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Owner Tamara Chaponot credits her success to a core customer base—one so loyal it’s followed her through three moves, from the store’s original location in Lincoln Park, to a new location in River North, and to its current home on Damen in Bucktown. Chaponot has known many of her customers since they were in their single-and-dating 20s, following them through marriages, families, and professional success. In fact, personal service is an essential part of her successful strategy: “Even if they can’t get to me, I’ll go to their office, go to their home.”
After a few years spent working for other retailers, Chaponot opened Clever Alice in 1996 to reflect her love of Paris and the clothing available there. “I found that they have these labels that are really actually affordable—the cut is better, the quality is better, the styles are a little more ahead. They were easy pieces that I wanted to bring back to Chicago.” It’s easy to forget that just 15 years ago, the retail landscape here was very different—small independent clothing boutiques offering innovative designs were few and far between, and on the retail side, ordering from European labels generally required going overseas on a regular basis, a time-consuming and expensive requirement. A few labels had showrooms in New York, but they tended to leave when the currency fluctuated. In addition, Chaponot had to convince European companies to adhere to American consumer demands. “French and European brands generally used to only want to do two deliveries a year,” she says. “Buyers here want fresh stock every month.” These days it’s a lot easier: Chaponot can go to showrooms in Paris when she makes her regular visits to France, where she and her husband have a small house.
And there have been other challenges, especially when she moved to River North, at Franklin and Chicago, in 2003. “I think Franklin was closed for the five years that I was there, because of Brown Line expansion project, which started a month after I opened,” she says. Then, in 2008, the economy started faltering as soon as she moved to Bucktown. Still, she counts her blessings: “I have always had great employees who have stayed with me a long time—we don’t have that retail turnover.”
Tough financial times and the moves have affected her mix of offerings as well. While some brands, such as Montreal-based Egerie and Casting, from Paris, continue to sell well, she now offers more staple items that fall under $200—“seasonless, machine-washable, easy care, but better fabrics,” she says. “The days of those small Belgian, German design houses where a beautiful blazer was $400 and you’d wear it to work, those kind of lines haven’t served a purpose here.” Her clientele also changed from a largely single, heavily traveled group to a more settled, family-oriented customer base, “still very urban, but they want that edge in a different way,” she notes.
Clever Alice offers some items online, but Chaponot has definitely gone all in on the physical boutique and the in-store experience. “Customers really want to touch and feel something, they want to chat, to try it on.” She’s heartened by the evolution of the city’s awareness of fashion as well—especially among men. “Guys are extremely better dressed than they used to be. . . . Once in a while we do sample sales and menswear is included. All the boyfriends came of the women who shop here and they were just fun. We had a good time. It’s always sort of like, ‘Oh, we need to do a men’s store!’”
The 15-year anniversary celebration takes place Thursday evening from 5 to 8 at the store, 1920 N. Damen. There will be cocktails and other treats as well as a raffle for a $200 gift certificate. A special sale offering 15 percent off your first item and 30 percent off the second will last through Sunday, November 20.