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Q&A: CMU senior re-launches dormant boutique as passion project

Katie O'Brien | Courtesy Photo

"With her senior year coming to a close, Katie O'Brien's Winter Break plans of baking cookies and watching Christmas movie marathons took a back seat to updating her resume and applying for jobs.

As a public administration major, she seemed poised to land a job in government, especially with four years of experience in the public service sector at Bay City’s City Hall.

She [even] underwent a series of interviews that lead to an offer from the State of Florida. But hesitant to uproot her life and move 1,100 miles south, O'Brien passed on the opportunity.

O’Brien re-routed and pursued a different job, this one as the owner of a clothing boutique. During her sophomore and junior year O’Brien worked as a clothing stylist for Le Fleur boutique before the owner closed the store in 2018.

As a fashion enthusiast, she was saddened by the closing. However, having developed such a close relationship with the previous owner, O’Brien was optimistic that she could approach her in the future with an offer to buy and relaunch Le Fleur.

O’Brien sat down with Central Michigan Life on Feb. 19 to discuss her decision to buy Le Fleur Boutique, the sudden transition to the retail industry and her professional goals.

CM-Life: What inspired you to buy and re-launch Le Fleur Clothing Boutique? 

O'Brien: Fashion was something that I was always passionate about, I had all these ideas of styles and designs running through my head, and it was always a “what if” kind of thing. So after [Le Fleur] sat for two years, it was a no brainer to see that it could be mine and carry out all the ideas I had. It was the combination of timing and always having the idea in the back of my mind.” 

How did you come across this business opportunity? 

I didn’t really come across it, I more so went after it. I had to ask the previous owner if she would ever be willing to sell. I had asked a couple months prior and she had said no, and then I had a second inkling around November to ask again, and she said yes. 

Who served as the biggest influence in your decision to purchase Le Fleur? 

Definitely my dad. He was the only person that didn’t question my decision once. I love everyone who supports me, but everyone questioned me but him. If anything, he was on me to make the decision to do it, and I think that’s because he is a business owner and he’s done the risk and he’s seen the reward. 

Only months away from graduating as a public administration major, what caused the sudden change to pursue a venture in the retail industry? 

It’s just very difficult to find a job right now. I have a part-time job, but the job market is tough. If I didn’t want to relocate to another state, there isn’t really much room for growth. It was one of those things where I knew I wanted to pursue Le Fleur, so why not do it now? But it’s important to note that I’ll always have Le Fleur and another job. I’m never going to put all my eggs in one basket… I’ll have my professional career in politics and public administration, but I’ll always have Le Fleur. 

Which is the bigger priority: pursuing your professional career in government or growing and building Le fleur’s brand? 

It’s so tough because I’m torn on how much I love serving the public, but I also love having this creative fashion outlet too. I’m not even sure I can give you a definitive answer now, maybe ask me in a month or so? 

What skills do you expect to transfer from your experience in the government and public service sector to your new role as a small business owner? 

Well gosh there’s a lot. The communication aspect of it is huge. Being able to work with different designers and wholesalers and merchandisers is key. I’ve been able to collaborate with businesses and have been able to do interviews and still communicate without even meeting these people, so I rely on those skills, the professionalism and the ability to hold myself accountable and meet deadlines. 

What sets Le Fleur apart from other known retailers? 

What sets me aside is 1) creating the connection with the customer, creating a friendship with them… and 2) the uniqueness, sourcing pieces that are unique and that you can’t just find at a Target or Kohl’s or wherever. If I source an item that I know you can get at Target, and for half the price, I’m failing. 

What does success mean to Le Fleur Boutique? How will it be determined? 

Success for me is knowing that my customer base and my friends and family like what I’m putting out, and obviously that translates into sales. But I’m not out here trying to gain a bunch of sales, it’s all about quality over quantity to me. If I can really have a good customer base that is loyal, and that when they think “oh my gosh I have a wedding to go to or a baby shower or a birthday” the first place they go to is Le Fleur. Knowing that those are my people, who I serve, that’s all I want. That’s the goal.

As a small business owner, what is your greatest fear for Le Fleur? 

I think everyone who owns a business has a fear of it failing, but that’s not mine. If anything, I fear that I’m not hitting the style mark. Especially with being all online, it’s harder to have that face to face interaction and see what customers like. 

Moving forward, what’s your ultimate vision for Le Fleur? 

The vision changes really. But right now, building our online platform and making it 10 times better by the day is goal number one. But goal two is when things start to open back up, potentially starting to travel around and see where I want to land with Le Fleur. [Le Fleur] had so many phases in life… it started in Ithaca, then it went to Mount Pleasant and then it was in Grand Rapids. It’s traveled so much that I’ve come to the point where I really want to find its permanent home.

What would 18-year-old freshman Katie O’Brien say about who you have become today? 

"Oh wow," is probably the first thing she would say. 18-year-old Katie didn’t know what she was getting into. But she’d be proud that 21-year-old Katie went after what she wanted and didn’t let anyone stop her. I finally feel like I’ve found my place, where I’m meant to go, and to me, that’s what college is all about.