The boutique is small but well-appointed. A large flat-screen monitor runs a slideshow of stylish photos of the clothing brands on actor models in local hotspots.
There’s something familiar about the model featured in most of the pictures, and for even the less-than-observant it doesn’t take long to make the connection: she’s the one working behind the counter, staffing the sales floor, offering up accessorizing tips and keeping the homeless from setting up camp beside the distinctive red-carpet entrance of her Main Street storefront. For Nichole Ramirez of Ventura’s ChiChi Angels Apparel, it’s all in a day’s work for a local fashion model pictures entrepreneur.
Founded just more than a year ago with partner Sean McPherson, the boutique is emblematic of the quest of small business to stake out and maintain a profitable niche in a crowded marketplace. A daunting task in any market, the challenge is made even greater with a soft economy and with Main Street increasingly in the sights of major retail chains, like the recently opened Urban Outfitters and Buffalo Exchange. Without a strong business single women model and a decidedly creative approach, most won’t even have a fighting chance.
Happily, the partners bring both to the venture, and the trendy shop thrives even as others falter, a boon Ramirez credits to a unique, multi faceted approach: “I haven’t seen anyone else doing the things we do,” she notes. “From celebrity autograph signings to fashion model shows, photo shoots, contests, working with the lines directly, customizing our items in-house. From the beginning, we looked for unique lines that were non chain and offered a different look.”
McPherson agrees, and adds: “We promote what will best model pictures to sell and differentiate us from other shops — working closely with those suppliers that want to partner with us. Being small, we tend to drive the promotion part initially, but with our stronger partners, they quickly see the mutual benefits of working in tandem. Those close partnerships are incredibly exciting for us.”
Such alliances have proved to be a mainstay of the boutique’s approach, from working with vendors to allying with other local merchants — as in last year’s “Sex in the City” single women fashion show, which promoted numerous local boutiques in tandem — to customizing clothing for customers. McPherson explains: “We like to connect with our community because, as much as we value our tourists, it’s our community customers that keep us in business day in and day out.”
Ramirez adds, “We’re big believers in downtown Ventura. This is a community that both my partner and I live in, and our approach is about fostering a connection — that isn’t some size-zero fashion model a dress in our ads, it’s Nichole, who owns the shop, has three kids and plays soccer.”
The community connection helped inform the duo’s alliance with another Ventura venture, the distinctive Handsome Devil and Beautiful Disaster clothing brands, which are among the boutique’s key lines. Fronted by Venturan Tory DuVarney with partners Christie Lowe and David Perry, the lines have likewise benefited from an outside the box business actor that is finding wide appeal with a broad market spectrum, from high-profile celebrities to the man on the street, and from edgy teens to those who’ve had a turn or two around the block. It’s an approach that, as with DuVarney’s brick-and-mortar allies, has weathered the test of a less-than-robust market.
“Strangely, the soft economy has been a blessing in disguise,” DuVarney notes. “It’s resulted in a smaller but higher quality line; and with slower growth, it’s given us more of an opportunity to do more grass-roots stuff. For example, here I am, one of the owners of the company, working the booth at the Ventura County Fair, meeting people, making connections, opening doors I might have missed.”
Those doors are carrying the local brand’s distinctive appeal to the far corners, due not only to its art-driven, mischievous creative dynamic, but also a savvy outreach ethic that utilizes social networks and the broad visibility of high-profile television alliances — the latter leading said networks to direct connection to tens of thousands of online “friends” and customers, and brokering a robust online market in addition to the brand’s 40-plus distributors nationwide. A recent autograph signing with brand devotee Daisy DeLaHoya, of VH1’s reality show Daisy Of Love, brought hundreds of fans to the Handsome Devil booth at the Ventura County Fair, demonstrating the appeal of the approach as a “lifestyle brand” in a market that was once more often driven by short-lived trends without the 24/7-type connection that the Web provides.
That next-gen online approach is likewise embraced by ChiChi Angels, which has connected to fans of another VH1 star — Rock Of Love’s Brittanya, with her 50,000-strong MySpace network — to fuel its own Web following. The approach exports the personalized, red-carpet ethic of grass-roots retailers to the potential of heretofore unprecedented exposure, a benefit that was simply not possible in another age.
“Again, it’s about connecting with people,” Ramirez notes. “Day in and day out, sometimes it is hard for people to envision themselves in a look that is outside their normal attire. We just want to help people see their potential and step outside their boundaries.”
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