As continuation of our exploration of mindful retailing and sustainable fashion enterprises on Main Street USA, we head up the coast to Cape Cod, MA, and Portland, Maine for a chat with the owners of two locally grown and globally minded businesses. With SHIFT boutique and Chellis Wilson at the helm, the good life seems totally within reach, despite the occasional challenges of recessionary headwinds.
SHIFT Boutique in Hyannis, MA
Hyannis, MA, is driven by a tourist economy and SHIFT’s founders and owners, Amy DuFault and Amanda Converse are hardly strangers to the seasonal shopper dynamic. As EcoSalon’s Fashion Editor, Amy, is a national mover and shaker on the eco fashion scene, and coupled with Amanda’s background in Environmental Studies and Policy, they are a rather invincible team. Both are Cape Cod natives, and understand the value of bringing sustainable initiatives to their local community.
GL: How did you get involved with eco fashion retailing?
Amy for Shift: Amanda and I first started working together at a time when I was helping out a bevy of designers who were experiencing major setbacks from the recession. Boutiques were closing, buyers were refusing orders simply because they could not pay, and designers were struggling even more than usual. I told several to send me whatever pieces they could, and I offered to have a traveling “sample sale” where I would sell off their items and forward the checks. Amanda had the first sale with me and never left my side for the next seventeen events. One of our last sales was right next door to where Shift is today. We found the space together and fell in love with it. I have now worked as a marketer, coach, and writer for sustainable designer labels exclusively, so the switch to retail just feels like another layer of supporting designers while doing something I love. Friends surround me every time I walk into Shift.
GL: How has your local community been an ideal and/or challenging locale to set up shop?
Amanda for Shift: One big challenge is that our concept is new to the Cape, and people may have preconceived notions as to what eco-friendly clothing is. We also struggle with a pretty seasonal economy. Although Hyannis has a fairly substantial year-round population, the Cape, in general, slows down considerably after the summer season. However, both Amy and I grew up on Cape Cod, and in this place that carries a lot of weight — the natives tend to support fellow Cape Codders more so than wash-a-shores! We are also both very involved in the community — serving on committees and boards, volunteering for local non-profits and getting involved with business organizations. We have found that as we show our community that we care about it, our fellow members of the community care more about us. Our local customers are loyal and very supportive.
GL: How do you select the designers/product that you feature at Shift?
Amanda for Shift: We look for designers who share our same value system — people who want to make beautiful clothing while also limiting their impact on the environment. This means looking at their process holistically from seed to sewn, and being conscious of how each step affects our entire ecosystem. These designers are authentic, thoughtful, creative, humble, and passionate about making sustainable designs appealing and available to anyone who is interested.
GL: Do you ever feel that there is resistance to what you are trying to do in your community?
Amy for Shift: The only resistance I think we feel from customers is to spending the amount of money our clothing is priced at, which is ironic seeing as we work REALLY hard to have a selection of clothing at all different price points. That’s a whole other educational process. People need to be made much more aware of how their clothing got to them, on an environmental as well as an ethical level.
GL: How do you connect your business to the green community beyond?
Amanda for Shift: Amy and I organize Green Drinks Cape Cod (a networking group for people interested in environmental issues), which helps connect us to people in our eco-community. Otherwise, we really depend on social media to connect with the eco-community elsewhere. This isn’t as hard as one might think. Amy is a Facebook and Twitter fanatic, and she has made a lot of contacts through that. And right now the community is so open and willing to help and support others working in the field.
GL: Are there any anecdotes that help illustrate what you and your business partner face as Goodlifers in your region?
Amy for Shift: Amanda and I have both taken long stretches of time away from Cape Cod and can now appreciate where we live with its texture and quality. We also have really great friends and family supporting us. I think about Natalie Chanin sometimes and her journey working for design houses in Europe and one day realizing she needed to go back home to Florence, Alabama to start her own label, Alabama Chanin. The fact that she now employs local women for her very unique “Americana Couture”, is a testimony to the fact that one can make money and still live a beautiful (sustainable) life in the community where they grew up.
Chellis Wilson in Portland, Maine
And as polish to this rather extensive survey on community oriented approaches to retailing, one cannot overlook exquisitely curated Chellis Wilson in Portland, Maine. Nestled in a revitalized smaller city, this oasis for sustainable and artisan-crafted labels is also internationally recognized for its fine offerings. The DownEast Maine mindset celebrates all things well made and timeless, and Chellis Wilson speaks directly to this very spirit.
GL: How has Portland been an ideal and/or challenging locale to set up shop? You also do quite a few in-store art installations and events. Does this satisfy an aesthetic desire as well?
CW:In many ways people who gravitate towards a place like Maine have an ingrained appreciation for goods made with integrity. Part of that mindset is an appreciation for hard work and individuality, and designer/makers certainly embody those traits. Because of its natural beauty, Maine also cultivates in people a sense of stewardship towards the land. However, customers with an equal appreciation for both aesthetics and the ethics of sustainability are more difficult to find. In more rural areas, someone in my position really has to be willing to educate the local consumer about why price is not the only consideration. Thanks to social media and the Internet, I have as many supportive customers and blog readers in other parts of the country (and the world!) as I have in Portland and environs. This fact alone makes it easier to not have to dilute one’s concept for the sake of financial stability.
GL: Chellis Wilson looks to not only feature some stunning designer labels but also the work of very talented artists and thinkers. How do you select the designers/products/installations that you decide to showcase?
CW: I am, by nature, an intrepid researcher. Over the years, I have amassed an exhaustive list of talented individuals who, surprisingly, were not often represented in retail settings. I do not attend trade shows because, as a customer, I was often bored with this as so many shops carry similar lines due to trade show sourcing repeats. That said, I have often wished that I could attend certain shows in Paris, Milan, and Tokyo. I want customers to visit and feel as if they have not only found something truly lovely, but also know that they are supporting the fine and honorable work of an individual. At the moment, the vast majority of lines I carry are the work of women who, first and foremost, are motivated by the desire to create articles and objects of beauty. Concepts of sustainability, sane and fair work practices, and the desire to carve out a life’s work in an independent, value-driven way seem to come naturally to all the collections at Chellis Wilson.
Top photo by Maria Alexandra Vettes. Interior of Chellis Wilson.