Lisa McSherry inside of Lex's of Carytown (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Lisa Montgomery McSherry is all about local. A native of Midlothian, she has spent her life in Richmond. “It’s always RVA,” she says. “I’ve traveled everywhere, but always lived here.”
Ironically, McSherry’s travels are what inspired her to create a Richmond icon, Lex’s of Carytown, a women’s fashion boutique that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
“I knew, by the time I was 30, I wanted to be my own boss,” she says.
Working as a sales representative for The Jefferson hotel often took McSherry to New York City and Los Angeles. To keep travel costs down, she flew on Saturdays but didn’t have meetings until Monday, giving her time to explore. She was drawn to the garment districts, and soon decided to follow her interest in fashion, starting with an in-home costume jewelry business. Before long, she opened Lex’s, offering office wear with personality.
“I always liked a little bit of flair in my wardrobe,” she says. “I wanted to serve the professional woman who wanted something funky. We didn’t have formalwear at all.”
Like many solo business owners, McSherry worked around the clock, managing the store while traveling extensively to find compelling clothing lines. She remembers seeing an appealing collection of cocktail dresses and formal wear, and a light bulb went off: “I’m missing a market!” she thought.
She expanded to a second floor and added dresses for special occasions like homecoming, prom and weddings. Now, the store is routinely cited in “best of” lists for its wedding gown, bridesmaid and mother-of-the-bride dresses, as well as cocktail dresses that can’t be found anywhere else.
“We cover it all,” she says. “And we have no more than three to six items in any one style, so you won’t see that dress all over town. We dig deep in product lines to not carry what department stores have.”
That curated approach has led to loyal customers, with McSherry noting that she’s been a guest at weddings for women who first came to the store when they were girls purchasing dresses for eighth grade dances.
She credits the Carytown shopping district for allowing her flexibility in her business approach and requiring she pay attention to market forces. “I didn’t want to be in a mall; I wanted to be creative and do my own thing,” she says. “Carytown seems to experience an evolution every seven years or so. Either you make changes, or you have to pull out. I always listen to my customers.”
A key element of the area’s success, she believes, is engaging with the community. For years, McSherry has been involved with the Retail Merchants Association and the Carytown Merchants Association. As a business owner and individual, she has been active in several significant programs that seek to improve the lives of people in Richmond and beyond.
In 2008, McSherry was on the RMA committee looking for ways the association could make a difference by working directly with a local nonprofit. She was happy when the group selected UNOS — the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Richmond that oversees the nation’s organ transplant system — because a family member of hers had needed a transplant due to kidney disease.
The program RMA created in conjunction with UNOS, now known as Retailers 4Life, recruits participating businesses to promote organ donation and transplantation during the month of April, National Donate Life Month.
Lisa Schaffner, director of public relations and marketing for UNOS, says McSherry’s efforts are unsurpassed. “When Lisa says she’s going to work with a group or project, that means [she brings] 110 percent,” Schaffner says, crediting McSherry for helping to spread the word about the program, which in turn encourages people to register as donors.
It matters when business owners are active in the community, Schaffner says. “I’m a firm believer that when you attend events, you should look at who the corporate sponsors are,” she says. “Those are the people who get my business and get my attention, because those are the people who really care in the community. Lisa McSherry is one of those people.”
Heather Placer, the 2017 chair of the Cinderella Dreams Prom Dress Project for the Midlothian Junior Women’s Club, has worked with McSherry for years to provide formal wear to teenage girls who otherwise could not attend prom because of the cost. Placer said that McSherry last year donated nearly 100 new dresses from Lex’s. “Any time we call, she’s on it,” Placer says. “It’s always her busy season when we call, but she never says no. She’s always been wonderful to work with.”
Melissa Chase, program director at Summit Media Productions, another Cinderella Dreams sponsor, is enthusiastic about McSherry. “Every year, she graciously gifts beautiful new designer gowns from Lex’s of Carytown,” Chase writes in an email.
“Owning a store of such beautiful gowns, I think she gets to see the magic of how a teenager suddenly transforms into a confident woman when she finds her perfect gown,” Chase says of McSherry. “And she enjoys making sure that all girls — no matter their family’s income — get to have that same opportunity.”
Nancy Thomas, president and CEO of the Richmond Retail Merchants Association, says McSherry is an invaluable member of the local business community, pointing to her connections with Retailers 4Life, Cinderella Dreams, and Night to Shine, a prom night for students with special needs, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. “She’s always been not only an engaged and contributing board member, but she lives the mission of RMA,” Thomas says. “The local impact she’s had as a business owner is really incredible.”
McSherry is also part of a group that meets quarterly with a senior economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The gathering, the Federal Reserve Roundtable, allows business owners to share feedback about economic trends with a Fed researcher. “That information has been critical to the Fed,” Thomas says.
For McSherry, business and community go hand in hand. “You’ve gotta give back,” she says. And she does.