Ooh La Luxe Boutique owners Michelle Wilson Bien and Cristina Wilson Hudlin are Sonoma County California retailers with entreprenuerial magic in their pockets. Identical twins, each with a baby one month apart in age, they grew up, as Wilson Bien describes, “in (their) father’s motorcycle shop and watched him sell stuff.”
“We started our business in our early 20’s during the recession,” Wilson Bien says of her Petaluma-based operation, adding, “We started our business from nothing and never had to take a loan.”
Flash forward to today: The Wilson twins own not one but three shops (Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg) and have a staff of twenty. Michelle says they carry items “that we would want to wear. Clothing that is comfortable, chic and also at a price point that works for our customer base. We look at fabric, fit, quality and if it fits with our California style.” Their ideal customer? One who is, as Michelle describes, “an independent free spirited woman who likes to travel, enjoys art and nature; someone who likes to show off her style and march to the beat of her own drum. She loves home decor, good music and a night out with friends.” Michelle adds that she and her sister love “being creative and getting to show our customers new styles and ways to wear them, doing displays and creating a vibe in the boutiques.”
“We like to make people feel inspired with design and fashion,” Michelle says.
But the Ooh La Luxe shops were, appropriately, closed at the onset of the protocols to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Fortunately, Wilson Bien and Wilson Hudlin had been pretty “digital savvy” for a time, and this, combined with their ability to pivot their business focus from brick-and-mortar to online, has served them- most especially now. They’ve recently produced an educational and promotional video, through the City of Petaluma, which is hoped to be encouragement to other entrepreneurs also trying to maximize efforts at this time.
Michelle Wilson Bein took some time to chat about business, entrepreneurship, and life during this time, West-Coast style.
MC for Splash: How did you all get started? And why fashion and not motorcycles?
Michelle: I remember dreaming of opening up a clothing store and having a business ever since we were little. I remember our first business in college, a coffee drive-thru. We were two broke college kids trying to make ends meet, put ourselves through school, and follow our business dreams. My sister and I combined all our money (about $1200), and we bought an espresso machine and a coffee cart cart from a garage sale. We worked our butts off every morning 4am-11 serving coffee drinks then going to school full time and working part time jobs. We loved our customers and loved having a business.
After graduating SSU and expanding our cart to 2 spots we knew our next step. We wanted to sell the coffee cart and start our clothing store. We were scared, it was a huge step, we just graduated and the economy had crashed. We decided what better time then now.? We wanted to start small in a 500 sq ft loft in the back of another store in our downtown Petaluma, a place we always shopped and called home. We used our money from the coffee cart to buy used clothing, jewelry and shoes. We scavenged every thrift store and garage sale looking for the perfect pieces for our store. We both had half our bedrooms full of clothing.
I remember the day we opened we were so nervous and excited. We were still getting the store setup and we heard a customer in the fitting room trying on, we looked at each other beaming! Our first customer bought a dress for $25 and we were ecstatic. We worked in the store 7 days a week, switching off days and working other jobs to make ends meet. We were exhausted but we loved it.
After about 1 year we started having a regular flow of local customers and were able to quit our day jobs and just focus on the store. After a year our lease was up and it was time to close or expand.
We both knew we wanted to expand and so we got our next huge spot downtown in an old bakery on the Main Street 2100 sq ft It was a huge step for us and a real gamble. We decided to do new clothing and used clothing since we had the space. We started a website- that we figured out on our own. We worked every day and started getting a loyal customer following. I remember hiring our first employee after 2 years in that spot and we were terrified of leaving the store with someone else.
We have now expanded to Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. My sister and I have been able to primarily focus on our fast growing website, which is so much fun!
We now have 20 amazing employees that are part of our team.
Our Sonoma County community has been a huge part of our success and we want to thank all of our local long time customers for their continued support and helping us fulfill our dreams!!
MC for Splash: What was your initial reaction when “nonessential” businesses were closed?
Michelle: Initially we were shocked, but wanted what was best to keep everyone safe. We wish we could have had more support for our team. We were able to pay them for an extra week but wish we could have done more. It was difficult because we still had to pay rent at one location and have no money coming in. We had to brainstorm on how we would keep selling during this difficult time.
MC for Splash: What would you say were your biggest “problems to opportunity” encountered with the pivot of your business?
Michelle: We were lucky that we had social media and our website for the last 10 years. Social media has always been a huge platform for selling products for our business. This is one of the ways that we have grown the business. The biggest change for us was having to take inventory from our brick and mortar stores and bring it to the website to sell. We did a lot of jobs that we normally have other people do such as driving inventory, packaging, doing try-on hauls and photo shoots at home, and showing personal stuff like receipts and what we are doing at home.
MC for Splash: How did the video with the City of Petaluma come about?
Michelle: We had the city reach out to us to do a video. They saw that we were able to survive and thrive during this difficult time and wanted us to share our experience.
MC for Splash: What do you see as the ideal take-away you’d like video viewers to have?
Michelle: We wanted to show other business owners that there’s always a way to survive and still make sales despite the circumstances. They just might have to adapt to things they aren’t used to and do things out of their comfort zone. It’s all about reinventing your business to survive the times.
MC for Splash: I sense more good things coming along in future for you two- and that those good things will be shared. Am I right?
Michelle: I think that we will be more active on YouTube. We would like to share more things that worked for us with other business owners or people who are hoping to start a business. We also are in a mentorship program at the local college and also do internships for people who have interest in the fashion business. We want to be more then just business women but also help our community.
We see great things in the future for Ooh La Luxe boutiques and owners Michelle and Cristina. Stay tuned…
If you know of other Enterprising Entrepreneurs who are doing great things at this time, reach out so we can share their story, too.
©2020 M D Caprario
Photographs supplied by and used with permission of Michelle Wilson Bien