What Next? of Door County

Business owner and clothing designer Mary Stephens at her store, What Next?, in Fish Creek’s Top of the Hill Shops. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Ever since moving to Door County in 1976, Mary Stephens has been asking herself, “What next?”

The answer usually involves making and selling women’s clothing. Now she has two What Next? shops, one in the Top of the Hill complex in Fish Creek and a second in downtown Baileys Harbor.

“I have been interested in clothing my whole life,” Stephens said. “My mother made our clothes and was a meticulous seamstress with a wonderful eye for good quality fabric and how it would drape.” And she was not protective of her sewing machine.

“She let me sew when I was five,” Stephens recalled. “She’d say, ‘You can do it.’ She was great!”

After graduating as an art major from UW-Eau Clare, Stephens found herself married and living in Fish Creek wondering, “How do you make money and raise children?”

“People found out I could sew,” she said, “and asked me to make uniforms for restaurants.” And she discovered the answer to her question: cottage industry. “I could sew and raise children!”

She joined Circle Arts, a co-op of artists; her children, Christian and Jon, could play near her while she worked making clothing in her home.

What next? After a time Circle Arts dissolved and a new company was formed, The Magic Jacket, with Stephens continuing to create clothing.

“In 1991 I spun off my own line,” she said, “and started What Next?” She began in a smaller location in the Top of the Hill Shops, outgrew it in a few years, and moved to the bigger unit she presently occupies.

As the studio in her home was too small for constructing garments, she began leasing spaces at different sites; one was the old Bunda department store in Sister Bay “where I once bought thread and zippers!” she said.

After the former grocery store in Baileys Harbor was converted into retail condos, she purchased one two years ago, using the back portion for production space and the front for a second What Next? retail shop.

At this point in her business Stephens designed garments and drafted patterns, employing three people on her production staff and a fourth who was a cottage industry seamstress.

Unlike designers with formal backgrounds in fashion, Stephens followed the path of folk artists: learning basics from an artisan (her mother), and then continuing to hone her skills through practice.

When she was young her mother showed her how to adjust a commercial pattern to make it fit, and how to create patterns for doll clothes. Early in her life, she began to understand the way components of patterns for clothing functioned.

After she moved to Fish Creek and began making waitress uniforms, initially she modified commercial patterns, but then she began drafting her own, working with brown paper for mockups that would run through consecutive drafts until she arrived at a design that satisfied her.

While she credits her mother for passing along to her an innate sense of design and color in addition to skills in craftsmanship, Stephens refined her artistic sensibilities in college as an art major, focusing not on clothing, but primarily on jewelry.

As a clothing designer producing her own line, Stephens faced the dilemma every artist encounters: balancing production and marketing. By the second year of What Next? maintaining an inventory that would keep up with the demand for her clothing became nearly impossible; even if she rose early to “sew six pairs of pants before she opened,” she couldn’t keep up.

Necessity forced her to add commercial lines of clothing to supplement her own designs, and what came next? 2010 was her last year of clothing production, and the studio in Baileys Harbor is being converted to additional retail space. Stephens felt that this time in her life was right to make this change.

Her background in art and clothing design are important when she goes to market making selections for her retail stores. “Whether making clothing or purchasing it,” she said, “color and composition are everything – how you see the shape of an outfit on the shape of a body, and how you combine colors, use good quality fabric, clean construction.”

She chooses merchandise “more interesting than department store clothing.” Her customers “don’t want to look like the neighbor next door and everyone down the road.”

Stephens is drawn to American manufacturers, and is interested in smaller independent companies, such as Margaret Winter Sweaters, Staples Designs, and Cut Loose Clothing.

“The other stuff is everywhere!” she said.

In addition to these and additional clothing lines, she also carries Naot shoes from Israel (footwear known both for anatomical support and design), along with contemporary jewelry, handbags, and gift items.

Her small children who played at her feet during the cottage industry days are now married with children of their own, Jon in Oshkosh and Christian in Middletown, Delaware.

And what’s next? Stephens looks forward to continued success with her retail stores. Door County has a reputation for interesting specialty stores, she said, and for providing customer service, both important factors in building a loyal customer base.

Although Mary Stephens has closed her production studio, “I’ve saved a corner,” she said, “a cutting table, my favorite industrial machines, and some fabric, in case I get a wild hair and find some time!”

Both the Baileys Harbor and Fish Creek What Next? shops are open seven days a week, 10 am – 6 pm, May through October. November through April the Baileys Harbor store (920.839.9763) is open Friday through Sunday from 10 am – 5 pm, and the Fish Creek store (920.868.2993) is open Thursday through Tuesday from 10 am – 5 pm. Visit What Next? at