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Lights blinked madly as three wild cards lined up on the slot-machine screen. Next came the bells and whistles. Vani Kumar watched in amazement as the jackpot numbers continued to roll up to increasingly higher numbers until they finally stopped, flashing a grand total of $286,665. “Girl, you have no idea what you’ve just won!” the man sitting next to her yelled. People in the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas went wild. Kumar’s father, Dr. Ravi Kumar, who was on another machine at the time, didn’t know what to make of the commotion. “Suddenly I heard all this screaming, and I thought someone had collapsed,” the doctor says. “I didn’t know what had happened. When I saw Vani, everyone was trying to touch her lucky hand.”
Kumar, who had already mapped out a business plan for a shop that sells suits for women, knew exactly what to do with her instant fortune. She didn’t waste any time. “I never felt like I was a quarter of a million dollars richer,” Kumar says. “I was done with my business plan; it was literally just a matter of putting it into action. After taxes, my winnings were only two hundred dollars off what I had projected that I would need to start my business.”
With a stroke of luck, the Suit Closet was born.
The Suit Closet carries more than 1,200 suits — all name brands that come in a wide variety of colors and prints and styles both classic and trendy. Prices range from $200 to $350. “I know from talking to people in my years of working in retail that my store provides a way for women to accomplish over six months of shopping in just two hours,” says Kumar, whose own chocolate-colored suit complements her deep olive skin and warm smile.
Originally, Kumar did not set out to be an entrepreneur. She began her undergraduate studies at UC Irvine, where she was following in the medical footsteps of her father as a pre-dental student. Then, in her senior year, she realized that dental school was not for her. “I can’t do this; this is not me,” Kumar recalls thinking while she was busy sketching designs in the margins of her notebooks during a biology class. “I’ve always loved fashion, and I need to see what it is about.”
That same year, 2003, Kumar started Fashionistas, an on-campus fashion interest group. She even stayed in school an extra year to be involved in the program, and to this day she continues to work with UC Irvine students as an adviser, organizing guest speakers from companies such as Paul Frank. The group also volunteers regularly at Los Angeles Fashion Week and participates in projects supporting eco-friendly fashion.
“There’s definitely a black veil over the fashion industry unless you are in it,” Kumar says. “Fashionistas began as a way for me to explore it.” After completing her studies at UC Irvine, Kumar went on to graduate magna cum laude in apparel manufacturing and management from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). It was there that Kumar developed her business plan for the Suit Closet. “A suit is the one thing in your closet that you will never throw away,” Kumar says. “Suiting is timeless and classic.”
Since the shop opened nine months ago, Kumar has taken advantage of its location smack in the middle of the downtown revival. She teamed up with the Valley Economic Development Center, a nonprofit business-development organization that is contracted and paid for by the city of L.A. to revitalize communities and create jobs. Warren Cooley, the director of retail and economic development for VEDC, works with Kumar to help her market the Suit Closet effectively. “[Kumar] has a quality product, and her key to success is that there are half a million women working in downtown L.A.,” Cooley says. “The problem is that none of those women live there, so she needs to create an interest for them to go into her store on a lunch break or after work.”
Kumar has already received recognition from the Los Angeles Business Journal. She was nominated for its 16th-annual Women Making a Difference Award, which focuses on outstanding community involvement and achievements in business. But true to her nature, Kumar isn’t satisfied with the quick success of her downtown store. On a recent weekday, she leaned back in her office chair, contemplating everything that has happened in the last year. The businesswoman — who eagerly puts in 50 to 60 hours a week at her store — is already scouting Pasadena and Orange County for locations to open a second store within a year. “I definitely have ambitions to one day go national,” she says, “or even international.”
The Suit Closet, 2296 S. Figueroa St., dwntwn.; Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (213) 747-2829 or www.thesuitcloset.com.