By: Michelle Kelly
Photos by: Sam Lee
D.C.’s Shopping Hub
Every weekend, the sidewalks of M Street bustle with shoppers searching for the best sale or the tastiest bite. Boasting over two million square feet of retail space, Georgetown is home to more than 1,000 businesses ranging from dry cleaners and banks, to ice cream shops and luxury brands. Amidst the over 450 retailers that call Georgetown home, independent clothing stores might go unnoticed. Yet tucked into side streets, or standing alongside national chain stores, independent clothing stores are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood’s commercial retail district.
According to 2016 data from the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), the neighborhood’s retailers break down into roughly 150 national and international brands and 300 local retail businesses that are only based in Georgetown or the D.C. region. “A majority of our retailers are local, regional retailers,” said Jamie Scott, Economic Development Manager of the Georgetown Business Improvement District in a phone interview. “But M Street, the shopping street that most people identify with Georgetown, has most of the national and international brands,” said Scott. With most of the foot traffic on M Street, the prevalence of independent stores can go unnoticed.
Given the competition, you might wonder how many of the small boutiques in the Georgetown area stay financially afloat. The answer is simple: those who tear their eyes from the flashy name brands like Coach or Calvin Klein long enough to stumble inside an independent boutique often find something truly special inside. They offer a unique shopping experience that cannot be packaged and replicated for mass consumption. Keep reading to explore the experience of local boutique owners and understand why newcomers and regulars alike stop in for something different.
Empowered Through Fashion
A slim, brown haired women in a ruffled white top and tall leather boots—pointed red glasses perched on top of her head—sifts through racks of clothing, lightly touching each fabric. In a sophisticated but effortlessly casual environment, Lili the First (1419 Wisconsin Ave. NW) sells from over fifteen international and emerging designers such as, Ace & Everett, Jessica Faulkner, Line & Dot, Lisa Freede, Matti Mamane and Oskle, each with their own distinct style, fabrication, and form of ethical production. The collections are small and hand-picked directly from the designers themselves, whom Ifat Pirdan, the owner, often has personal relationships with.
Pridan is passionate about women’s empowerment, and sees her store as a space where women can exchange ideas and enrich themselves through fashion. Pridan envisions Lili the First as “a place for educated, successful, strong women to meet others of their own kind.”
Female public speakers, authors and business professionals visit the store to lead workshops and events.
At Lili the First, making women feel beautiful and confident through fashion is more important than mere profit. Fashion is a conversation between the cloth and the wearer. “I care how someone looks and feels when they leave the store,” said Prian. “They aren’t just buying a piece of clothing, they are buying a story.”
Feed your Curiosity
Curio Concept Store (1071 Thomas Jefferson St. NW) may be the most instagram-able store in Georgetown. The metallic shelves and chrome racks are filled with bold, whimsical clothing pieces with fabrics that range from feather to leather. You can find purses shaped like lipstick tubes and shoes with four-inch glass heels. For Lena Farouki, the founder of Curio Concept Store, the freedom of being an independent store owner fuels her passion. Her personal style finds influences in her home of Abu Dhabi, as well as London where she went to school and worked in a South Korean jewelry store on Portobello Road. “I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, and I have always been affected by stores with an obvious personality. Which is why I wanted to open my own concept store,” explained Farouki.
Curio cannot be confined to a mere category such as “vintage” or “high-end.” Although the inventory is curated with D.C. women in mind, Farouk selects pieces that reflect her personality and challenge the average Georgetown shopping experience. “Shopping should be much more of an event,” said Farouk. “It should be fun and interesting; it shouldn’t be an errand.”
However, being an independent store owner in Georgetown can have its drawbacks. Having recently opened her store in fall of 2016, she characterized the process of applying for design permits and renovating her current storefront as “traumatizing.” In one year alone, the Curio store sign was replaced “four or five times” because it did not meet the Old Georgetown Board regulations. The sign, the shrubbery outside the door, the door handles all had to be approved.
“There is that sense of feeling forgotten and pushed aside for the [independent stores] of Georgetown,” said Farouki. However, any difficulties that come along with owning a business are overshadowed by the rewards: “customers come in and are so happy that [Curio] exists, and that is incredibly encouraging.”
Bills to Pay
Although independent clothing stores may inject personality and variety into a retail district, to what extent do they thrive as small businesses? High rents on M Street tend to push independent clothing stores to Wisconsin Ave or other side streets. Large collections of local and independent businesses have formed mini neighborhoods on mid and upper Wisconsin Avenue where rent is considerably lower. “Retail rents are making it increasingly difficult for independent stores to be competitive with chain stores,” said Eric Eden, co-owner of Hu’s Shoes (3005 M St. NW) and Hu’s Wear (29006 M St. NW).
Yet the BID still warmly welcomes local businesses. When asked if he would rather a national chain or an independent business open in Georgetown, Scott responded, “we would say the local business because it adds to the environment and retail mix.”
Plus Georgetown is a competitive commercial district for national chains and boutique stores alike. According to data from the Georgetown BID 2016 Retail Market Report, out of the 18 retail stores that closed in 2016, 10 were national and international clothing stores, while only two independent clothing stores closed. Inability to pay high rent is the main reason businesses close or choose to move elsewhere.
Here to Stay?
With boutique-clothing stores positioned alongside big box stores, their differences are often highlighted. According to William English, a professor at the Georgetown McDonough School of Business in Strategy, Economics, Ethics and Public Policy, national chains have economies of scale on their side. In an email interview English said, “[national chains] can acquire inventory at lower prices because of high volume orders and they have standardized systems, which makes marginal costs of opening a new store lower than starting from scratch.” This results in chain stores generally having either higher profit margins or lower retail prices than independent stores.
However, independent businesses have their own advantages: they are often better suited to serve niche markets and have the freedom to experiment and innovate. “Independent stores are risky experiments,” said English. “Even though most may fail, the ones that succeed discover a new way of creating value that no one realized before.”
A thriving retail market like Georgetown offers independent business owners the ultimate environment in which to test their ideas. Garrett Hogan, manager at american/holiday (1319 Wisconsin Ave NW), a curated boutique that sells furniture, home décor, and apparel, views their familiarity and ability to cater to the specific needs of their clients as the key to their success. american/holiday showcases custom furniture and vintage items at a reasonable price point, which sets them apart from other retailers. Plus if you’re not in the market for furniture, you can browse through the array of apparel or home goods: blankets, books, artwork, candles, and other decorations all add a hint of whimsy and charm to any space.
“With a small company like this, it’s really just the owner and myself running the entire show,” said Hogan. “We opened in Georgetown because we understood the clientele and knew that a store like american/holiday would do well here.”
So next time you are strolling down M Street in Georgetown, take a moment to stray from the beaten path and pop into the plethora of colorful independent clothing stores. You won’t be sorry: from quirky clothes to custom furniture, our neighborhood’s independent boutiques add diversity to the chain store-clad streets of Georgetown. The fad of gourmet cupcakes in Georgetown is over, ushering in the era of the independent clothing store.