From lemonade stand to sweet boutique, success story unfolds
By Matt Townsend
A lemonade stand, her grandmother’s shoe closet and a music industry in decline all led Erin Whelan to leap from her comfortable life.
“We used to go and stand out there for hours,” Whelan said of the lemonade stand. “I don’t remember if anyone ever bought it except for my parents and their friends. But it felt good.”
That feeling led the 31-year-old Williamsburger to open Clarabella at 279 E. Houston St, between Clinton and Suffolk Sts., last year. She quit her marketing job of six years at Verve Records, which had downsized, then signed a five-year lease and spent $20,000 to transform a bland, 500-square-foot dress shop into a colorful shoe, purse and jewelry boutique that also showcases gallery-quality artwork.
“I think I was a little burned out,” said Whelan, who in 1999 moved to New York from Maine, where she grew up and graduated from Colby College. “I think I got a little frustrated of wanting to do things differently and try new things.”
But was Whelan the best candidate to open a fashion boutique, considering she called fashion shows “hilarious” and admitted to jeans-and-sneakers days?
“I’m not walking around in Soho looking like I stepped out of a magazine,” she said. “That’s just not me.”
Whelan said she developed her style from her impeccably dressed grandmother, whose shoe collection filled hours of her childhood. She described Clarabella’s inventory as classic and current.
“I think when people come in here and go shopping they aren’t going to look at what I’m wearing and say, ‘I don’t want to buy it from here,’” she said. “If they are going to keep coming back, it’s because we had a conversation and we made a connection.”
She also hadn’t run a business before, aside from selling lemonade and handmade bracelets as a kid. But at Verve she worked with artists such as Jamie Cullum and learned the skill of storytelling.
“One of the things we talked about in the marketing office is that to catch someone’s attention you need to have a story,” she said. “You can’t make up a story that’s not true. You have to have a story with substance.”
Whelan thought about story in almost every decision she made about Clarabella named after a great-grandmother who started her family’s penchant for shoes. She sought out unique, independent designers. She added shoe lines to make the store more eclectic. And she eventually turned part of the store into a gallery space.
“Some stores have a few lines of jewelry and shoes, or they are just shoe stores,” she said. “But to have everything folded into one, I thought was a little bit different, and I could create a different story.”
Clarabella has featured more than 50 designers and lines with names such as Love Brigade, Tracey Tanner and Tashkent by Cheyenne. Accessories range from $20 jewelry pieces to $800 handbags.
“You know you could come here and expect to find something unique and handmade,” Whelan said. “I just kind of hoped that by putting that out there people would start to catch on.”
Whelan had a story, and after months of remodeling, she had the space. Now she had to let in the world. The newspaper came off the store’s windows in April 2007.
“I wondered if I could actually make this work,” she said. “The most stressful part was fixing this place up, bringing in all the products and putting all that money out there.”
On opening day, the nightmare of every business owner didn’t come true and people actually walked into this idea she had been developing and wrestling with since she signed the lease in November 2006.
“It started off well,” Whelan said. “The first weekend I had fantastic sales.”
Since then she’s bonded with fellow business owners in what she called “the new Lower East Side” the area east of Essex St. They’ve advertised and held events together, including one with 20 different venues last December.
“We’re trying to get people to stretch beyond the typical area because there is so much more stuff going on and not everyone knows it’s happening,” she said.
Whelan constantly adds to the event list. At a Clarabella art opening earlier this year, attendees sipped wine, shopped and looked at the work of East Village photographer Ben Chang.
“Her approach is getting to know other shop owners and devoting one-third of wall space to artists,” Chang said. “It’s a great ethos. She just didn’t come here because it’s a hot neighborhood. She wants to be a part of the neighborhood.”