That energy—and look—has defined her brand for over a decade. By mixing a timeless foundation with modern flair, Elaine Turner pulls off a rare, multi-generational appeal. “Ladylike, classic design has always been an underpinning of what we do,” Elaine says. “When I started creating bags, my inspirations were the iconic women of the ‘50s and ‘60s. One of our very first bags was called the Jackie bag, after Jackie Onassis. Next, we did the Grace Kelly bag. They were very structured, refined, and polished in design.”

Elaine Turner
Select products from the Elaine Turner spring line. Photos courtesy of Elaine Turner.

Indeed, it was the Jackie bag that helped put Elaine on the map when she launched her business in 2000. Her material of choice—finely-woven raffia that lends the bag a timeless grace—has become a staple of her line.

“As we’ve evolved, that classicism is still there, but now we pride ourselves on versatility,” Elaine continues. “Anything that we design, you can wear in any way that suits your style.”

That’s true for not only her bags, which can be found sporting anything from an elegant gold chain to an embroidered guitar strap, but also the products she’s developed since starting out.

Shoes were the first addition to her line. Like the handbags, Elaine’s footwear brings superior style—fine materials like velvety washed leather or eye-catching cork are put to use in a variety of vibrant hues. But even more impressive than the line’s artistry is its comfort—each pair, from heels to flats, boasts a pillowy memory foam lining. Apparel came next. Designed for flawless functionality, the brand uses the highest quality fabrics, such as as Georgette, Silk Charmeuse, and Crepe de Chine, to round out their luxurious pieces.

The last addition to the Elaine Turner lifestyle brand was jewelry. They say the devil is in the details, and it took time for Elaine to find the right finishing touches for her line. “We started making jewelry about two years ago, but we were sourcing the manufacturing, and it wasn’t as dynamic as we wanted it to be,” she shares. Enter Amy Dust, a versatile designer who had already been applying her skills to Elaine’s handbag line. Amy approached Elaine about hand-making a few pieces directly from the Elaine Turner headquarters in Houston, using locally-sourced materials.

“Design is a very organic process. A large part of my inspiration comes directly from the materials,” Dust explains. What better way to evoke Texas spirit than to use Texas materials? Her first few pieces flew off the displays and opened the door for much bigger things.

“Amy is a designer through and through,” Elaine affirms. “She’s a blessing.” Now, she’s responsible for creating the entire Elaine Turner jewelry line, all of which is painstakingly handcrafted just minutes from Elaine’s flagship store.

Needless to say, it’s been a rollercoaster journey for the ambitious team.

Eleven years and seven additional storefronts later, Elaine Turner is setting the bar for Houston retail—and she has her sights set even higher.

 

Elaine Turner BLVD boutique
Elaine Turner BLVD boutique. Photo courtesy of Elaine Turner

Redefining Retail in the Digital Age

Even as you read this, the digital landscape is changing. The world is faster paced than ever, and consumer behavior is evolving alongside our gadgets. For Elaine Turner, service has always been a main pinnacle of the brand. As the service landscape changes, she’s working hard to stay ahead of the curve.

“The next phase of the business is all about how we service the customer,” Elaine confides. “Today, the customer is totally different; her behavior is not dependent on walking into brick-and-mortar stores. We’re focused on creating innovative ways to reach her that fit into her lifestyle.”

Indeed, that’s the most significant puzzle in the minds of merchants across the globe. Lacking a viable solution, many businesses have suffered in the face of the online market. Elaine’s team, however, has exciting solutions on the horizon.

When a new challenge arises, I have to go back to my roots, which are intimacy and connection and friendliness.
-Elaine Turner

“The world has become so fast-paced—it’s all about ‘How can you meet my needs quickly?’” Elaine explains. “This industry is being turned upside down. It’s an interesting time for retail and an interesting time for brands. There’s a lot of excitement ahead.

The key, then, as the industry flips, is to jump right along with it. Though you won’t find one of her stores outside of Texas, the Elaine Turner brand has never been more accessible. “We have a direct sales division of stylists across the country,” Elaine explains. It’s a pretty fabulous amenity, too—shoppers from coast to coast can connect with a professional for a complimentary styling session, or even arrange a private shopping social with friends.

Elaine Turner
Select products from the Elaine Turner spring line. Photos courtesy of Elaine Turner.

“We’ve seen incredible success with the stylists and how they’re working one-on-one with clients,” says Elaine. “So we’re going to take that seed of success and make it even more modern and up-to-date with a ‘try it on for free’ box program.”

For a brand that’s known for their down-to-earth friendliness, the box program seems like the perfect marriage of digital convenience and the intimacy of a personal stylist. “As brands, we all have to stay true to what we offer and what we do best,” Elaine explains. “When a new challenge arises, I have to go back to my roots, which are intimacy and connection and friendliness. You have to always remain true to who you are. We want to be your best friend. We have value and glamour at a good price, and we’re very involved in community building and philanthropy. That’s what we do best.”

Jim agrees. “Our value and quality set us apart from a product standpoint, and our direct-to-consumer approach makes us agile and adaptable in a market that demands ease and convenience.” He adds, “If I had to name our main key brand differentiator, it’s simple—it’s Elaine. Her giving heart, meaningful wisdom, and passion for helping women are what truly sets our brand apart. It is unique to have a brand ambassador who truly lives and breathes the mission.”

 

Elaine Turner
Photo courtesy of Elaine Turner.

A Giving Heart

A leader through and through, Elaine’s ambassadorship for the business extends beyond bold, beautiful style—the brand also highly values community building and philanthropy.

“I want to be a positive light for women,” Elaine says. “Ultimately, we use our platform to give back. When we began opening our stores, we realized that we could use the space to bring people together. Our stores are a place for women to gather, educate, and inspire.

“We host over 300 give-back events a year across our eight stores,” notes Marketing Manager Meredith Wierick. “Philanthropy is one of the major pillars of the brand. We focus heavily on women’s and children’s charities, because Elaine’s passion lies with those two areas.”

Elaine and Jim’s love for those charitable causes is rooted in a powerful place: their family. “We are very involved with breast cancer, because my mother has Stage IV breast cancer,” Elaine shares. “We also have a special needs daughter. She’s thirteen, and she was born with a genetic abnormality that she manifests similarly to high-functioning autism. So we work with many autism nonprofits, including Autism Speaks, No Autism, Autism Rescue Angels, and Best Buddies. We also love to work with The River.”

I want to be a positive light for women. Our stores are a place for women to gather, educate, and inspire.
-Elaine Turner

The River Performing and Visual Arts Center is a program within Theatre Under the Stars, or TUTS, a Houston-based nonprofit that brings musical theater productions—from locally-produced performances to full-scale Broadway shows—into town. It is dedicated to providing accessible, affordable fine arts education to young people with different abilities and their siblings, and it’s become a beloved Houston institution. Elaine Turner has been supporting the program since 2011.

“Elaine’s commitment to Theatre Under The Stars and our River Performing and Visual Arts Center means the world to us,” says Donna Nisenson, Manager of Special Events and Development at TUTS. “From shopping parties at her stores to incredible donations for numerous TUTS events, Elaine has been a constant source of generosity and support. We were fortunate to honor Elaine at our River and Humphreys School Celebration this past fall. Selecting Elaine was an easy choice because of her tireless efforts in arts education for children with disabilities and their siblings.”

Truly, philanthropy is an encompassing mainstay of the Elaine Turner brand, and it’s brought the business close to the community it serves. “This is a part of our DNA,” says Jim. “We exist to become a part of the framework of each community we do business in—that’s essential to our brand purpose.” 

I love art, and I love fashion, and I love creating, but there’s really nothing more beautiful than creating a sense of connection and bringing people together.
-Elaine Turner

Elaine Turner
Photos courtesy of Elaine Turner.

Ever the eloquent brand ambassador, Elaine says it best: “I love art, and I love fashion, and I love creating, but there’s really nothing more beautiful than creating a sense of connection and bringing people together.”

“We’re here to do good and raise awareness, and create a sense of compassion,” she affirms. “The greatest gift that we were given as human beings is our capacity for empathy, and if we exercise that, there’s no limit to what we can do.”

A fitting motto for Elaine Turner, the bold and beautiful Houston designer who’s accomplished so much.


This feature originally appeared as the cover story of the Spring issue of Houston Hotel Magazine.
Featured image courtesy of Elaine Turner.

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