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March 24, 2023

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Locally owned boutiques in downtown Vancouver prove fashion can move city forward

By , Columbian staff writer
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Teri Schmeets, owner of Doppelganger in downtown Vancouver, prepares online orders for shipping. During the pandemic, Doppelganger opened an online store, which was a sizeable portion of its business at one point.
Teri Schmeets, owner of Doppelganger in downtown Vancouver, prepares online orders for shipping. During the pandemic, Doppelganger opened an online store, which was a sizeable portion of its business at one point. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Boutiquing in downtown Vancouver is now a thing, said Teri Schmeets, owner of the Doppelganger boutique near Esther Short Park.

When Schmeets opened her shop eight years ago, she couldn’t say that. But so much in downtown has changed. More boutiques have opened, selling a wider variety of clothes that aren’t found in the big-box stores. Some of them are vintage and others are all new.

It’s become such a thing that Schmeets said she has regular customers coming all the way from Beaverton, Ore., to shop in downtown Vancouver.

Running a fashion business in Southwest Washington can be tricky. For designers, it’s difficult making connections in the industry. Apparel companies can have a hard time sourcing material. Shop owners, too, face challenges.

Schmeets carries a variety of clothes from closet staples to social media-influenced trendy items. Shoppers in the area like shopping at big-box stores and can be resistant to new fashion trends. But a lot of Schmeets’ clientele is driven by tourism, which she says has bounced back since the pandemic. People from bigger cities are more open to the recent trends.

Schmeets says she and her boutique sisters — the other shop owners downtown — really changed how much local traffic came into the area. Much of that was done through social media.

“You have to be so savvy. You have to give people a reason to want to go downtown to shop,” Schmeets said. And all the shops have done their part.

During the pandemic, Doppelganger opened an online store, which accounted for a sizeable portion of its business at one point. But people have become more comfortable shopping in person again, and Schmeets admits she hasn’t made the online store a huge focus of her business at this point.

“People have enjoyed coming back in person,” she said. And Schmeets, who left 17 years of working as an executive for big-box stores to open Doppelganger, enjoys the face-to-face customer interactions.

“My passion is hands-on merchandising, working with customers and mentoring staff,” she said. None of her staff are paid on commission. The team just aims to help customers find outfits that make them feel good.

Ups and downs

Sweet Spot Skirts, a women’s athletic apparel company based in Vancouver, has been in business for 12 years. It’s been a brick-and-mortar business. It’s had apparel sold in REI stores. It’s promoted and sold merchandise at large athletic events. And it’s sold its gear online.

“It’s been crazy,” said owner Stephanie Lynn. In 2020, the company expanded its offerings to include facemasks, which it created for numerous organizations.

“All of 2020, we built skirts, but we really built masks,” she said. The company recently moved its manufacturing to Beaverton. It’s relying on online sales only until large athletic events open up again.

Sweet Spot has grown and shrank and grown and shrank but has continued on and stayed locally headquartered.

Recently, Sweet Spot has faced supply chain issues with sources. If an elastic supplier shuts down, Lynn has to just accept it. And she has to be flexible. If they only have black elastic and not white, she has to take the black. She hasn’t run out of fabric yet, however. Sourcing is always difficult when you’re manufacturing though, she said.

Going online has also been an adjustment. The online ads that used to generate traffic to the brand’s website don’t get as much traction anymore. And with so many companies going online, standing out can be a challenge. Still, owning the brand has been rewarding.

“I’m still the only owner and we’ve got a loyal following,” said Lynn. “I love the loyalty of other businesses supporting us and my peers, and our really loyal customers have been so gracious and good.”

Focus on the customer

Reshell Douglas is the owner of Not Too Shabby boutique downtown. She’s seen the busiest holiday shopping season ever.

“It’s just insane,” said Douglas, who has owned the store now for 21 years.

Like Doppelganger and the other boutiques downtown, Not Too Shabby added an online store. Still, Douglas wants to cater to people who support her type of business.

“There’s still that girl that wants to go into a store and touch and feel and try things on and have the experience,” said Douglas.

Douglas started her business because she too grew up in a family business. It seemed natural for her to become an entrepreneur.

“I was inspired as a young child from my mother to be creative and industrious,” she added.

She’s managed to stay in business even when downtown Vancouver was not the boutique haven it is now.

“I know who my customers are,” said Douglas. “I know who’s going to wear this. It’s 100 percent focusing on the people who are already my clients.”

Douglas loves hearing back from customers who bought a gift for someone and then returned to tell Douglas how much it was enjoyed.

“I just love what I do — making people happy.”