An Eye for Retail

by Kate Branum 

She sauntered in donning thick-framed glasses, a bright teal trench coat and a matching handbag. After ordering an iced coffee, she took a seat across from me at the small, round table in the corner of the cafe lounge. Susan Coombes, gift store manager at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), is the epitome of timeless style, and it all began by flipping through the glossy pages of a fashion magazine.

“This is going to sound crazy,” she laughed. “When I was a sophomore or freshmen in high school, I was home sick and my mom brought home a Mademoiselle magazine. This opened up a world I hadn’t even known about before.”

Coombes still remembers the initial astonishment she felt as she soaked up the content of the couture-packed pages. Fashion and jewelry and models, oh my! Just like that, her world changed and she found herself hooked on design. She became a voracious reader of the popular publications Vogue, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen.

Born and raised in Wyoming, Michigan, Coombes grew up in a household that familiarized her with fashion at a young age. Throughout her childhood, her mother worked in retail at a department store in downtown Grand Rapids. She remembers tagging along to browse the boutiques and shops that stretched down the sidewalk.

By the time she was old enough to work, Coombes was no stranger to the world of sales. During her high school years, she got a job at Steketee’s, a well-known department store in Grand Rapids. She worked in the yard goods department cutting fabric, learning about garment patterns and discovering how contrasting materials worked together.

“When I worked at Steketee’s, downtown [Grand Rapids] was still the place to shop,” Coombes emphasized. “The summer sidewalk sale was a huge event–very low prices on all sorts of fabric, and it was open during special evening hours. I remember standing in the aisle of the department when the doors opened upstairs and hearing the footsteps of dozens of women running down [the stairs] to get to our department. It was a shopping frenzy!”

Once out of high school, Coombes decided to pursue communications and art history at Michigan State University. Though her love of fashion had taken the back burner, she continued working in retail at Jacobson’s, an iconic, upscale department store specializing in
women’s fashion.

After graduation, Coombes delved into unfamiliar territory–the world of broadcast. She served as a radio personality on WITL Radio in Lansing, Michigan for three years selling advertising and doing voice-overs for various programs.

As someone who had never lived outside of Michigan, Coombes decided it was time for a change, a five thousand-mile change. In 1980, she packed up and moved overseas to The Netherlands. It was here that Coombes discovered a new perspective on fashion and design.

“At the time, the United States was more conservative than it is now,” Coombes pointed out. “Being exposed to European fashion and stores and different things really was an eye opener because at that point, it was the forefront of fashion. They didn’t have a lot of chain stores [in The Netherlands] they had a lot of boutiques. It was a whole different way of shopping and a very different look than what was happening [in the United States].”

Coombes spent a great amount of time exploring European museums and museum stores. She attributes her time overseas to the expansion of her fashion perception when choosing merchandise to display at GRAM.

Her stay in The Netherlands triggered an undeniable urge to continue traveling. Next stop, Nigeria. Here, Coombes devoted her time to organizing fundraisers for the International Women’s Association. After two years, Coombes moved back to The Netherlands where she switched up her career, once again, and became a tour guide for a Dutch construction project.

Coombes’ journey continued to Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, where she worked in communications as a creative service director for a public relations company and completed freelance production for several large corporate firms.

She found herself surrounded by posh boutiques all carrying clothing and accessories from the biggest designers in the industry. Her realm of fashion further developed after witnessing so many well-dressed and fashion-conscious women out and about in Hong Kong.

“I had a neighbor [in Hong Kong], and every time I’d get on the elevator in the morning to go to work, she’d be, literally, in head-to-toe Chanel–Chanel shoes, Chanel suit, Chanel bag. And I’m thinking, ‘her wardrobe costs more than my rent every month!’” Coombes recalled.

After 10 years, Coombes gathered her possessions, her cultured perspective, her husband and two children and moved all the way to Seattle. Channeling her extensive history in retail, Coombes took a job at Nordstrom managing a fine jewelry department. She also oversaw advertising and public relations for the Northwest Art Alliance and held a position as the city art commissioner for seven years.

Sometimes, you can travel all around the world and end up right back where you started. Coombes can attest to that because after her time in Seattle, she and her husband settled into an old Victorian home back in Grand Rapids.

Coombes began working at GRAM in 2011 as a volunteer for GRAM on the Green, an event featuring fun interactive games for the public such as a jumbo Jenga tower and a life-sized chess set. Later that year, she heard about an opening for store manager at the museum gift shop. Taking a gamble, Coombes applied for the position and was hired on October 31 of that same year. She’s been the store manager ever since and could not be more pleased with her role.

As head retail manager for the gift shop, Coombes oversees staff training, buying merchandise for the shop, pricing items and arranging products in the store to appeal to the public. She also works with the other departments of the museum to ensure the gift shop includes merchandise that corresponds to current exhibits and special events.

Coombes and a few trusted sale reps she works with all carefully select the items on the shelves of the GRAM gift shop. First and foremost, her main goal is to choose pieces she knows will sell. She draws inspiration from her worldly experiences exploring museums around the globe as well as her personal fashion flare when making final decisions.

I asked Coombes to describe her personal fashion sense.

“Besides black and white?” She joked. “I want it to be stylish, but not necessarily super trendy. I tend to mix a lot of classic, basic pieces with maybe a few super fashionable items for the season.”

Coombes was certainly classic with a twist, though she did want to emphasize her love for a little sparkle.

“One of the key things I’ve learned is that I can’t buy it just because I like it,” Coombes said. “I have to think about what other people might like and not always just my taste, but a wider range of what people would be interested in.”

I couldn’t help but notice the bright red wire bracelet wrapped around Coombes’ wrist, perfectly matching the same red wire around her neck. Both were made from recycled motor magnet wires. These innovative pieces are part of a line of jewelry made from recycled materials called “Wired,” a collection currently featured in the GRAM gift shop.

“I have to say, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have lived in so many different places, and I have met phenomenal people no matter where I lived,” she said emotionally. “One thing I’ve found, is that it doesn’t matter where you are, people just want the best for themselves and they want the best for their children.”

Coombes can be seen arranging displays, greeting visitors and pondering new merchandise with buyers at GRAM. After traveling the world, she is exactly where she wants to be using her wisdom, consideration, kindness and cultured perspective to create one-of-a-kind experiences for guests. Putting a smile on peoples’ faces ignites a satisfaction unmatched by anything else and motivates her to continue her work. She truly keeps the public’s interests at heart.


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