by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
It’s not all about selling clothes and making money for Elliot and Lisa Torrence, the owners and proprietors of Torrence’s House of Threads. It’s also about people.
The sales people who work for the Torrence’s and the customers who come in to buy men’s and women’s clothing are looked upon by the couple as being part of a big family.
It’s the cultivation of relationships with customers and staff that is the key to the Torrence’s 10 years of success in the clothing business.
“Relationships make a big difference,” said Elliot Torrence. “I think relationships are huge. It’s about trust.”
Lisa Torrence concurred with her husband, adding that they and the staff have worked hard as a team to build the type of trust their customers have in them to make them look good for any occasion, from business clothing to clothing for church, parties, proms and weddings.
“It’s the atmosphere (we try to create in the store),” Lisa said. The staff is pleasant. People come in to talk or say a prayer. They feel comfortable enough to just hang out, have a cup of coffee and talk, then come back later to buy.”
“People share things that are personal because of the relationships we’ve built with them,” Elliot added.
During an interview at the couple’s store at 7732 W. Burleigh St. (a second store is at 4722 W. Fond Du Lac Ave.) the Torrences—who have been married for 14 years—often interrupted the interview to greet and say a word or two to customers as they came in and shopped.
Even the staff interrupted once or twice to recall instances of the couple’s generosity and commitment to the community, as well as a passion for making sure their customers look their best in the latest fashions by the leading clothing designers.
The Torrences are particularly proud of the relationships they’ve built outside the store in the community.
For a number of years, the couple has donated hats and scarves they buy in Chicago to their church, Christian Faith, pastored by Bishop Darryl Hines.
At press time, the Torrences were working with Gee’s Clippers to sponsor a toy drive. Elliot and Lisa have also worked with Nappy Roots Hair Salon.
“We work with other Black businesses when we get the opportunity,” said Elliot.
“It’s so important to support each other. There’s a much bigger picture than just business. It’s important that kids see people who look like them in business and see that they can be successful without being a rapper or an athlete; that there are other avenues to success.”
Torrence’s House of Threads has also worked with community-based organizations such as the Running Rebels youth organization and the Latino Community Center to dress teens the organizations mentor for success in the world of work.
The Torrences also help individuals. Elliot recalled the time a young man came into the store to rent a tuxedo for prom.
The young man was waiting for his father to show up and help him pick out and pay for the tux. But the teen’s father never showed.
Instead of turning the youth away, Elliot and another sales person helped the young man pick out a tux and all the accessories—at no charge! Elliot even gave the youth and his date a ride to the prom in his car.
Lisa hosts an event just for women called “Queen for a Day,” in which women are invited to shop and receive first-class treatment. “We enjoy helping women—especially business women. We give them an opportunity to network; to celebrate being a woman.”
“When we’re able to, we try to give back to the community,” Lisa added. “We get five to 10 calls a month to sponsor something. We can’t meet all requests, but we try to help out. Even before we made a profit (with the store), we did what we could.”
“Ministry is not about you, it’s about people,” Elliot added. “We love helping people look their best, feel good—enhance what they’re doing. There’s beauty in everyone who walks through the door.”
The Torrences credit a number of people for making their leap of faith into the business world a success.
Elliot credited Emmitt Blackwell, an uncle and retired contractor who helped Elliot renovate the first store on Fond du Lac Avenue.
Elliot said his cousin, Anthony Staton, was an integral part of the business’ growth. Staton was a partner and investor, who also sold clothing.
“He was basically my right hand man,” Elliot said, adding his cousin is currently pursuing his own business ventures.
The couple also credited Mother Johnnie Harvey, the mother of noted minister Pastor Walter Harvey of Parklawn Church. The owner of her own boutique, Mrs. Harvey showed the Torrences the ins and outs of the fashion business.
“She was instrumental in showing us the ropes; she prayed with us,” Elliot said. “We bought her inventory when she closed the boutique.”
It was Mrs. Harvey who took Elliot on his first buying trip. “We bought jewelry and scarves. They cost $700. I was sick for the rest of the day,” Elliot chuckled, remembering the trip.
Also instrumental in the couple’s success is their sales staff, with which they have a close relationship that goes beyond employer and employee.
Tired of retirement after 30 years in the clothing business, Warrine Wanzo, the wife of Rev. Willie Wanzo of Metropolitan Baptist Church, went back to work for the Torrences. Wanzo, who has worked at the clothing store for five years, looks upon the couple as if they were her own children.
Emil Harris, a 30-year veteran of the clothing business, has been with Torrence’s House of Threads for four years. Other employees include Dennis Carrington and Richard Willis, Jr.
“We’re blessed to have good people,” Elliot said. “Team work makes the dream work.”
Given the economic climate, the Torrences are mindful of their blessings and thank God every day. “Our faith and relationship with God helps us to maintain,” Elliot said.
“We pray all the time for the success of the business, for our employees and for other African American businesses,” Lisa added.
As for how the couple and business will celebrate 10 years, Elliot admitted they haven’t planned anything special due to the economy.
Aside from a possible anniversary sale for customers or doing something special with employees, the Torrences hope to do a customer appreciation event like a cookout. It’s just another way for them to keep building those relationships with the community.
August 19, 2012 //
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