April 7, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 4

Passion for Fashion

Debra Cannon (’77, American Studies) at her Humboldt Avenue warehouse in Chico. Photo (and homepage photo) by Frank Rebelo.

Q&A with LuLu's.com Cofounder Debra Cannon

Editor's note: Obsessed with fashion, aesthetics, and culture, Debra Cannon has mixed business savvy with a passion for family and place. Cannon came to Chico State from Oakland as a freshman in 1968. Detours into the counterculture, marriage, and motherhood resulted in a nonlinear degree but a very rewarding student life peppered with the local color of the Chico community. She graduated at the top of her class in 1977 with a bachelor’s in American studies and went on to the University of Oregon School of Library Science. She held library positions with Chico State’s Meriam Library, Butte County, and Chico Unified School District. In 1996, Cannon and her daughter, Colleen Winter, founded LuLu's Fashion Lounge, a boutique in downtown Chico that blossomed into a retail destination, along with GiGi Shoe Parlour. The duo launched LuLus.com in 2005, and now this successful enterprise occupies a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and employs 115 Chicoans. Cannon recently endowed a scholarship through the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business. She is the 2014 College of Business Distinguished Alumna and is among eight to be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner April 11.

ICS: What stands out to you most about your time at Chico State?

DC: What really what stands out is how much of my life became solidified or formed during those years. I started when I was 17, met my future husband in the dorms, and had a baby right away. I took off from school for a while, did some counterculture activities, and was a re-entry student. I did a lot of growing up in my 20s along with being a student, but I was a serious student—I got scholarships and pretty much straight As. But I learned so much from all my experiences at Chico State in addition to the classes I took.

Talk about your trajectory in library work. What interested you about it?

Because I was majoring in American studies, I took a broad selection of classes. So I was in a lot of different departments, made friends with a lot of different kinds of people, and was influenced by a variety of teachers. And that led into librarianship. I was always an avid reader, but this was a way to use that broad knowledge.

The University is really supportive of the business community and vice versa.

[After studying at the University of Oregon] I decided to come back to Chico and resume my life here. So I went back to Meriam Library and got a job in the special collections department working on the Stansbury collection. Another woman and I took the entire collection of memorabilia and organized and classified it. There were a lot of photographs and papers from Angelina, the daughter who worked at Chico High, and the doctor, Oscar. [Editor’s note: The Oscar Stansbury Papers is a collection of ledgers and other documents upon which F.S. Clough based his book, The House at Fifth and Salem. It is located in Meriam Library Special Collections, reference number MSS80.]

Why did you decide to start LuLu’s Fashion Lounge with your daughter?

I’ve always been a high-energy person, so I was always doing business things on the side besides library work. In the meantime, my daughter and I had always wanted to do something together business-wise. So [after she graduated from San Diego State] we decided to open a clothing store.

We started with under $10,000. We had mostly used clothes. Over time, we just kept adding more and more new clothes. We added shoes and opened the shoe store [GiGi]; by this time we’d gotten rid of the vintage completely. We went online in 2005 seeing the way of the future for retail.

What were the challenges of starting a business?

We really had to learn everything along the way. We began going to downtown LA to get our new clothes and made relationships with vendors there. We started figuring out how to sell clothes. Colleen and I have always been really good at knowing when to jump on a trend, when to leave it, and when to capitalize on what’s selling. I think we’re just natural-born entrepreneur fashionistas.

Because of my graphics background, I always did our window display in the store and loved to work with the creative team. And because of my library background, I knew how to set up the warehouse—it was alphabetical until we changed to a different system. So all of these things I learned in school helped me develop into a well-rounded business person. 

Has being an alum in a college town helped you?

Because it’s Chico, and the college and downtown have always been really close, you’re constantly running into people you know from the past. And they have kids, and their kids become my friends. It’s such a big happy family, and I think the University really generates that, because you have these graduates who breed more graduates [laughs]. The University is really supportive of the business community and vice versa.

What’s a typical work day like? 

Luckily, we have a lot of really talented department managers now, so Colleen and I have stepped back from a lot of things. The buildings require a lot of decisions, because we’re always expanding. I’m dealing with contractors and city permits and logistics. And the merchandise—that’s huge. We have a team of buyers, so I’m not as hands-on with buying as I used to be. For many years, Colleen and I picked every single item out ourselves. Now we have 2,000 SKUs (unique items) at any time, and we’re adding new items every day to the website.

Where do you see the business going? What are your long-term goals?

We’re constantly growing. We ship internationally, and we’re working on expanding our international customer base. We also have the LuLu’s brand, our private label that’s made for us, so we’re always growing that.

Your business is your baby. Only, it doesn't grow up after diapers.

What are you most proud of?

Probably my daughter. I couldn’t have done this without her, and she couldn’t have done this without me. We have such a great working relationship, and it’s so wonderful that I get to work with her. She has two sons, and they’re always here after school. The fact that I have such a close relationship with her family is just really special.

I’m also proud of our success. We can’t take it lightly that we’ve taken this to a major brand.

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?

Follow your dream, take risks when you can, but always back it up with enough money to pay your bills. Colleen and I learned that early on: We always put money back into the business. We never had to take on any debt, and we have great relationships with all of our vendors and the banks. Keeping that A+ credit rating enables you to do what you want, so you’re not hampered by any kind of money problems.

Basically, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. People who have an idea but only do it halfway aren’t going to achieve. You have to be willing to work 24-7, always taking it to the next step and not getting complacent with where you are. Continue to check out your competition and make your product better. Sleeping sometimes becomes second priority. Your business is your baby. Only, it doesn’t grow up after diapers.

Why did you start the scholarship? 

When I was a student, I was a single mother going to school, and I received scholarships from the Parent Teacher Association and the University of Oregon. So I know how important it is for students to have that opportunity if they need funding. When we first opened our store, we set up a scholarship. We’re starting it up again, and now we’re in a better position to make it a larger one.

Rumor has it you play bocce ball competitively. How does bocce fit in to being a fashion goddess?

It is my alter ego. When I’m not working, I’m playing bocce. They call me the Bocce Queen and the Commissioner. We play every Wednesday night with a league, plus other games throughout the week and tournaments. I send out a Sunday newsletter to the bocce community, where I recap play from the former week and announce future events. The bocce community has really grown, and I’m one of the people who’ve fostered that. As my daughter says, it’s the only sport I’ve ever been good at, so I roll with it.

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