What Is Life Without Some Garnish?
In a city buzzing with boutiques, Garnish has certainly proven itself as one that is here to last. On a warm spring day, I arrive to meet Erica Lurie, owner and designer at Garnish Apparel an hour before her shop opens, and can officially cross it off my bucket list for boutiques worth visiting in Portland. Erica’s choppy blonde bob and vibrant personality reveal a sophisticated charm as she offers me a glass of water.
Garnish is located in Portland’s trendy Pearl district, and its clothes are, well…casually delightful, to say the least. A colorful selection of knit and wool fabrics are properly hung near cream-colored walls and a stack of denim jeans are neatly folded on a center table. If it’s one thing for sure, Erica undoubtedly knows her customer, which is why she has managed to successfully stay afloat for a decade, an accomplishment many other boutiques simply can’t do. What’s her secret? Aside from being established enough to maintain a loyal customer following, during the downturn of the economy, she offered lots of simple accessory items like tank tops, cardigans and scarves. She also provides private shopping parties to her customers that take place after store hours, and include a more personalized shopping experience and styling tips. Her store has this sort of je ne sais quoi appeal about it. You can’t quite put your finger on what it is you love, but you know it must be something special.
The 2008 financial crisis was a difficult time for many businesses including Garnish. Erica boldly confessed to auditioning for Project Runway in a last minute attempt to save her business and gain publicity. When asked whether she was disappointed about not making it on the show, she simply said it all worked out for the best. Project Runway season 11 winner Michelle Lesniak formerly worked at Garnish, but has remained rather quiet in her design process after the show.
The Pacific Northwest has developed a reputation for providing a rather uncomplicated lifestyle, and this supposedly is what attracts outsiders from all over the country to move to Oregon. And like so many others on a quest for the outdoor life, Erica moved to Portland with her husband in 2002. Together, they have two small children. He is a teacher.
Being born into entrepreneurial parents is perhaps what led Erica to develop her first business venture, a hat polar fleece company while just a junior in high school. It was successful from the get-go and she inevitably knew this was the path she was meant to lead. She grew up in Vermont, attended college in Montana and later landed a job at Adidas. When her boss at Adidas gave her a three-month leave of absence to focus on her business, Garnish was born. But its beginnings were much different than it is today, rather selling a line of T-shirt appliques and polar fleece ponchos to wholesale and consignment stores. Initially, it was launched as more of a grassroots company. And thank goodness for the switch. Dresses are the primary driver of sales for Garnish, and the Amanda wrap dress is the most requested item. This comfy and functional dress comes in a combination of colors like tangerine, royal purple and black. Although Garnish relies on much of its dresses and flirty skirts to drive sales, Erica brought in more casual pieces like the Agave denim brand when she expanded into her second store on Northeast Alberta. But sadly, she closed it this February.
How did Garnish originate?
I’d say that it was more driven by a need to create and for my own personal benefit. I love creating and designing, and taking part in anything hands on. I would love to say that I was filling a need in the marketplace but I wasn’t. Garnish is a product that developed over time, but very much came from the heart.
Did you have an idea at the time who your customer was, and what sorts of clothes you wanted to carry?
I definitely had a set vision of what the store would look like, the layout and the typical business plan. It’s funny because Garnish is very different today than what it was when I first imagined it. It was a very grassroots business. I started out selling to wholesale and consignment. My purpose didn’t have anything to do with seizing an opportunity. It was more of an organic process.
What’s been the best part about running Garnish?
Just like any other business, it ebbs and flows. I have two little ones and we just sold our home, so things have been crazy lately! There are many challenges that come with owning a boutique but is incredibly rewarding at the same time. I have several friends in Portland who own boutiques, and they’re in business with their husband. I do it alone, which can really lonely sometimes. My husband is a schoolteacher, so he is not so much involved with Garnish. I suppose that’s the downside of running a boutique solo.
But there are so many other factors that make my job so joyous! I’m really big on personal connection, and getting to see my customers everyday is so rewarding. That’s something I missed most when having my two shops. When I was over at Alberta, I’d often miss one of my regulars who came in here, but I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Besides, having two shops requires so much more energy, and management. I feel like I was constantly worrying about the little stuff, like making sure the bathrooms had enough toilet paper. And I already do all my own accounting and marketing and buying that it just became too much.
Do you find it to be competitive?
Not really. The only time I’ve seen it get competitive is when a store owner will try and steal a line from another store. Other than that, we’re all very supportive of one another and that’s what I love about Portland. Each boutique has such a different flavor.
What’s the philosophy behind the Garnish brand?
It’s funny that you mention that because I just finished reading this book on branding, and it was geared toward all these different archetypes. I forgot the name of the book but it was so interesting. These archetypes are broken down into different levels; there is the entrepreneur, the adventurer, the creator, the lover and so on. At Garnish, we most often attempt to speak toward the adventurer and the creator. Our customers are typically women who love fashion and want to sometimes push the envelope with their wardrobe. Sometimes they may need a bit of advice, which we love. We want our customers to feel unique and special in what they are wearing, to get up in the morning, put on a piece of Garnish and feel really good about themselves. That’s what we hope to encompass.
As a smaller, more independent boutique, do you find yourself competing with the larger retailers?
I often find that my customers want to shop at smaller boutiques because, perhaps it’s filling a need for them, or they appreciate that more intimate experience. I think there is always going to be a competitive thing happening with larger retailers like Nordstrom, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about that. So what I do is I offer my customers great customer service, and I offer them things that make them want to come back to my shop. We do very small runs here, so that consists of making one or two copies of a certain style, which offers greater exclusivity. Granted, if there is something we don’t offer here that our customer is looking for, I’ll send her to Nordstrom.
Speaking of exclusivity, I’m curious as to what your take is on Portland owning a luxury market here. Do you think that exists?
It’s interesting because the items I get most excited about are my most fashion forward pieces, but they are not my bestseller, so it makes it challenging to drive yourself forward, especially when you’re not always getting that validation. You kind of have to do it for yourself. I do have one customer who came in the other day, and I made a wide-rim white belt that is a one-of-a-kind piece, just for her, because she loves my more trendy items. So she continually motivates me to make more of those pieces.
Portland is very casual but I also respect and love the fact that anything goes here. You can put together any kind of outfit you want, and it’s accepted. I think that’s a really special quality that Portland has, but I do wish there was more of a luxury market here. The one thing I often hear my customers say is where would I wear this? And I say wear it anywhere you want. Wear it to the grocery store. That’s what I do.
I know you recently showed at Fade to Light. How was that?
It was our first time showing at Fade to Light and we had so much fun. Elizabeth Mollo did a really good job. It was a well-produced show, and I like doing fashion shows because they give me a deadline, and with two young kids and everything else going on, I really needed that deadline.
Will you be showing next year?
I don’t know yet. I know they do it twice a year, but I might be out of town during that time. Last year we did Style in the Pearl with Jillian Rabe. I’ve done a lot of fashion shows over the years and I feel like they have gotten stronger. And it was nice to show with Jillian, who is super organized, and to see people bringing up the caliber of fashion shows here.
As a boutique owner, I’m curious as to what people’s expectations are when opening a boutique? Do you find they want to start boutiques with aspirations of expanding, or simply to embrace this sort of cultural support in Portland?
You know, owning a boutique is challenging in so many ways and many people I know feel fulfilled with the day-to- day aspirations of managing a single shop. I have friends who own boutiques who have children, and it becomes a juggling act. When you get to a place where you’re having multiple shops, you become more of a corporation and it becomes a completely different business model. And with more and more boutiques, they are putting out a larger line of clothing. It’s not exactly apples and oranges. If you’re going to have multiple stores, you can’t be buying for all the boutiques ands you become more of a CEO. You can’t be doing the day-to-day stuff and there is so much more management. If you want to expand, you have to have a corporate mindset, whereas with one location, your mindset is a very much on a person level with your customers.
Do you see that corporate mindset here in Portland with designers?
No. I can’t think of any local designers who have big companies.
Why do you think that is?
There aren’t a lot of resources here in terms of having things manufactured. Funding is another big problem. I always say, you never ask business people to be good artists, but in order to be a successful artist you have to be a good business person. To take it to the next level, it totally changes the chemistry of a business and I haven’t seen that here. Running a business takes an enormous amount of work. I do my own accounting and the marketing and the sewing. It’s a continual cycle and a lot for one person to take on. Portland is a very cozy community and people here want to support local.