This article appears in the February issue of 400 Life.
This is what the start of pageant season looks like for Caleb Mathis and Caroline Puri: it is a Monday in January, in the middle of the school year, just minutes before their new store, Flirt Prom and Pageant, opens for the day at noon, but already a mother is waiting outside with her daughter.
Caleb looks up from the front desk computer.
“Is it noon already?” Caleb says.
“It’s basically noon,” Caroline says over Caleb’s phone from New York City. Puri flew up the previous week to stay at the couple’s apartment while she fulfills some modeling obligations until the end of the month.
I stay on the phone with Puri while Mathis bustles off to the back of the store to find the right floral-patterned JVN by Jovani dress that the mother had called about the previous night, and so Puri and I talk about how and why two young Forsyth County natives — Mathis is 20, Puri is 18 — are venturing into this entrepreneurial undertaking without any formal education (i.e., business school) and in the face of skepticism from the industry.
And the first thing I learned is that this is all Puri’s fault. She was the one working at Bravura, the bridal and prom fashion boutique store formerly in The Collection, while a senior at West Forsyth High School. It was a natural place for Puri to work; she’d been competing in pageants since the age of 12, modeling professionally since 14 and directing pageants with Mathis starting in 2016.
Mathis, who went to Forsyth Central, would periodically stop by Bravura to visit Puri, and they always marveled at the structure of the store and the volume of business. They also started dreaming of how they would do things if they owned something similar.
Then Bravura’s owner announced she was closing the business.
Puri and Mathis approached her about taking it over.
“She was like, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not what I’m interested in,’” Mathis said. “And so we were kind of like, this is not meant to be right now.”
A year went by, and still, the store was empty, and so Puri and Mathis called to ask about its availability.
“That just kind of started the snowball,” Mathis said.
Indeed, in March of 2018, the couple announced on social media that they were opening Flirt. Eight months later, on Nov. 10, they held a grand opening event.
Puri and Mathis found out that opening a business is hard. They couldn’t move into the store until a month before their grand opening, and so it was around-the-clock work to remake the space in the couple’s vision. Taking inventory of dresses, which arrive at the store one per box, can be a physical slog.
But the couple also found that they make a good team. Puri’s modeling career allowed the two to make connections with some of the top photographers, hairstylists and magazine editors, and her experience in modeling and working at Bravura has given her a feel for the latest fashion trends. Mathis has loved the sales side of the business.
They’ve drawn skepticism from some in the industry, they say. They’re too young, they’ve heard, or too inexperienced. Once, when Mathis was shopping for inventory at a store in Ohio, he remembers the owner laughing at him.
“He said that it was his goal to run us out of business,” Mathis said.
They take it in stride. They see their youth as an advantage. They feel more in tune with what their customers expect in product and how to create a contemporary store atmosphere, and they’re prone to think outside the industry conventional wisdom to promote their store.
For example, when internet make-up artist James Charles recently released a new product, the couple promptly bought 50 sets to give away free with the purchase of a dress. Customers flocked to Flirt. The make-up sets were gone in a week.
“I just can’t even wrap my head around how impressed I am by both of them at this age,” said Jennifer Abernathy, Puri’s mom. “...They bring a fresh perspective to this industry, and they know what the girls like.”
The duo has big dreams for Flirt. They can see having more store locations and possibly expanding the store to offer product beyond prom and pageants. One day they want to work with Miss USA.
For now, they’re busy enough with getting through the first pageant season at Flirt.
“They’ve gotten off to such a good, strong start that I think they’re going to do great,” Abernathy said.