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IT’S A GIRL THING

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by Jeanne Muchnick

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When people talk about their “girls”, they generally mean their daughters. But for Larchmont resident Melissa Gitelman, mother of three (ages 11, 8, and 3, two of them female), “The Girls” are her ever-growing line of canvas totes, cosmetic bags, T-shirts, mugs, plates, magnets, umbrellas and most recently, jewelry. All showcase illustrations of women of various interests, from Tennis Girl, Golf Girl and Yoga Girl, to Shopping Girl, City Girl and Chocolate Girl, among many others. Soon to be released are Reading Girl, Telephone Girl and Internet Girl; all are Gitelman’s creations. Rewind to l995, soon after the birth of Gitelman’s second child. She was working in a high-pressured job doing product development at Talbot’s, traveling to the Far East and Europe several times a year. Having kids changed her priorities. “I wanted to scale down,” she recalls. Which she did, taking a lesser job at the company. But still she felt unfulfilled. “It’s hard to go from upper management, where I made all the decisions, to a less challenging job,” she explains. To compensate, she began collecting ideas, as well as news clippings about entrepreneurs who followed their dreams. Before she knew it, she had an overflowing folder full of inspiration — and the guts to do her own thing. The idea for The Girls came to Gitelman while she was shopping and noticed a picture of a girl figure. “I started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if she were doing something?’” And with that, Shopping Girl was born. Yoga Girl and Tennis Girl soon followed. Gitelman says she thought of all the things she and her friends like to do. Before long, her bulging folder blossomed into a successful business, currently run out Gitelman’s den. Her concept of profiling women in their numerous pursuits hit a nerve. “I was lucky,” she admits. “I had the right idea at the right time and place.” With folder in hand and her doctor-husband’s unwavering support, she left Talbot’s to establish The T Company, which included The Girls along with other novelty shirts. She premiered at an apparel show at the Javits Center in January l999 and The Girls were an instant hit. “People came up and told me how much they loved them,” she says. “Then they’d say, ‘You have a City Girl walking a dog; do you have Cat Girl?’ And so I started getting more ideas.” Friends in marketing and public relations helped to get her message out, and to define her Girls and their market by interviewing hundreds of women. “We asked women how they saw themselves,” Gitelman explains, “and the majority of them talked about their passions and hobbies before their spouses and careers.” Within months, word started to spread. In Style magazine mentioned her T-shirts in their December 2000 issue and the rest is history. “I started getting calls the minute the magazine hit the newsstand,” she says. “I didn’t sleep for six weeks, I was so busy placing orders.” She feels this was the moment that put her on the map, and it helped, too, because she spoke personally to every customer who called. But she admits it was a demanding time. “I’d be up till 2 or 3 in the morning taking and processing orders, then starting again at 6am.” Today, while Gitelman has 14 licensees for The Girls, and more in the works, she remains the “keeper of the brand.” There are also plans for a Girls 2 line for tweens/teens, with characters such as Movie Girl, Pizza Girl, and others. Gitelman has reps around the country, and a warehouse that does the production. Gitelman calls her operation “under the radar”, explaining that she doesn’t advertise or do direct sales or school fairs. You can find her Bloomie’s Girls at Bloomingdale’s and Nordy Girl totes at Nordstrom; other wares are sold at upscale boutiques. For now, Gitelman is happy that she can finally mix home life with career and be there when her kids come home from school. She says she tries to work from drop-off to pick-up —9am to 3pm — though she’s lucky to have the same babysitter from her full-time days. She admits it’s a tough balancing act, and one she doesn’t always do well. “Once I had to call Joyce (the sitter) from my cell to bring a glass of water to me while I sat in the car in the garage,” she admits. “I was so thirsty, but I didn’t want to go inside. Eventually, I had to sneak in so my kids wouldn’t see me. I just had too much work. “Fifty percent of what I do is because Joyce is there for me,” she adds. “I couldn’t do all this without her.” Gitelman says it took a while — two years, in fact — to adjust to working at home, and to get her children to understand that she was still indeed working even though she was on the telephone in the den. “I never feel I’m doing anything perfectly,” she confides. “If I don’t work enough, I obsess over that. If I’m not totally available to my kids, I feel bad about that.” Despite The Girls’ success, Gitelman continues to challenge herself. “My philosophy has always been that the minute you get too comfortable, you’re doomed,” she says. Which is why she is still plugging away and growing her business. Might there be a Balancing-It-All-Girl in the future?

 


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