A CHICAGO STORE OWNER REAPS THE REWARDS OF TAKING HER STORE TO A HIGHER LEVEL.
Byline: Melissa Knopper
Tamara Tatkus Chaponot felt so lucky to be able to open her own boutique in her native Lincoln Park, it seemed like she was living a charmed life.That’s why she named her store, Clever Alice, after a fairy tale she found in a Parisian bookstore.
That was nearly five years ago. Now, with a new location just upstairs from the first incarnation of Clever Alice, Chaponot feels like her dream really has come true. The new store, a 1,200-square-foot, first-floor walk-up, is airy and spacious. And the historic brownstone’s large display windows have been attracting scores of new customers.
Mostly through word of mouth, Chaponot built a loyal following in her old space of women who couldn’t get enough of her well-made, fashion-forward European clothes. Her most famous customer is Chicago rock star Liz Phair, who wore clothes from Clever Alice while performing at the Lilith Fair.
Phair stopped in one day while strolling the neighborhood. She bought a beige peacoat and has been shopping there ever since.
Though Clever Alice sits on a busy stretch of Clark Street, one of the hottest shopping thoroughfares in Chicago, many potential customers didn’t notice the store because it was hidden on the basement level. But since she moved into the new space, sales are up 30 percent and she has doubled her inventory. Sales for this year will be $750,000, she estimated.
“We have 100 percent more traffic,” she said. “Having the huge windows in front has made all the difference in the world. We’re getting a lot of new people and a lot of tourists.”
Chaponot and her French husband, a trade show booth and showroom designer, worked together to create a new interior for the larger space. The most striking feature in their new design is a painted lilac wall decorated in a retro pattern with raised colorblocks in tan, vanilla and ice blue. “An ad for a Valentino-print coat inspired it,” Chaponot said.
White globe lamps from the Sixties, industrial silver lights and blond-wood floors complete the look. Two marble fireplaces from the 1800s contrast old with new. It’s a dramatic change from the previous owner’s darker color scheme of slate walls and light gray carpet. “The store has a look of luxurious coolness,” Chaponot said.
On the new silver racks (made of electrical pipes) hangs a selection of hip, body-conscious tops, pants and dresses that work for the office or an evening out. Top-selling lines are Sharagano, Morgan De Toi, Tark 1 pants and ultra-soft T-shirts by Velvet. Novelty shirts by Casting Paris (such as an Eighties punk rock-inspired tank covered with safety pins) and feminine dresses by Diane Von Furstenberg round out the collection. Prices range from $40 for a Velvet T-shirt to $205 for a pair of Tark 1 coated-cotton, leather-look pants.
Clever Alice also offers inexpensive handbags and accessories, such as simple beaded necklaces by Christie. Dyrberg Kern is a jewelry line from Denmark, with necklaces and colorful rings to layer made with crystal baguettes, pearlized glass, turquoise and pony hair. During buying trips to New York and Europe, Chaponot found new clothing lines such as Klair from New York, Le Chemins Blanc from France, Rafso from Spain, Red Haute from Los Angeles and Solo from France.
When choosing her inventory, Chaponot is inspired by the way people in Paris dress, with tailored pants that really fit and shining shoes.
“Everyone there is incredibly polished,” she said. “They take pride in the way they dress.” Many of her customers have that same sophisticated flair for fashion. “They are definitely professional women, but they are often in creative fields like advertising or Web design where they don’t have to wear a suit,” she said.
Chaponot enjoys educating clients about designers who do not cut their clothing in a typical American style. Her goal is to help people select versatile pieces, choose prints that flatter their shape and steer clear of trends that won’t last more than one season. “Our client base is extremely strong,” she added. “They keep coming back because we give them real service and advice.”
Most of Chaponot’s customers are younger, like 34-year-old Liz Phair, but 75-year-old actress Julie Harris also is a regular. Interestingly, Harris buys many of the same lines as Phair, Chaponot said. They both like separates by Morgan De Toi and Italian knits by Emozione.
Chaponot dreams of someday opening a second store in New York, but for now, she is content to stay put and enjoy her infant son, Nicolas. After working in retail for someone else since she was 18, from small boutiques to the Bonwit Teller department store, Chaponot still revels in being her own boss. Meanwhile, Chicago women continue to respond to the message behind the Clever Alice store’s name: “It says that you can be well-dressed and intelligent at the same time,” she explained. “The moral of the fairy tale is that Alice was clever enough to find her freedom and independence.”