It was 1984, and Marvin and Helene Gralnick were putting in a late night at their then year-old store Chico's. "We were at $900 in sales, and we decided we wouldn't close until we got to $1,000," recalls Helene. "Our accountant, who was on his way out to dinner, came by, and we were the only store open in the shopping center. To this day I think he bought something so we would just go home."

Nowadays the Gralnicks can afford to keep better hours. Their Fort Myers, Fla.-based clothing company is flourishing, with 307 stores in 40 states and estimated sales of nearly $400 million. Their secret: catering to a loyal customer base of affluent middle-aged women—including celebs like Martha Stewart and The View's Joy Behar—who appreciate the line's comfortable, easy-to-wear styles and equally manageable sizes zero (4-6) through three (14-16). Bestsellers include the wrinkle-free Travelers separates ($38-$98) and the flattering Urban Pant ($64).

"The over-35 market is a gold mine, and they're really getting it," says Georgia Lee, an editor for Women's Wear Daily. "The clothes are trendy enough without being too trendy. Everyone can wear them."

Customers entering a Chico's are greeted with the scent of essential oils. They also discover that the only mirrors are outside the dressing rooms—a ploy, says Helene, 54, that lures customers out to the shop floor, where they're encouraged to interact with the energetic salespeople. "We created a party atmosphere," she says, "because we knew people would come back if they had fun."

Success didn't come instantly for the Gralnicks. The pair met in 1971 and married the following year near Guadalajara, Mexico, where Marvin, now 67, a St. Louis native, ran a leather-goods factory, and Helene, who hailed from South Florida, was vacationing after college. When the Mexican economy collapsed in 1976, "we basically lost all the money we had," Marvin says.

Regrouping, they moved to Sanibel Island, off Florida's Gulf Coast, and started selling cultural artifacts to local boutiques, opening their own Sanibel store—named Chico's, after a friend's parrot—in 1983. A year later, after a batch of sweaters sold well, they changed their focus to clothing, specializing in simple cotton garments. "They had that gauzy feeling," Helene says of the line, which included casual separates. The Chico's private label, a more tailored collection, soon followed and was an instant hit.

Staying successful was more difficult. After steering Chico's through a decade of growth, the Gralnicks retired in 1993, handing over the reins to the owner of one of their 120 franchises. Within months sales declined rapidly. The Gralnicks were back at the helm the next year.

Now they are content to spend their days protecting and expanding their creation. When not traveling worldwide to scout out ideas, they visit with daughter Sarah, 25, a midwife and mother, in Israel, and son Rio, 27, the father of a new-born son, in Mexico. Last year the Gralnicks built a contemporary house two miles from their corporate offices, where Marvin paints and Helene likes to reflect on their fantastic, never-ending journey. "We're in no hurry to leave. We're having fun," she says. "What really made it worthwhile was that we did it together."

Sophfronia Scott
Kristin Harmel in Fort Myers

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  • Kristin Harmel.