Helene Gralnick, one of the Chico’s founders, along with her husband Marvin, sparkles, shines, and charms effortlessly. Her style is classic, artisanal, and all about the details. She lights up every room she walks into. We were lucky enough to spend some time with Helene, learning what drove her to start Chico’s, and her thoughts on its evolution, while on location at the first ever Chico’s shop in Sanibel Island, FL.
My name is Helene, and I’m 69.
What was the original idea behind the first Chico’s?
Marvin and I came to Sanibel Island because it’s safe and gorgeous. We thought it would be a fabulous place to raise our son and daughter. We needed to find something to do, and what we knew was Mexico. We met in Mexico, our children were born there; we felt like we had a Ph.D. in Mexico. We thought, “wouldn’t it be great to open a wonderful little shop?” So we opened our very first store right here, at Periwinkle Place, with folk art from Mexico. It was awesome. However, it was also a bit impossible because folk art is one-of-a-kind. If we sold a piece it was gone, and we would have to go back to Mexico and try to find something to replace it. Then, we found this sweater that was practically one-size-fits-all. It was for men, it was for women, it was for kids—we called it “unifamily.” That one sweater is what got us into the clothing business almost 35 years ago.
Did you ever imagine Chico’s would turn into what it is today?
I’ve got a great imagination and so does Marvin, but I don’t think we had any idea that Chico’s was going to be what it is now.
How do you feel about creating a brand that is dedicated to this amazing—and sometimes neglected demographic—women over 40?
I love our customer. She is ageless and timeless. I was 35 years old when we started this company, and I catered to myself. We would find things that we liked, and that I wanted to wear. It was never about age; it was about what makes you feel good, what makes you want to have a good time, and what brings out the best in you. It was our intention to make our customer feel as good as humanly possible and make ourselves feel as good as humanly possible. I know that’s a lot to expect from clothing, but that’s what we expected. I believe that Chico’s, to this day, wants to bring out the very best in each and every person that comes through our doors.
Why do you believe style is ageless?
Style is ageless because style comes from within. You can’t buy it. You can’t learn it. You can’t steal it. It’s you. It’s who you are. You can’t be someone else’s style. It just doesn’t work.
Why have those artisanal pieces been so important to Chico’s over the years?
Folk art has remained important to Chico’s because part of Chico’s’ charm and appeal is that it’s authentic. It didn’t start with some corporation creating a store. The store was from the heart, and there were very special, one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces.
How would you describe your own personal style?
I really just believe that if you feel good, you look your best. It’s as simple as that. It changes with how I feel. These days, I’m nature girl. I love to be outside, swimming, biking, kayaking, so it’s about what’s comfortable and makes me feel good. I live in jeans. I also love to get dressed up.
Where do you draw your style inspiration from?
I draw my style inspiration from my mom, Grace. She was gorgeous and just oozed style. The way she wore clothes, the way she dressed, the way she walked, the way she stood, she was awesome. She just had it. We designed my clothes together and she made them. She just knew what to do.
What do you think about aging?
I challenged myself to be as good as I can possibly be at 70. At 69, I’m in training for being 70, in my heart and in my soul. And, I can honestly say I’m excited about turning 70. I feel a lot more secure now than I did when I was younger.
If you could say something to your younger self, what would you tell her?
I would tell my younger self to lighten up. I would say, “It’s all going to happen just the way you want it. Focus on what you want and let the rest go away.”
Last but not least—what has Chico’s meant to you?
This is a very special place. My dreams came true here. Beyond my dreams came true here. I just wanted to create one perfect, amazing store with perfect, amazing people making other people happy all day. I wanted Chico’s to be a source of good in this world. I wanted every person that touched Chico’s to have their lives enhanced—and I mean everybody—from the customers, to the Chico’s team, to the suppliers. Everybody. I know that’s a tall order, but I wanted everybody to have a better life because of Chico’s, so this is very, very personal to me. This is a dream come true.