Story and photography by Emily Jenkins
The minute hand approached 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning as she turned her key to open the door. “It happens every time,” says Alex Hill, an employee at Red Dress Boutique. Soon after, a light whiff of cheesy, thick crust pizza trickled its way from Mellow Mushroom down Clayton Street, and into the store. Downtown Athens has awakened. The customers rolled in, ready for their unique shopping experience to begin.
Young women from the Athens area are indulging in the new fall trends that are pouring into local boutiques. The clothes and the entire downtown shopping experience are becoming a bit more sentimental. Sophomore Marisa Tralongo says in a small college town like Athens, “shopping is more than just picking clothes off of a rack, trying them on, and then hanging them in a closet when you get home. It’s actually a form of expression.” These stores are giving women a style that inspires them to be the best form of themselves they can be. The boutiques thrive on competing for the business of each and every girl who walks through their door through forms of social media, caring for their customers and their exceptional sense of style.
As humans and consumers, we are all about what’s new. It’s our culture to have the latest, most unique products on the market. For us, these boutiques offer distinctive, hard to find items in town. Lynn Mathews, a sales associate at Heery’s Clothing, takes pride in the fact that Heery’s is the only store in Athens that sells Frye brand boots. The closest place to get them would be in stores about an hour and a half away in Atlanta. Rusty Heery, the owner, thinks that this quality is one of the most important concepts of owning and keeping a successful reputation in a small town. If the customer can’t find it anywhere else, they will buy it here.
Red Dress Boutique, located just around the corner from Heery’s also has similar qualities but is a bit more extreme. Red Dress is known for their store presence in Athens but even more known across the country for their store online. Working from a large warehouse, about five
minutes from the store are employees who never seem to stop working, and doing it exceptionally well. Lena Sansonetti, an employee at Red Dress, has seen clothing go out of stock on the online store within minutes of the piece opening for sale. It seems as though customers are keeping track of new arrivals or else they wouldn’t be selling out of items within hours, and even minutes. We can thank generational friend social media for that.
Social media outlets, such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, have changed the game for boutiques around Athens. Most of the stores downtown use it to attract users to their store, and even more importantly, their brand. Airee Edwards, the owner of Agora Vintage, has seen the changes social media has had on her boutique happen right before her eyes. Although her business is new to the social media world, “I’m interested in building a web presence as her store continues to grow,” says Edwards. As an owner of a vintage shop downtown and the Agora co-op store just down the street, social media has allowed her to express the feel and unique quality her shop has compared to other local stores. She wants potential customers to see that “the store is extremely visual, and there are people who have taken so many great pictures of [her] products, such as new bags or cool furniture,” says Edwards.
She’s received calls from customers from across the country that want to order items from Agora, and she treasures the relationships she has been able to build with them. Social media keeps Edwards connected to customers who have recently graduated from UGA. They always call her when they are looking for something specific and she tries her best to find that item for the store. Edwards is also looking to expand the Agora Vintage website by adding a blog. Customers have been coming to her store for years with amazing stories. “One guy came in the store who used to be a manager for Led Zeppelin, and he later showed me pictures of him and George Clinton,” says Edwards. There are unbelievable stories she is dying to share with her customers, and she is hoping to share them through blogging and social media to give Agora the voice she believes it truly deserves.
Alex Hill, a new employee at Red Dress, encountered a very similar experience to Edwards. A young girl drove all the way to Red Dress from Florida for her senior trip. She had saved over 1,000 dollars of her graduation money to spend at Red Dress that day. Hill says the customer has been following Red Dress on Instagram for a while and she wanted to come see what the store was like in person. Hill couldn’t believe how committed and dedicated the customers really are to the business. “That’s what the online store is for,” says Nicole Weaver, a former employee and model for Red Dress. Social media have helped increase sales. Making others aware of what’s going on around you and inviting them to share that experience with you is what social media is about. “That’s our goal here at Red Dress, ” says Weaver.
Because social media have the power to reach people who are local, and nationwide, the boutiques in Athens are capable of appealing to different personalities and styles by simply being themselves.
Many of the customers are parents of students who attend UGA. Whether they’re visiting their child on a weekday for dinner at Last Resort, or they’re traveling from out of state on a Saturday in Athens for a football game, parents “always have to stop by Herry’s before they leave” says Elizabeth Cannon, a customer of Heery’s. Cannon is the perfect example of the customer Sansonetti had described. Cannon has a daughter who just started her junior year at UGA. “I have to visit Heery’s at least once when I come to visit my daughter, Katherine Cannon,” says Cannon. Cannon can find clothes here that fit her “business casual” style for the office where she works. She loves the way Heery’s presents itself as having fashionable clothing, “but the clothes are also professional and classy,” says Cannon. She likes that “it makes Katherine happy when she buys clothes from Heery’s because they are age appropriate.”
Confidence is a key component to the styles at the boutiques. The employees at Red dress are all around the same age, therefore, they know what girls coming into the store are thinking when they try clothes on such as. Does this fit my body type? Is this dress flattering one me? What style shoe do I need with these pants? “Red Dress is one of those stores that a girl can walk into and find something she likes and that will fit her,” says Hill. “There is literally something for everyone here, and that’s what sets us apart.”
Along with supplying customers with fashion that helps drive their confidence, Diana Harbour, the owner of Red Dress, has made it clear with the store tagline posted on their website: “Red Dress is happiness,” and the employees at the store both downtown and at the warehouse are responsible for projecting this motto. This company is truly authentic to the way they value their customers and those who work there always have the same mentality. Like Harbour, Edwards at Agora Vintage sets high standards for her image by making her customers feel as confident as possible. However, she obtained her goal in a different way than Red Dress. Edwards has found that it’s not only important to form personal relationships with customers, but also to form friendships with them. Not a day goes by where Edwards doesn’t greet a customer that walks through the door by saying “Welcome, love,” or shouting, “Thanks for coming by sweetheart!” as they leave the store. This language makes her customers feel like they have a personal relationship with Edwards.
After customers and friends build relationships with these boutiques, it’s normal for them to want to be a part of what they experienced from the other side of the checkout counter. Kait Poncsak, a model at Red Dress, was an average college student at UGA who had some background experience in modeling. After seeing that the store needed models on social media, Poncsak quickly got in touch with Diana to see what she needed to do to land the this job. “I thought it might be a good way to make some extra money on the days I wasn’t in class, so I sent an email with a few photos and they called me to come in for a test shoot,” says Poncsak.
Now, after snagging the job Poncsak’s pictures are all over Red Dress’s website. A few people have recognized her because of the pictures that are going viral on social media. A woman even asked to take a photo with her when she was in Florida with a friend one weekend. “I think of it as a fun additional job so it’s a little amusing to think that people would want to take their photo with us,” says Poncsak.
Although she thought of this job as something fun and a way to build her modeling skills, Poncsak appreciated the people she got to work with like other models and one of the photographers, Blane Marable. Marable is a well-known photographer in Athens and was honored when Red Dress asked if he would photograph their models. Building personal relationships helps his job go more smoothly. Marable likes being able to talk to the models on a professional level about their future career plans and goals. “It’s easier for me to connect with the models through the lens when I have connected with them face to face,” says Marable.
Each boutique ultimately believes that their business has not only survived, but also grown because of their attention to social media, customer service and unique style. The owners and workers live to make an impact on someone else’s life.
After a long days work the sweet, savory smell of pumpkin spice floated its way across the street from Starbucks as the door swung open, allowing the aroma to fill the doorway. As Hill turned the key to lock the doors she says, “Athens never seems to disappoint, does it?”