MODĀO RESALE is nestled in a shopping complex just off I-5 at exit 4 in Vancouver, flanked by a hair salon and a beauty supply store. The boutique specializes in gently-used, quality-label women’s clothing and accessories from favorite luxury designers, as well as tried and true brands. On one particular morning, a pair of pristine black-and-white Chanel heels were waiting to be tagged and featured on MODĀO’s social media accounts. On the color-blocked racks of carefully curated items, a knitted sweater from Banana Republic perfect for cool summer nights could be yours for twenty-four dollars. Within the store, there are mini departments, organized with beautifully-styled displays.
At the heart of the boutique are its owners, Joni Vilhauer and Bailey Handsaker, mother and daughter, respectively. Warm and welcoming, the boutique is a space where you could easily wile away the afternoon chatting with the stylists, sipping coffee, and, of course, perusing the racks where you’re sure to find a treasure. In four short years, Joni and Bailey have created an eclectic, gorgeous boutique that local women flock to for their fashion needs. “I had a five-year plan in my mind,” Joni says. “But we reached it in four.”
For a small business, that’s quite impressive. But with their combined interests and experience (Joni handles the majority of the customer-facing tasks while Bailey focuses on administrative duties, including running the Ebay store and social media), the women have become the trusted purveyors of fashion for the Vancouver community and beyond.
Even without their vast network and experience, Joni and Bailey would have succeeded with their sheer passion and business savvy alone. The women sought out advice from industry experts to streamline their business plan and adjust the store offerings. “Go to the best, ask questions, learn, and go faster,” Joni advises any would-be shop owner. “I’m happy to learn. I wanted to learn from the best, and that’s what we did.”
Can you talk a little about your backgrounds and the process of opening your store?
Joni: I started in retail when I was twenty, and then I went to work at Nordstrom for 11 ½ years. Through retail, [I found] an extreme passion for retail and the fashion industry. I left Nordstrom, not because I wanted to, but because it was difficult for me with the hours and I needed to be with my kids. My husband built homes and people asked me to help them with interiors all the time. So I started an interior design business which became very successful. Then the recession came. It made me take a whole new look at my dream of having a small boutique. I needed to reinvent myself. At that time Bailey didn’t know what she wanted to do, so I went to her with this idea.
Bailey: I was born and raised in a family of business owners, my grandparents included, so it wasn’t foreign to me and I wasn’t scared to dive into it. We spent three months creating MODĀO. We had a location, a name, and [thought we’d start with] consignment. We reached out to 8 or 10 people who initially filled our 3,200-square-foot space with clothing and home furnishings. Looking back, it’s wild that only 10 people could fill that space. In the next three years we grew to 2,500 consigners/suppliers. It just grew fast, and we quickly found that there’s a need for “going green” in this economy, for people to not just be throwing away their goods, but rather repurposing them and maybe getting a little financial bonus out of the deal and really throwing it back into the community, which is what we started our store with. There was this network, the history of the family in the community, and lots of women we knew who loved fashion. For the first year and a half, we were super grassroots. No marketing budget at all, strict word of mouth, full-time, just me and my mom, and no employees.
Joni: We about killed each other!
Bailey: Yeah, it was challenging in a lot of ways. But after that first year, we just thought, “We’ve come this far; we can keep going!”
How has it changed your mother/daughter relationship? In the beginning were you talking shop 24/7?
Bailey: It was overload! The key was to have a team for interference. But also [it changed by] learning more about each other, not in a family way, but in a business way, and finding a balance.
Joni: We were very close before and our relationship and family was far more important than anything else. There was no way it would be ruined over a business. So we were willing to fight through the challenges and we knew it wasn’t going to ruin our relationship.
At about the 3-year mark, you decided to change the name and direction of the store. What was the catalyst for that?
Bailey: We had fantastic [furniture] product at the time but it just didn’t move as quickly. Scaling down and honing in on fashion, which had really carried us through the first three years, sounded like a good idea. We’ve been able to gain a solid team through this change.
What is your staff size now?
Bailey: Four, plus the two of us.
Joni: They’re all very capable women. Almost fifty combined years of retail.
Bailey: We’ve strategically picked our team. The two with the most experience from Nordstrom—we have passersby who recognize them, come in, and make that connection. I really think what we’ve built our business on is community. It’s personable and service-driven, which we said from the beginning that’s what we wanted to be. A lot of women enjoy the one-on-one experience of personal styling, and we do offer that. You can schedule an appointment with one of our stylists and we can help put outfits together.
Also with the business change, we are part of a national association called NARTS (National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops). We’re a week away from our annual conference, the third one for us. The past two have been shots in the arm to come back and change and innovate! At our first conference, we met women who had been on the Style network show called “Resale Royalty” (Sue McCarthy and her daughter, Diana Ford.) There was an auction for a day with Sue, and we decided to invest to win the day with her.
What was that experience like?
Bailey: It was magical. We decided to fly them out here, so we got three days with them. They evaluated everything about the store. The three points we walked away from were that we needed to consider switching our business model from consignment to buying outright, adjust our pricing slightly, and to declutter our racks a bit. At first, we said we couldn’t buy outright. Sue said there was a way and if we wanted to learn, to come out to her stores in St. Louis. A month later, we flew out and sat in their buying areas. We decided it would allow us the freedom to work on the business rather than in it. Consignment is so task-oriented. Resale is just one transaction.
Joni: So we’re going three days early to the conference to spend more time with Sue, to listen and see and watch. It’s a constant education and being willing to learn and implement it. It’s allowed us to grow at a much faster pace.
Would you ever open a Portland location?
Joni: Absolutely! We have been searching in Portland for a year. We want multiple stores possibly.
Bailey: We do have a Portland following already. We’re super accessible across the bridge, right off I-5. It’s convenient for our Portland community to visit us.
In terms of merchandise, what are items you’re always on the lookout for?
Bailey: We typically like better brand labels, current and trendy—items that haven’t been sitting in closets for more than three years. As far as categories, handbags are our number one seller. Second to that is active wear. Brands like Athleta, Lucy, Nike. Denim are also huge for us. As far as clothing, Nordstrom labels, Vince, Theory, Eileen Fisher, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, J. Crew, Anthropologie. But we don’t want to be narrow, so we have a great market for a Chico’s shopper. We also want to be versatile so no woman feels MODĀO isn’t for them. It’s diverse as well as particular.
Joni: We carry sizes zero to 3x.
What would be fashion or styling advice you’d give?
Joni: Dress for yourself and what’s best for you, not anyone else. If it doesn’t feel good for you, it isn’t going to work.
Bailey: We often suggest that if you have any interest in an item, just try it on because you never know. Hanger appeal can be lacking for a lot of items.
Joni: A lot of people say, “Oh, I’d never put that together!” or “I wouldn’t have tried that on!” So just be open to the possibilities.
Any advice for aspiring shop owners or people who want to start their own business?
Joni: Be prepared in the beginning to work 24/7. It’s not a hobby; it’s a business for us.
Bailey: It’s a lot of work! I think the most important part for me is our team. We could have invested in a team a little sooner. It would have helped to have a third perspective. It’s all about the team.
Joni: The team is crucial. If you don’t have that, you’re in trouble. We can walk away and they don’t need us. We want them to feel empowered on the [sales] floor.
What are your favorite parts of running the store?
Joni: Definitely dressing people to their full potential. Most people don’t know what that is, and I can help them with it. A woman will come in and feel down, not know what to wear, and she’ll walk out and look great and be so happy. It’s really gratifying for me.
Bailey: Seeing the fruits of our labor in the excitement of our customers. When a woman comes in and says she’s been seeing [social media] posts of new goodies and she couldn’t wait to come in, even though we saw her just a week ago. It’s exciting to see the community we’re creating. They’re excited, we keep working hard—it can only keep growing.