DARIEN — The products sold at Helen Ainson on the Post Road seem perfect for a night out. Whether it’s the display of shimmering, custom-made jewelry, dainty hats with delicate veils or — most importantly — elegant evening gowns, each item in the women’s boutique seems fit for the finest occasion.
And in the 40 years she’s owned Helen Ainson, Erica Jensen has dressed customers for events like the Academy Awards and dinner with Prince Charles. But she’s also dressed clients for smaller, but no less momentous events, like proms and weddings.
Since opening the store on Oct. 27, 1977, she’s seen women who came in for their prom return to the store for a gown for their child’s wedding.
What’s her secret to getting women back in the store over the years?
Good fashion, good customer service and leaving the customer feeling good, according to the Rowayton resident.
“My philosophy of fashion is a woman’s appearance has a large impact on her confidence and happiness,” Jensen said. “Being appropriately dressed allows someone to enjoy the moment.”
Jensen’s love of fashion is in her blood.
Her mother, the store’s namesake, opened the first Helen Ainson store in New York City in 1948. Jensen embraced the fashion world her mother brought her into, sewing her own clothes starting at age 11 and daydreaming in classes about the makeovers she would give her teachers. Jensen worked in the now-defunct Greenwich location of Helen Ainson throughout high school and college before deciding to open her own store in Darien. The store, which Jensen describes as “classic with an edge” has become a one-stop shop for all evening wear needs, specializing in evening gowns, but also selling all the additional accessories needed for a night out.
“I felt the need in Darien for a high-fashion, upscale lady’s clothing store,” she said.
The Darien location of Helen Ainson (now the only remaining store spot) originally opened further up the Post Road where Darien Eye Care is now located. After four years, Jensen moved closer to downtown Darien when a vacancy became available. She also ran the Greenwich Helen Ainson until 1991 when the commute from her then-home in New Canaan, plus raising two young children, became simply “too much.”
Jensen said in addition to having a better commute and great landlord in Darien, she also loves the community who she says has supported her and helped her business succeed. In return, Jensen has spent a lot of time volunteering with the Darien Chamber of Commerce. She previously served as the chair of the Chamber’s retail committee, started the Chamber’s beautification newsletter and co-chaired the annual Sidewalk Sale for 25 years. She was also awarded the Business Volunteer of the Year award three times.
The Chamber has not been the only twon group to benefit from Jenson’s time. She’s raised money for breast cancer, the Darien Arts Center, the Darien Community Fund, Toys 4 Tots and Person-to-Person over the years.
“I feel good helping out the town,” she said. “I like doing things for other people...I have a very successful business and couldn’t do that without the support of people in town.”
Helen Ainson’s Darien location has survived at least two recessions and Jensen has seen other businesses downtown come and go.
“When I first opened, there were four or five clothing stores on the street, two ladies shoe stores, a hair salon, a kid’s store,” Jensen said. “A lot of businesses when out of business.”
While Jensen has seen various locations empty throughout four decades, she said a combination of hard work, energy, dedication, an eye for fashion and excellent products has helped keep her store alive.
“I think you have to be very conscious of extremely good customer service,” she said. “It was important years ago, but now it’s doubly important. When people come in, they want a shopping experience.”
In addition to seeing styles change over the years, Jensen has seen the evolution of shopping online and has learned to take advantage of it, launching the Helen Ainson website 10 years ago.
Jensen also learned to play into customers’ desires to have a real shopping experience when they make the effort to come into the store. Jensen employs “shopping consultants” who help customers with fit, comfort and suggestions, staying attune to the woman’s taste to offer a more-personalized shopping experience. Furthermore, she has three tailors with whom clients can book appointments.
Jensen’s generosity and consideration for others also seeps into her work and why she’s stayed in business.
“My favorite part is making women feel wonderful and good about themselves,” she said. “Sometimes we have a customer with a difficult figure...She dreads shopping. When we find that dress that makes her look wonderful...I’ve had customers cry. It really touches the heart.”