Whatever happened to indie retail in Milwaukee?
Local designers go from the physical to the virtual marketplace
Milwaukee might not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking about fashion hotspots, but with the handmade boom that began in the early ’00s, the city saw a surge in the number of local designers opening up their own shops. Storefronts that had sat empty for years in Milwaukee’s hippest neighborhoods had fresh coats of paint and signs welcoming customers to purchase everything from soap to jewelry to clothes made right here in town.
One of the first DIY stores in Milwaukee was Fashion Ninja, a boutique and clothing line created by Arika Ikeler. She began designing in 1997, and opened her boutique in the heart of Bay View in 2002; soon, she began teaching sewing and design classes. Ikeler’s DIY attitude helped launch a community of designers with the necessary knowledge to create their own clothing brands. Fasten Collective graduated from years of selling at indie craft fairs and farmers’ markets and opened a storefront in Bay View. Paper Boat Boutique and Gallery, which was operated by Faythe Levine and Kim Kisiolek, featured handmade designs from all over the world. The General Store in Riverwest created a showcase of local designers next to its gallery walls. The growing number of stores was welcomed by exploding demand—fashion shows began popping up at rock venues and art galleries, and wearing handmade designs became a badge of Milwaukee trendiness.
And then, slowly, Milwaukee’s DIY boutiques started closing. Now, many of them exist only online.
What happened? Economic fluctuation definitely took its toll on independent businesses in the last few years, but many designers cited fatigue as their main reason for shutting down their boutiques. Now the Internet has allowed them to sell their wares without the overhead of running a store. Free from the hassles of operating a physical retail space, designers can concentrate on the new frontier of personal Internet shops hosted by sites like etsy.com, where they can work from the comfort of home, in their underwear if they want, and keep their own hours. Even Ikeler has pulled the plug on her retail space and now operates online. “I love the Internet—I liked my boutique,” she says.
Tina Poppy, who runs an online boutique called Violetville Vintage that specializes in luxurious one-of-a-kind finds, thought about opening a brick-and-mortar store, but didn’t want to compromise what she was interested in selling to cater to a particular area. “Online, you have access to the entire world,” Poppy says. “Your chances of finding that one person out there who’s in love with this one particular dress in this one size and one color is a whole lot better.”
“I think that online shoppers are all about the feeling they get when they sit down at their computers and look at a website,” says Janelle Gramling of Little Ocean, which sells clothes made from vintage and recycled fabrics. “Your product is a photograph of your design and the story you write around your business. Shopping, whether it’s online or in person, is about feeling connected with the designer and that connection comes from the story behind the materials or the process used to make an item.”
DIY boutiques helped make some of Milwaukee’s most vibrant neighborhoods feel all the more vital; now that many of them are gone, a void has opened. While the Internet has made it easier for local designers to make a living, not everyone has left brick-and-mortar retailing behind. Levine has plans in the works to open a pop-up boutique this October in the back of Sky High Skate Shop (2501 S. Howell Ave., 414-483-2585), and other designers still dabble at selling through venues like Sparrow Collective (2224 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) or Fischberger’s Variety (2445 N. Holton St., 414-263-1991). Fashion Ninja has been recently appearing Saturdays at the East Side Green Market, and Vanessa Andrew—co-founder of Fasten Collective and the designer behind Penny Spencer and Madam Chino—has sectioned off part of her studio to create a retail space called Look Nook, which she opens to the public on Saturdays. “I think it’s nice to be able to talk to people who are shopping in your store and develop a relationship with your customers in person,” Andrew says.
The new phase of Milwaukee’s creative community seems to be more about time and balance than the starry-eyed ideals that many realized are difficult to accomplish in a 24-hour-day. Still, it’s nice to know that you only have to log on to see that local designers are still flourishing.