Sherri McMullen on Championing Rising Black Designers with Shop McMullen

Sherri McMullen by Maria Del Rio | Image courtesy of Shop McMullen

For Sherri McMullen, intentionality and representation are not just buzzwords for the founder behind the luxury retail concept store, Shop McMullen, nestled in the vibrant heart of Oakland, California. Growing up in Oklahoma curious about merchandising, her core values were shaped over a 17-year career in the buying industry and an initial role at Neiman Marcus. There, she noticed a glaring lack of diversity among the decision-makers, a realization that would later inspire her mission of representing young, emerging brands and those founded by people of color. “As a black woman, I wanted to seek out those brands, and that’s what I did,” she explains. Now in Oakland, her dedication has been fruitful; Shop McMullen was the first retailer to feature 2021 CFDA American Womenswear Designer of the Year, Christopher John Rogers, Brooklyn-based jewelry brand Khiry by Jameel Mohammed, and supported Rachel Scott of Diotima in producing her next collection. The Shop McMullen space has evolved into more than just a store — it’s a reflection of McMullen’s heritage and commitment to community with varying shades of brown mannequins, family photos on the walls, and engaging events like the Special Night at the Museum with Christopher John Rogers, which included an exclusive look at Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style exhibit open until August 11th, which features pieces from her personal collection. Beyond fashion, she fosters discussions with Black women in leadership, business, tech, and film. In conversation with, McMullen discussed details on her entry into the industry, her incubator program, Beyond M, which offers resources and mentorship to budding designers, and her future vision for the boutique she created.

As the founder of McMullen Boutique, you’ve created a space known for its curated selection of emerging designers and established brands. What inspired you to start your boutique, and how do you maintain its unique identity in a competitive market?
I started McMullen in 2007 after working in the corporate space for several years and feeling like I wanted something for myself and my family. After living in Dallas, I initially moved to California for a corporate job that provided me great experience, but something was pulling me to do something on my own. I always wanted to stay in the fashion space, so I moved to Oakland and noticed a significant retail market gap that was different from what you would find at department stores. I really wanted to create something that was focused on the discovery of young designers and young brands. Just thinking about what was out there at that time, there were many stores with the same mix of brands and the same designers, but none of them were really focused on young talent and brands founded by people of color. So, as a black woman, I wanted to seek out those brands, and that’s what I did.

“It’s crucial for us as a company, as a brand, and for me personally to make sure that representation is key in every single thing that we do and how we show up in this business. The fashion industry has long been exclusive.”

You were the first retailer to pick up Christopher John Rogers’ collections and the Brooklyn-based jewelry label Khiry by Jameel Mohammed. What criteria do you use to select designers to feature in your boutique, and how do you balance showcasing established names with introducing new voices to your audience?
I look for brands that truly move me, those with a distinctive point of view that I know our customers will respond to. I consider wearability, functionality, and fabrics, as well as where our customers will wear each piece. I also look for brands that source responsibly and offer something unique in the market. Since I see so many brands each market week, whether during Fashion Week or while traveling to find new brands in different places, I’m always thinking about the story they tell through their work and how we can help share that story. Our overall brand mix includes both established brands and young designers. Even among the established brands, we have long-standing partnerships. For example, we’ve carried Rachel Comey and Ulla Johnson almost since their inception—Ulla Johnson for nearly 15 years. Although these brands are well-known now, we’ve partnered with them for years, building strong relationships. We’re always making sure that we bring in young talent to sit alongside any of those established brands, which is how we have a point of differentiation in our boutique.

Rachel Scott, Sherri McMullen, and Ayesha Curry by Samantha Cooper | Image courtesy of Shop McMullen

You’ve been a champion of diversity and inclusivity in the industry. Can you speak about the importance of representation in the industry and how McMullen Boutique contributes to fostering a more inclusive environment?
At McMullen, everything we do is intentional. From our brown mannequins and family photos to the brands we carry and the events we host, we are committed to supporting people of color and female-owned businesses. We work closely with our Oakland community, often hiring women-founded businesses locally, and we always consider how we can support and partner with those who share our values. It’s crucial for us as a company, as a brand, and for me personally to make sure that representation is key in every single thing that we do and how we show up in this business. The fashion industry has long been exclusive. When I started 17 years ago, and even earlier during my corporate career at Neiman Marcus, I rarely saw people who looked like me making decisions about store merchandise. Growing up in Oklahoma, I only knew about being a designer or working at a store; I didn’t realize there were roles like buyers or decision-makers behind the scenes. My curiosity about these roles led me to study business and accounting, to enter the fashion industry but stay on the business side. I wanted to be in the rooms where decisions about store merchandise were made and help guide customer decisions.

I know you also touched on using events to promote inclusivity and diversity. You held an event with Rachel Scott and Ayesha Curry in the spring. Are those the types of events that you use to utilize those conversations about inclusivity and foster that type of community?
It was a wonderful two-day event we held in the spring filled with special moments. Rachel Scott of Diotima styled our customers, allowing them to engage intimately with her and see firsthand how she put outfits together; our customers were excited about that. In addition to the in-store experience, Ayesha and I hosted a dinner celebrating the Caribbean spirit. Ayesha’s beauty line, Sweet July Skin, is inspired by Jamaica, as is Rachel’s line, where all of her crochet pieces are made in Jamaica. It was just a nice way to bring those moments together. The event also took place during Women’s History Month, providing a perfect opportunity for us to come together and celebrate each other. I’ve known Ayesha for over a decade, and when she visited the store, I introduced her to brands she hadn’t encountered before. We’ve always connected over emerging brands, as she’s always wanted to wear those untapped brands that not a lot of people know about. When I started styling her for Sweet July, her lifestyle company, and events like her cookbook launches, I chose brands like Maki Oh, which she loved. During a Sweet July shoot, I showed her Rachel’s collection before its official launch. I had picked it up for the store three years ago, during Rachel’s second collection. Ayesha wore Diotima to the CFDA Awards last year, where we watched Rachel win the CFDA Emerging Designer of the Year Award. It was such an exciting and rewarding collaboration. Rachel and I connected through Christopher John Rogers, who introduced us. He texted me, recommending her so I found an email from Rachel’s brand, had a Zoom call during the pandemic, and I immediately fell in love with her collection. We brought in her second season, which was her first for retail. Our customers have really embraced the brand, with some collecting pieces from the very first season. Recently, Rachel mentioned that McMullen’s investment in her line helped her produce her next collection. It was a heartfelt moment, knowing our efforts were making a real impact. Ayesha’s support as a customer is a perfect example of how we all work together to support and build a thriving community.

Last year, you launched the Beyond M incubator program. Could you provide insight into the program’s objectives and whether it is slated to become an annual initiative?
We launched Beyond M to provide resources and mentoring for young designers. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed that while we bring in talented designers, many of them disappear after about three years. This isn’t due to a lack of talent but often a lack of access to the necessary business resources. Our goal is to guide these designers in becoming successful business leaders and to provide a place where they can get answers to questions beyond fashion and design. For instance, they might need advice on HR when they’re ready to hire, guidance on bookkeeping or financials, or help understanding their P&L, gross margins, line sheets, marketing initiatives, and PR strategies. We aimed to create a comprehensive program offering all the tools needed for success. Whether they’re starting to think about fundraising or need advice on the use of funds, we wanted to ensure they have someone to turn to for those types of questions.

By Maria Del Rio | Image courtesy of Shop McMullen

Your boutique has gained a loyal following both locally and internationally. How do you engage with your customers, and what strategies do you employ to keep them coming back?
We engage with our customers by giving them a behind-the-scenes view of our daily operations. We enjoy bringing our audience and the McMullen family into our world. Often, we provide them with access to our buying trips and market appointments, taking them through our process. We also show them what day-to-day life in the store is like. Beyond selling clothes, we immerse them in our world, which keeps our customers highly engaged. They feel like they are part of the entire experience, which encourages them to keep coming back. While fashion is at the heart of what we do and something I am very passionate about, we also focus on community engagement. We host conversations on various topics beyond fashion. For example, we discuss issues affecting Black women in health and have conversations about women in leadership, business, tech, and film. We’ve even had Oscar winners come in to talk about their journey in filmmaking and what it takes to win an Oscar.

“The most luxurious products are those that take time to produce, free from the rush of timetables.

With the rise of e-commerce, the retail landscape has undergone significant changes. How has McMullen Boutique adapted to these changes, and what role do you see brick-and-mortar stores playing in the future of fashion retail?
McMullen has always been at the forefront of industry changes. Even before the pandemic, we were testing models like QR codes and virtual reality. We’ve always been interested in leveraging emerging technology in ways that make sense for our business. However, I personally love the in-store experience. There is nothing like going into a store where the stylist and staff know you and your preferences, providing a personal touch and relationship. I enjoy being able to touch and feel items, try things on, and be in a special environment. I believe in the Omni experience, which requires a strong digital presence, but I also think physical stores are even more important. In the luxury space, there is something unique about the intimacy of working with someone who knows your taste and can predict what you’ll like. People recognize specialty stores’ value and importance in the luxury retail space.

Sherri McMullen + Christopher John Rogers by Drew Altizer | Image courtesy of Shop McMullen

How does McMullen Boutique approach sustainability in the designers you choose to partner with?
We approach sustainability by encouraging people to buy only what they love. We emphasize the value of quality pieces that our customers will keep in their closets forever. This is our way of promoting sustainability. We offer archival pieces that we never mark down, selling them to select clients interested in collecting. We highlight collectible items and introduce brands that may be unfamiliar but are committed to slow, sustainable fashion. For example, some pieces are made in Nigeria and take months to produce, with days dedicated to creating a single garment. This truly embodies slow fashion and sustainability. The most luxurious products are those that take time to produce, free from the rush of timetables. Some clients who have shopped with us since the beginning tell us they still wear pieces they bought years ago. We also showcase this on social media, highlighting how new items can be paired with pieces purchased years ago. We constantly advocate for buying less but better, choosing only what you love, and keeping those pieces forever or passing them on to someone who will love them just as much.

Looking forward, what is your vision for the future of McMullen Boutique, and how do you anticipate its ongoing evolution within the dynamic landscape of the fashion industry?
I’m looking forward to continuing our work. We do so well finding those gems and discovering new talent and designers. We want to be able to do that and tell their stories. At the same time, we want to ensure that those young designers are supported and help give them a platform to not only sell their work but continue to tell their stories. We’re going to continue to do that and then expand our footprint physical footprint, and we’re excited about what Beyond M brings to the fashion world.

By Samantha Cooper | Image courtesy of Shop McMullen

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