The women’s apparel and accessory store Lela seems out of place amid the fruit and vegetable wholesalers along the 300 block of North Broadway in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.
But as the produce wholesalers slowly move out, Lela owners Carrie Arrouet and Stephanie Sherman are hoping that stretch of Broadway, known as Commission Row, turns into Fashion Row.
"I think retail in the Third Ward is about to happen," Sherman says.
The influx of residents, attracted by apartments and condominiums in new and renovated structures, is creating the demand for the next level of retail in the neighborhood, city officials say. The area already has a spattering of retailers, but clothiers have not been among them.
Arrouet says the market is there.
Open since October at 321 N. Broadway, Lela has become a financially viable operation, she says.
"And if two women like us can make it, others can, too," Sherman adds.
They admit their love of shopping was a factor in opening the store. But that love didn’t blind them to the realities of entering such a venture. They spent years discussing the idea and collecting information, and talked with several other small retailers.
"We’re not risk averse, but we are cautious and wanted as much information as we could get before opening the doors," Sherman said.
The two met while participating in the Future Milwaukee leadership program. Arrouet most recently was director Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, Inc. while Sherman was executive director of the Westown Association, which serves the downtown Milwaukee neighborhood on the west side of the Milwaukee River.
"Both coming from nonprofits, we’re pretty resourceful," Sherman says.
That resourcefulness includes garnering interior design work for the store from another startup, Ceislek and Celek.
The store is about 1,200 square feet, with about 900 of that being floor space to display its new clothing and accessories from area designers and "gently used" and vintage clothing being sold on consignment. The locally designed clothing has been popular, Sherman says, adding "there is a desire for that unique piece of clothing."
While business has been good in the first six months, Arrouet and Sherman are talking up the area as a good one for retail, and say they need the synergy created by multiple retailers for business to really take off.
That synergy may be developing. Hers, another women’s clothing boutique, is set to open in April at 309 N. Water St., a block west of Lela.
"Fashion is becoming a bigger part of the Third Ward," said Elissa Elser, who holds a merchandise management degree from Mount Mary College and a master’s in accounting from Marquette University. Further, she has experience in boutiques in Chicago and New York.
Elser’s husband had earlier lived in the Third Ward, so she’s familiar with the area. And she has seen its residential component expand.
"Seeing all those condominiums going in, it’s the right place to be," she says of her new store.
The Lela shopping experience "is like being in a New York boutique," said Nancy O’Keefe, executive director of the Historic Third Ward Association.
"Lela is a wonderful addition to the Third Ward," she said. "It’s very chic and hip – as are the owners!"
While O’Keefe isn’t sure the Third Ward will turn into a fashion district, she does see it as a natural location for apparel and accessory stores.
"I think the Third Ward is a very logical place for women’s fashion to cluster because we already have so many women-oriented retailers," she said. "We have Neroli Spa, the Institute of Beauty and Wellness, along with five or six other salons. Then there’s Private Gardener, Broadway Paper, The Grand Gourmet, Third Ward Jewelry — just to name a few" of the retailers in the Ward. "The Katie Gingrass Gallery often has wearable art and the Elaine Erickson Gallery also sells women’s clothing. And the East Town Women’s Resale Shop does a fantastic business."
The interest in opening up shops in the Ward "is phenomenal," O’Keefe said. "I have talked to so many people about retail space, especially within the last few weeks, I can’t keep up with the names."
Sherman has found that the condominiums and apartments of the Third Ward are not only attracting Milwaukee- area people and young professionals from other cities who move here, but, also, Chicago residents who are establishing second homes in the Ward.
Hers will feature upscale women’s apparel and accessories and also will have designer maternity clothing, which Elser says will be unique for Milwaukee.
In the same building that Elser will sell from is Metro Eye-Complete Family Eyecase, which Amy Jankowski opened last June.
Metro Eye "has had an overwhelming response, not only from the Third Ward residents but, also, from business professionals as well as suburban consumers," Jankowski said.
The Historic Third Ward Association counts more than 400 businesses in the Ward, which creates a natural shopping clientele for the retail stores. Of those 400 businesses, about 70 are retailers.
While the area’s residential population is increasing, Jankowski sees a strong influx of non-residents into the Third Ward, and she sees those people shopping.
"Most consumers are coming to the Third Ward to enjoy the eclectic shopping, exclusive galleries and an extensive array of upscale dining options."
Arrouet and Sherman see those people, commenting on the strong amount of foot traffic in the neighborhood, including on Sundays when they find good business at Lela.
Now, they’d like to see another 15 or 20 more clothing stores in the area, and more along Commission Row.
"In five to 10 years, Commission Row will be Fashion Row," Sherman says.
March 5, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee