People everywhere sometimes wonder what came first, the chicken or the egg. In Spokane, the new question is whether it was the nightlife or the fashion boutiques that were first on the scene.
During the last few years, women’s boutiques have been hatching all over the area, from Coco in Spokane Valley to Swank Boutique on Spokane’s North Side to Tangerine on downtown’s west end.
The stores cater to fashion-conscious women who don’t want to drive to Seattle to look stylish. They are also feeding a growing trend among people to express their individuality through clothes and accessories, shopkeepers say.
Gone are the days when everyone coveted the same Louis Vuitton bag. Today, women want to look unique and not worry about bumping into someone else wearing the same outfit – a risk that’s more likely if you shop at stores with more inventory than boutiques can hold.
Trish Thoen, co-owner of Cues boutique in downtown Spokane, says the city’s emerging nightlife during the last few years has made it possible for shops to thrive here.
“Spokane is getting that big-city feeling,” she says, citing the arrival of new bars, downtown wineries and hip publications such as Spokane Metro magazine.
“Ten years ago, if you wanted to go out you had Red Robin and Applebee’s. … Now, we have places to wear cute little dresses.”
Meanwhile, the shops themselves help boost Spokane’s image, Thoen says.
“A lot of people bring family members from out of town” into the store, she says. They say, ‘See, we have style, too.’ ”
Eight-month-old Tangerine, at 1019 W. First Ave., is one of the newest shops on the scene. Owners Jolin Heidal and Patricia Sampson, who have been friends since the fifth grade, wanted a store that catered to a variety of styles, ages and budgets.
“A 16-year-old could get a cute little sweater, and then she could bring her grandma in and her grandma could get a cute little sweater, too,” Heidal says.
Or a business suit. Or jeans you won’t find anywhere else in town. Or yoga pants.
“You can go to Macy’s and get a Guess purse or come here and get a Skunkfunk purse that looks like an old bowling bag,” she says, referring to a brand Tangerine carries. “We have a purse here made from 1960s drapes.”
Individuality also is the goal at Lolo Boutique, 319 W. Second Ave. Beth Hitch, who owns the shop with her daughter, Nicole Floyd, orders no more than six of any one item.
“It’s not like you’re going to see yourself coming and going all the time,” Hitch says.
Keeping prices down is also important to Hitch, who didn’t have a lot of money as a child.
“My mom used to make a lot of my clothes,” she says. “When I was a young mother, I made my own bikinis. I could sew up a pair of pants in 45 minutes and it would cost me $5.”
When Thoen and business partner Meghan Brown opened Cues in 2006, they planned a collection of lines based on their personal styles.
Brown had owned a shop called Miaz in River Park Square prior to opening Cues. Miaz carried colorful, but more traditional women’s and children’s clothes.
When the main brand that the store featured – April Cornell – no longer was available, Brown and Thoen, who had worked as a consultant for Miaz, shifted gears.
“We wanted something that was more of what we both enjoy, something that fits our lifestyles right now,” Thoen says.
Cues carried children’s clothes during its first year, but the products didn’t move, she says: “People came into our store more to pamper themselves than to shop for kids.”
They also tried men’s clothes at one point, but it wasn’t profitable.
“Women shop as a form of entertainment and to keep up with trends,” Thoen says. “Men shop when they need it.”
Cues has learned to be careful about the lines it carries for women, too. It once had an Italian brand that didn’t go over well.
“The fit was so European, very small,” Thoen says. “The style was just a little too avant-garde for Spokane.”
Otherwise, Thoen says the shop has seen success from the start. To date, sales in the first three months of 2009 were beating the same period last year. Despite the recession, women are shopping, she says.
“People want to look updated,” Thoen says. “They don’t want to sacrifice style, even in this economy.”
Other shops also said they were either even or ahead of previous years’ figures.
Cues doesn’t have immediate plans for expansion, but Thoen says a long-term goal is to sell products online and possibly open more locations in other cities.
Thoen credits some of Cues’ success to its well-coordinated marketing strategy. It has a sophisticated Web site and an e-mail following, and it occasionally hosts catered parties in its store, complete with DJs and cocktails.
Many shop owners agreed that the look of their stores is almost as important as the goods they carry. Hitch, of Lolo, says one of the best compliments she receives is when customers compare her shop to the feel of Anthropologie stores they’ve visited elsewhere.
And as with almost any business, location plays a role, too.
Thoen felt lucky to nab a spot that most retailers in bigger cities would drool over – a historic building on Main Street next door to a Starbucks.
She says Spokanites are getting more accustomed to walking the streets rather than staying in malls, but admits that many of her customers are out-of-towners staying in downtown hotels.
Susan Carmody, who owns Jigsaw at 601 W. Main Ave., says people warned her that she was “on the edge of town” when she opened nine years ago – even though the shop, by today’s standards, is in the heart of downtown, across the street from Macy’s and kitty-corner from the east end of River Park Square.
“We also heard all the time, ‘Well, where am I going to wear that?’ ” she says. “I never hear that anymore.”
Jigsaw carries “contemporary” clothing and although her shop has a reputation for expensive items, “we’re not sky high,” Carmody says.
Despite being fashion forward, Jigsaw offers a service that was popular in the past: layaway. The shop doesn’t charge interest or service fees. The clothes wait at the store until they’re paid for.
“We’ve forgotten creative ways to be smart with money,” Carmody says. “I was a single mom. I had a tight budget. I think we’ve become an immediate-gratification society.”
Calie Conner, who owns Coco in the Spokane Valley Mall, puts a lot of effort into keeping her prices reasonable.
Conner goes “to market” in Los Angeles once a month to select inventory for her store. She isn’t afraid to carry a new designer’s line, especially if their clothing is less expensive than their more established competitors.
She says her customers here aren’t as concerned about what label they’re wearing compared with shoppers in other cities.
“There are always up-and-coming designers, around my age or a little older, that are staying on trend but not costing as much as something that has gotten such a big name that they’re more spendy,” Conner says.
Conner, by the way, is 21. She opened Coco on her own at age 18, less than a year after finishing high school, and was profitable within her first month of business.
“I couldn’t help but think, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” she says. “People were flooding in. It was incredible.”
Business has continued to grow since then, and Coco’s 2008 sales doubled its 2007 figures.
Now, Conner hopes to expand into an adjoining retail space at the mall to hold her growing inventory of baby clothes and accessories. She plans to knock down the wall between the stores and will call the new section Coco Bean.
“I started with two feet of children’s things. I grew it and grew it, and now it takes up a quarter of my store,” she says. “To accommodate women’s sales, I need to expand.”
Conner says she never dreamed about a career in fashion, but became interested in opening a women’s boutique while working in a children’s clothing shop during high school and getting to know the mothers who frequented the store.
“People hear my story and assume I was in love with fashion like most girls, but that wasn’t case for me,” she says. “I love business.”
Conner says she gets upset when she hears people say Spokane is “six years behind the trends.”
“There are things that are way out there on the runway that only major cities will try, but we’re really not behind,” she says. “I’m not going to market once a month and buying stuff from six years ago. I’m rubbing elbows with L.A. boutique owners and we’re buying the same things.”
Several Spokane shop owners said customers often comment that they “don’t feel like they’re in Spokane” anymore when they enter their stores.
In fact, Swank Boutique, at 915 E. Hawthorne Road, Suite D, often sells to women from cities like New York City via its Web site ( www.swankboutique.net), says co-owner Jodi Jones.
Hitch, of Lolo, says she feels a little sad for the Lilac City when people are surprised to find a sophisticated clothing shop within its borders.
“I want to tell them, ‘You’re in Spokane, and this is a great city filled with wonderful people,’ ” she says.
Hitch, who moved here eight years ago from Redmond, Wash., wants others to feel as proud of Spokane as she does when they stroll through downtown, visit an art gallery, attend a wine tasting or pop into shops like hers.
“If I’m a teeny part of people feeling like that,” she says, “then I’m ecstatic.”
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