Story by Elaine Anne Watt
The girls from Middleburg have “it” in the nicest way possible. Warmth, passion, sincerity and business savvy have Krista and Alexa Johnson, otherwise known as the sisters behind Ella Rue, poised to achieve the dreams first fostered here in their beloved hometown.
Sandy Johnson and her beautiful daughters moved to Middleburg when the girls were ages 6 and 4 respectively, embracing the intimacy of the town and the different pace like a well-fitted glove. Making a cozy home on Marshall Street, Alexa began kindergarten and Krista entered second grade at Middleburg Elementary.
Their Mom encouraged them to follow their interests while requiring them to participate in community service, ensuring that Krista and Alexa would develop a healthy work ethic and appreciation for the opportunities that life would present. Ballet, Girl Scouts, soccer, and being altar girls at Trinity Episcopal Church created a happy rhythm to their days. They developed a love of horses and were able to have a trainer and ride at a nearby friend’s farm.
Although Sandy worked mainly as a stay-at-home mother and raised them with tremendous love and care, she did augment the household income working as an innkeeper for a time and volunteered in the community as well. The girls had enough, but they took notice of the shops and beautiful surroundings of their “idyllic” town. It wasn’t long before their innate curiosity and ingenuity took hold. In one particular store, an array of adorable Beanie Babies, those collectable stuffed toys by Ty with names and stories to match that became a craze in the 1990s, kept them rapt. The girls offered to help the owner of “Finicky Filly,” Judy Casey, with her store even though they were only 5 and 7. She let them clean her windows or run errands to the Post Office in exchange for their pick of a Beanie Baby. By the time they were in their mid-teens, the relationship had grown to the point that Casey would allow the girls to sell the upscale designer pieces in her store and began taking them on buying trips to New York, Atlanta and elsewhere. Krista and Alexa were learning the tools of the trade that would prepare them for the steps to follow.
During their high school years, both girls also worked at Tully Rector under the nurturing eye of Karen Jackson, forming a bond that remains strong today. As Jackson laughingly says, “I’m like another mother; they can’t get away from me!”
Their years in Middleburg growing up included a love of Huckleberry’s breakfasts. “They were the best,” says Alexa. “And the Coach Stop,” chimes in Krista. Mosby’s had free pizza on Tuesdays, and the girls could walk to school and all over town with no fear for their safety. It was a bit of a protective balloon that no doubt has contributed to their solid belief in the goodness of people.
Also, volunteering with seniors, a thriving babysitting service, meeting customers, engaging with people from all walks of life, and then their early travels taught them the exceptional trait of accessibility, the ability to connect with others because they are genuinely interested in people. Quite simply, they care.
Eventually, Casey decided it was time to close her fantastically successful store in Middleburg to move to Charleston, South Carolina, to be closer to her children and grandchildren. By this time, Krista and Alexa had fallen in love with the city on prior visits, and they accepted the challenge to move there and work with Casey. From 2002-2006, the girls studied at the College of Charleston and continued to hone their knowledge of the fashion industry. Their “Middleburg Family” rallied behind them by raising funds to help make this move possible. “The whole village supported us, immeasurably enriching our lives,” says Krista.
As wonderful as their time in Charleston had been, a combination of their natural affinity towards and love of fashion prompted the girls to return home to try to move forward in their careers. After working with Jackson at Tully’s again for a brief time, they moved to Washington, D.C., where working in Georgetown gave them new opportunities for growth.
Alexa went to work for Middleburg’s The Magic Wardrobe under the direction of Bridget Wilson at the company’s second location in Georgetown. While working there, Wilson introduced Alexa to the importance of quality materials, distinctive fabrics and the manufacturing side of the business. For more than five years, Alexa managed the D.C. store and helped launch a wholesale line of clothes made in the Philippines to a national and international audience through a series of up to 12 trunk shows a year.
Meanwhile, Krista was building her skills in customer service and client relations through her own work in the city’s fashion industry. As sales manager and “problem solver,” Krista had a knack for displaying eclectic pieces to an increasingly sophisticated market.
All during this time, Krista and Alexa were aware that one day they wanted something of their own. While still at The Magic Wardrobe, Alexa gave Krista that extra push to give it a go. The great recession had taken place creating a niche market that they were ready to capitalize on. Buyers still wanted the quality and fashion they had become accustomed to, but now they had less to spend on their wardrobes. In the fast world of Washington, D.C., there were plenty of “gently used” items sitting in closets waiting for a second chance. Krista envisioned an upscale consignment shop where she would offer select brand merchandise to an eager clientele, sharing the proceeds 50-50 with her suppliers.
Krista went to the man she called “grandfather,” Lindy, the long-time partner of the girls’ beloved “Mum Mum,” and asked for a $10,000 loan. The girls credit Mum Mum, their maternal grandmother, with teaching them almost everything they have learned about fashion, taste and manners, all with a healthy dose of humor. At the time, it was impossible for new businesses to get a commercial loan from a bank, and yet, the time was right for Ella Rue to be born. Lindy never even hesitated.
With $42 left in her bank account, and after long hours painting walls and accumulating the best she could find of 10 designer labels, Krista opened the doors of Ella Rue in a small crowded storefront on P Street. By the end of the night, family and friends mixed with a few curious newcomers had stepped up and replenished her bank account to the tune of $5,000. Within a month, Krista knew she’d be okay. Over the next couple of years, the sisters worked feverishly to grow the business, Krista hands on at the helm, and Alexa using her connections and business acumen to refer business her way.
Just as a pretty new space across the street from her original location became available, Krista asked Alexa to join her in the business as a partner. Beginning in 2014, the sisters who had never been too far apart now had a thriving company to take to greater levels together. The new location on P Street continued to build on the business’ early success. You almost always could find one or the other of the sisters there personally styling their customers, evaluating and sourcing merchandise and making sure that their clients were receiving the utmost in service and discretion.
And, the business was getting more challenging. It wasn’t enough to offer runway pieces for special occasions; Krista and Alexa increasingly were being asked to style whole wardrobes for women and their children. They saw the demand for creating a complete collection to suit every need, with seasonal rotation pieces and timeless treasures that would outlast the latest trends.
About this time, MGM came courting in November, 2015. They were looking for a truly local family-owned business to join their National Harbor location under construction. With tears in her eyes, Krista told of how it seemed like a sign that MGM sent them that first email on the very day they laid to rest their adored grandfather. He had loved Las Vegas back in the 1960s and 70s, the days of the Golden Nugget and Frank Sinatra.
It took them six months to decide, but they felt honored to be offered the opportunity to join the MGM family and recognized MGM’s commitment to the success of all their partner companies and the region as a whole. Once they accepted, Alexa took the lead in the design of the MGM National Harbor store and merchandising, with a focus on new rather than used items including the private label jewelry line they’ve developed. Taking her inspiration in part from Valentino’s flagship store in Rome, “a place I just love,” Alexa created a sophisticated yet approachable space filled with gorgeous couture, fragrances and accessories. It’s a must-see for every style maven.
Brimming with energy, the pair laughed as they talked about the future. They are in the process of designing a clothing line to launch in the spring of 2018 focused on wearable street style with a healthy dose of femininity. Although they recently lost Mum Mum, they feel her presence every day as they work hard to achieve their dreams. Krista and Alexa feel incredibly blessed to have grown up with the love and support of friends and family, and to have “Middleburg in our hearts.”
You can’t help but love them back. ML