Don’t let Marissa Gelman’s age and diminutive size fool you — at 23 and barely 5 feet tall, she runs her own women’s clothing boutique offering the latest in couture and incorporating tzedakah into the fashion equation.
Most of the year, the Newtown, Bucks County, native is on the road as her fledgling pop-up boutique, Hangers & Highways, moves from college campuses to suburban living rooms to community events — with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.
But while Gelman’s family — which has moved from Newtown to Lafayette Hill — enjoys summer on the beach in Margate, the trendsetter is staying put in a storefront on the bayside of the town. Although the Amherst Avenue location is blocks from Margate’s main shopping area, dedicated fashionistas have been finding their way to the boutique set up next to a paddleboard business and a bait-and-tackle shop.
“The fishermen’s wives come in, people walk their dogs,” Gelman said. “It’s off the beaten path, but word is spreading. You never know when people are going to walk in the door.”
Jodi Piraino, a West Chester, Pa., resident renting in Margate for the summer, stops by often to see what’s new. The Northeast Philadelphia native said she heard about Hangers & Highways by word of mouth. “The clothes are very chic-looking,” Piraino said as she searched for something to wear for a night on the town.
Tracey Mattleman, a Holland, Pa., resident commuting to Margate on summer weekends, stopped by at the end of a beach day. “I like the prices and everything is so super-cute!” she said.
A former and longtime member of Newtown’s Shir Ami Reform synagogue, Gelman was active in its youth group, which was directed by her mother, Randi Backall. After confirmation, the alumna of NFTY-PAR (North American Federation of Temple Youth, Pennsylvania Region) earned a certificate to teach religious school from Gratz College.
At the same time, Gelman was a fixture at Backall’s Newtown boutique, Joie De Vivre, which opened in 2000 and closed in July 2013. “I worked in that store since forever!” Gelman said.
The Council Rock High School North Class of 2009 graduate majored in business communication at Arizona State University.
“I knew I wanted to be in fashion, but I also wanted to do business,” said Gelman, who worked at the Nicole Miller boutique in Manayunk the summer before her senior year in college. After graduating from ASU in 2013, Gelman interned in New York for Shoshanna, the contemporary fashion line founded by Jerry Seinfeld’s one-time girlfriend, Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss.
Gelman’s business got started when her mother suggested bringing garments from her soon-to-close boutique to college campuses for sorority events — with a portion of the proceeds being donated to the participating sorority’s pet charity. Before her internship ended, Gelman successfully tried out the concept at Towson University in Maryland, which her stepsister had attended.
By August 2013, Gelman had settled on the name Hangers & Highways. With $15,000 from Bat Mitzvah gifts and money earned in her mom’s boutique, Gelman invested in inventory, garment bags, collapsible rolling racks and a pop-up dressing-room tent to transport in her SUV.
Hangers & Highways’ first official event was sponsored by two sororities at Towson last September. Since then, Gelman’s boutique has traveled as near as Temple and La Salle universities and as far as Cornell, Syracuse and the University of Massachusetts.
While many of the sororities are Jewish, Gelman caters to any group. She runs mother-daughter house parties and has popped up at Chanukah bazaars. Gelman usually gives 10 to 15 percent of her proceeds to the charity of the event sponsor’s choice.
Gelman’s inventory includes tops, bottoms, jumpsuits and dresses in easy-care, flowy fabrics with cut-out details and engaging patterns and silhouettes for women of all ages. Animal prints and pieces that can be dressed up or down are big in her boutique. Prices range from about $25 to $70.
Jewelry, from $6 to $50, includes delicate bracelets and chains featuring hamsas and other Jewish motifs, but there are also swingy earrings, trendy midi rings and chunkier statement necklaces.
“Since I usually spend my summers down here, I scouted a few locations and got lucky with this place. I only have to pay rent from May to the end of September, so it works out great,” said Gelman.
The business is already profitable, with no overhead or rent except for summer. While profits from the Margate store are not earmarked for charity, Gelman hopes to bring her boutique to beach house parties and even to one of Margate’s outdoor September events, with an eye toward giving some of the proceeds back to philanthropic organizations.
Gelman enjoys yoga and travel, but emphasizes that she is first and foremost a business-oriented shopaholic.
“I’m a big shopper. I’m constantly online, looking at new merchandise,” she said. “Fashion is definitely big in my life.”