I’MarE Boutique owner Martha Elmore Berry talks modeling, motherhood and leveling up in 2020
Martha Elmore Berry embodies a new era of women who recognize the challenges of balancing business, family life and faith — but won't back down.
Boutique owner Martha Elmore Berry sits in a velvet green chair at Glam House, the photography studio she owns in Humble. She is a vision of confidence and trendiness from her wispy eyelashes to the curving seams of her dress that just barely sweeps the cement floor.
Her online store I’MarE Boutique caters to the plus-size woman who is sophisticated and unapologetic in embracing her sexiness — or as Berry explained — it’s for a classy lady, a boss lady, a first lady.
The shop is member of a community of fashion lovers who admire fuller silhouettes, which have undoubtedly become mainstream. The online shop stocks sizes large to 4X, but some outfits also come in smaller measurements.
The promising Houston-based brand boasts more than 95,000 followers on Instagram and draws in tens of thousands of shoppers daily to its digital platforms. Berry said most items quickly sell out.
Berry launched I’MarE Boutique in June 2016 from her living room during a turbulent time in her life. She didn’t have a website at the time, and the brand was named Closet by Mot Scott in honor of her aunt.
“I had just gone through a divorce with my youngest daughter’s dad. I only had unemployment. I didn’t know how I was going to make it,” she said. “Going into entrepreneurship, it was scary. But I did it to show my daughters I could do it.”
For more than a year, Berry rode around with a trunk full of clothes and storing orders at her house. The business quickly evolved into I’MarE Boutique and a budding online presence, and then finally, a suite.
I’MarE Boutique out grew that suite within six months, so Berry decided to purchase a store front in Humble in 2018. Before she knew it, the boutique had its own warehouse just around the corner.
Berry already hopes to have a bigger warehouse in the near future as the company continues to expand into a growing market.
Statista recently projected U.S. e-commerce will jump from $374.4 billion in 2020 to an estimated $476.5 billion by 2024. Clothing and footwear are the most commonly purchased items. Generation Z is twice as likely to shop online and rely on social media reviews of products than Millennials, according to consumer experts.
Berry said I’MarE Boutique’s brand has been propelled by fashion influencers like celebrity stylist Goo Goo Atkins as well as popular Gospel artists Tasha Cobbs and Maranda Curtis.
The boutique’s commitment to customer experience and quality clothes has also helped the business flourish, according to Berry. She makes it a priority to respond to her customers’ direct messages on social media and never hesitates to invest in the community.
Berry, who mainly shops in the Los Angeles market, said it’s important for her to bring clients clothing from reputable vendors.
“It just there are so many boutiques, they don’t have to shop with me,” she said. “No one has to spend with me, so to see a customer has a hundredth order with me — I have to bless them just to say thank you.”
Berry said don’t let the competition be a distraction and argues it’s not too late to get into online fashion retail despite the looming pandemic. Her store has not only survived the coronavirus crisis, the small business continues to thrive.
“Now is the time, especially with COVID,” Berry said. “Right now, people are sitting at home [and] all they’re doing is shopping, so with fashion you can be creative.”
She spent six month conducting research before opening her business. If you can, she recommends using the down time to be creative and map out a plan.
“Come up with an idea of all the different items you want to have for your brand. Build your brand. Do anything you can do to be successful,” she said.
Berry isn’t just the mind and spirit behind the brand; she is also the body as the main model for the boutique’s catalog.
She said it’s a role that didn’t come naturally.
Scrolling through the boutique’s Instagram feed: the perfect tight black dress for a night out and then a bold floral print on a flowy silk skirt for autumn. In each post, Elmore strikes the perfect pose to entice customers.
It’s hard to imagine that woman would ever be dismissed let alone shy.
“In high school, I was called fat. Now I’m sexy,” she said. “I’m poppin,’ that’s what I’m hearing — that’s what they say.”
Through her business’ success, Elmore has emerged as a community influencer. She has modeled for various vendors. Her photos are sometimes featured on popular retail websites like PoshMark and Amazon.
Modeling has been a transformative experience for her.
“I had a confidence issue,” Berry said. “And I just said ‘you know what, I have to do this in order to sell these clothes.’ I have to get my confidence back. I have to find out who I am.”
Berry’s journey has been a series of blessings pouring into blessings. She tries to pay it forward through her businesses and mentoring other women. For example, it’s her goal to one day expand the I’MarE brand to fitness in order to further promote physical, spiritual and mental wellness.
“I treat my business like a ministry where I help women,” Berry said. “I do a lot of giveaways for a lot of different women, single parents, just anyone who needs help like breast cancer survivors. Just to kind of make people feel good about themselves because a lot of times we lack confidence.”
Berry built up her business one success and failure at a time. Her daughters Icelande and the younger England have been at her side through it all.
“They were always with me,” Berry said. “When I would do pop-ups, they had to come with me. Icelande helps me a lot.”
She wanted her boutique to be about her and daughters. The boutique’s name is a combination of Icelande, Martha and England: I’MarE.
“I just wanted to show my daughters that you don’t have to depend on a man,” Berry said. “You can make it. You can do it yourself. And if a man comes, you just bring added value. I just want them to be independent. And go as far as they can.”
Icelande is quite the force.
The 20-year-old is slaying it not only in the classroom as an honor student but also in fashion retail. She is the momentum behind I’CEE Collection, which carries smaller sizes and equals its parent brand I’MarE in both class and fierceness.
“She’s all about making her money. She’s all about being a boss,” mom said. Elmore couldn’t be more proud of her oldest daughter’s ambition. “She does everything herself. I don’t do anything for her but invest if I need to.”
In fact, during the interview, Icelande is hard at work in the company’s warehouse next door. She does her own marketing, hiring and firing, packaging and shipping and so on.
“I just keep being the best person I can be and the best role model because [Icelande] is watching,” Berry said. “She’s doing really good. A lot of females her age are not this headstrong and this focused.”
Eight-year-old England is still finding her way, like all kids her age. Berry said her youngest child is nonetheless a key to her success, bringing joy to the operation and inspiring Elmore through her embrittled confidence.
Berry wants to share the self-assurance she’s built with her customers, and especially, the evolving plus-size community.
There has been a growing pressure on manufactures to create fashionable plus-size clothing as more women aspire to more curvaceous and fuller body shapes, Berry said.
However, availability is just one obstacle. Shoppers gravitate to brands that fit their style, that inspire them and that they can trust.
When at market, Berry is on the lookout for good material and outfits that are strongly held together. Recently, she has prioritized the boutique’s selection of shapewear to make sure customers get their desired results.
“Even the smallest woman might need undergarments,” she said. “But I promote the undergarments, so if you do wear something fitted, it snatches us all the way in and keeps us together.”
She also understands that no matter the size, most women like to show a little skin from time to time.
“I’ll get outfits where it shows like a little stomach. It shows a little cleavage. I may do t-straps,” Berry said. “I just try to focus on items that will make you look really good and keep you shapely.”
The coronavirus pandemic sinked thousands of U.S. businesses and threatened to end entire industries; among them are travel, transportation and retail. H&M, Dillard’s and other big name clothing providers were forced to close locations nationwide.
The crisis didn’t spare small local businesses either; some were taken out for good, others temporarily and a select few retreated to online.
Berry was forced to close the I’MarE store front, but the retreat turned out to be a revival.
“It has really opened my eyes,” Berry said. “Because I had my online boutique, my business has survived. With brick-and-mortars, you had to close stores. But right now, people are sitting at home. All they’re doing is shopping.”
Berry admitted foot traffic was slow at the store perched in the modest northeast Houston suburb. Since items were selling out so quickly, she said many of her clients had got into the habit of ordering online.
The store front closing has allowed the boutique to nurture, and even expand, its digital customer base. During the coronavirus, she said the business has hit record sales.
Berry said if she had to restart from the beginning, I’MarE boutique would have always been an exclusively online store.
The pandemic also led Berry to her next business venture.
“It was supposed to be a pharmacy,” Berry said in reference to the space that is now the Glam House. “[The previous tenants] had been paying their rent for an entire year. A whole year, their permits couldn’t get approved. So right when I got off the phone to be able to get out of my lease, that was the blessing in disguise.”
She was heading back to her warehouse one day when she noticed the landlord placing a for-lease sign on the neighboring unit. Elmore said she jumped out of the car and inquired about.
“I just started thinking, ‘you know what, I could start taking pictures here,’” Elmore said. “I was driving an hour away to take pictures. I’ll just make a little studio for me — just something for me to have props in.”
Berry quickly got to work.
She hired an interior designer to create eight interchangeable sets — each one the perfect backdrop for fashionable portraits.
During the process, she realized it was a space that other people could benefit from. And thus, Glam House was born in the middle of a pandemic.
Martha Elmore Berry is above all a woman of faith — something we’ve all sought in one form or another during 2020 whether or not we found it.
In a period of less than five years, she went from working out of her living room to opening a second business; from collecting unemployment to providing financial support to others; from trying to reach her muse Goo Goo Atkins on social media to no avail and now the two women are friends and Elmore is an influencer in her own right.
She even has found a new love. She remarried to Elliott Berry a year ago.
Ultimately, Berry said she gives all the credit to God.
“I’m always reminded that God will bless you in your latter days and delayed does not mean denied,” Berry said. “So as many times as I was denied certain things, it’s just the delay for the purpose that God had set for me.”