Michele Lee’s fash­ion­able cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ate the ef­fort she puts into dress­ing her shop win­dow

Michele Lee’s fash­ion­able cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ate the ef­fort she puts into dress­ing her shop win­dow

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - LYNN HADDRALL

Do you ever just ad­mire a win­dow dis­play? The best fash­ion dis­plays stop you in your tracks and en­tice you to en­ter the store. Store own­ers used to work hard to dress their win­dows. Any trip down­town meant strolling past de­light­ful dis­plays. Two Bri­tish tele­vi­sion shows that show­cased the early days of re­tail – “The Par­adise” and “Mr. Sel­fridge” – de­light­fully cap­tured that ex­cite­ment. Win­dow dis­plays were seen as works of art as well as tools of mer­chan­dis­ing.

Today, ma­jor de­part­ment stores in big cities such as Paris and Toronto still take pride in their store­fronts. For spring 2018, Ga­leries Lafayette in Paris in­cor­po­rated live animation in its win­dows, mes­mer­iz­ing pedes­tri­ans and tak­ing care to credit the cre­ators of each dis­play. Hud­son’s Bay in Toronto went big on news­pa­per ad­ver­tis­ing last Novem­ber to un­veil its hol­i­day dis­play, pitch­ing it as a “spec­tac­u­lar cel­e­bra­tion with a spe­cial mu­si­cal per­for­mance by Pen­ta­tonix.”

Small ur­ban cen­tres have lost much of that cre­ative flair, with the ad­vance of big-box stores and online shop­ping. So it’s re­fresh­ing to walk by a bou­tique where the owner cares about the story in the win­dow.

Michele Lee loves to hear peo­ple com­ment­ing on the dis­plays she cre­ates in her chic bou­tique on Que­bec Street in Guelph. The owner of Shop B, for­merly Blush, spends count­less hours plan­ning her win­dow dress­ing.

“It re­ally is a lost art,” Lee says. “I ab­so­lutely love to hear the cus­tomers’ re­ac­tions when they walk by the win­dow. It makes me so happy to hear if some­one tells me that dis­play made them smile, or that they wanted to pop in be­cause the win­dow grabbed their at­ten­tion.”

Lee keeps a jour­nal, cre­ates a mood board and col­lects im­ages that in­spire her from sites such as Pinterest and In­sta­gram. To plan her win­dows, she pe­ruses those vi­su­als and brain­storms ideas to match the sea­son’s mer­chan­dise.

“Once I have the in­spi­ra­tion, I start sketch­ing dif­fer­ent lay­outs for the shop win­dow. Next, I like to make a list of props to buy or to make for the dis­play,” Lee ex­plains. “Some­times I start the plan­ning and then de­cide that I think some­thing else might work bet­ter. Back to the Pinterest board I go and scroll through more ideas. Some­times it’s good to have a plan B.”

Some dis­plays are labour-in­ten­sive. For one, she did a back­drop of cross-stitched flow­ers. It started with a pat­tern, but she ended up wing­ing it. For an­other, she wet paper and then ran­domly dropped dark navy ink on it, as a back­drop to show­case clas­sic navy dresses.

The win­dow dis­plays of­ten fea­ture two man­nequins that Lee has dubbed “the girls.” They are her blank can­vas, ready to model any new style.

One of Lee’s favourite dis­plays was a Christ­mas in­stal­la­tion with a huge ad­vent cal­en­dar con­tain­ing num­bered boxes. It gen­er­ated an­tic­i­pa­tion on Que­bec Street.

“Each day we took the box lid off and re­vealed some­thing on dis­play. It was fun and it kept peo­ple drop­ping by to take a peek and see what we were show­ing.”

Win­dow day has be­come a big event for her. Lee will post a pic­ture of the new win­dow to her so­cial media ac­counts. This elic­its a bar­rage of com­ments such as “Your win­dow is se­ri­ously awe­some” or “I so miss living in Guelph and walk­ing past this lovely shop win­dow ev­ery day.”

Lee de­vel­oped her dis­play tal­ents at Seneca Col­lege in Toronto in a two-year pro­gram for vis­ual mer­chan­dis­ing. She got

hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence through the col­lege’s field place­ments. She has worked at fash­ion com­pa­nies in­clud­ing the Bay, Eaton’s, Suzy Shier, Creeds and Club Monaco.

“I would say ab­so­lutely hands-down I learned the most be­ing at Club Monaco. I was there for nine years and you kind of get that es­thetic and you know how they roll, and that just felt right for me. It was a great place to work.”

Al­though she loved the work, the com­mute from Guelph to Toronto kept her from en­joy­ing life in the Royal City. Lee made the most of her week­ends and even­tu­ally de­cided to open her own bou­tique. It was a big step to aban­don a se­cure, se­nior po­si­tion with a big com­pany to be­come a self-em­ployed en­tre­pre­neur in a small city. But Lee loves a chal­lenge.

“It was a real shakeup. Ab­so­lutely,” she says. “I did lit­tle sur­veys be­fore I opened the store in Guelph to get a feel. At that point, when I was with Club Monaco, I knew what was hap­pen­ing in Toronto. I was also in New York, prob­a­bly about once a month. You see what’s hap­pen­ing in the big cities, but it is dif­fer­ent in Guelph.”

Lee opened Blush in Oc­to­ber 2004. She swapped the long com­mute for a job within walk­ing dis­tance. She got to know her cus­tomers who keep in touch even af­ter they move away. Four­teen years af­ter she started her busi­ness, she now sees daugh­ters of the women who re­main her loyal cus­tomers.

“I think when I first opened, every­body thought that I would be gear­ing to­ward the univer­sity crowd, but that is not my cus­tomer. It sur­prised me too be­cause I thought it might be univer­sity, but it was def­i­nitely a dif­fer­ent clien­tele. Now I’ve known these peo­ple and I know what’s in their closet and their shoe size. I know their brand, what they can wear, what fab­rics they can wear.”

Lee thinks it’s im­por­tant to stay in­no­va­tive. One fun idea she fea­tured for four years was a mo­bile pop-up store in a pink RV trailer. She named it Blush on Wheels (BOW) and hit the road bring­ing clothes and ac­ces­sories to spe­cial events and smaller com­mu­ni­ties.

The bou­tique has an online pres­ence and ac­tive so­cial media ac­counts where Lee’s eye for imag­i­na­tive snapshots draws de­vo­tion. Her In­sta­gram ac­count has 140,000 fol­low­ers and there are 156,000 monthly view­ers on Pinterest. Her blog of­fers lots of style tips, like how to wear a vi­brant red top with clas­sic jeans and a neu­tral shoe – “when you are wear­ing a state­ment piece, keep your other styles sim­ple and un­der­stated.”

This spring, Lee felt it was time to re­vi­tal- ize the bou­tique, so she changed the name. “Time to move for­ward and grow. Our new name, Shop B, feels like a re­fresh­ing yet time­less up­date for Blush. The change has us feel­ing ex­cited and in­spired.”

Lee, who shares a 1950s Guelph home with her hus­band, Sean, and their French bull­dog, Louis Pierre, says she wants her re­tail space to pro­vide a respite from the busy world. Reg­u­lar cus­tomers af­fec­tion­ately call it “the pink bub­ble.” Care­fully cho­sen styles are show­cased in a space that could be found in a trendy sec­tion of any big city, with fresh flow­ers, white­washed wood floors, and back­ground music be­fit­ting a French café. Her favourite playlist cur­rently fea­tures Diana Pan­ton, a Cana­dian jazz singer.

Lee’s per­sonal style, which is chic and seem­ingly ef­fort­less, in­flu­ences her choices. “I seem to be most in­flu­enced with how French women dress. I think it’s their at­ti­tude; they look com­fort­able and very con­fi­dent in what they are wear­ing.”

High-fash­ion streets are a long way from the tiny ham­let of Ethel where Lee grew up. She at­tended school in Lis­towel and was cre­ative from an early age. Her fa­ther, a farmer, was also an artist and pho­tog­ra­pher. Her mother loved in­te­rior de­sign.

“I think all my sib­lings, we got some­thing cre­ative. I’ve just al­ways been in­ter­ested in be­ing cre­ative and artsy and the fash­ion.”

Lee fol­lowed a French es­thetic long be­fore she got to stroll the cob­ble­stone streets in that fash­ion cap­i­tal. She was thrilled to visit Paris for the first time in the spring of 2016. She took it all in – blos­soms, ar­chi­tec­ture, cul­ture, shops – but, most of all, the street style.

“Need­less to say, I was snap­ping pho­tos the whole trip. It was still a lit­tle cooler at that time, so the women were lay­ered up in their chic out­er­wear and scarves. Believe me, I was sub­tly tak­ing notes.”

Lee has made sure that you don’t have to go all the way to Paris to cap­ture Euro­pean flair. Just stroll Que­bec Street to see what “the girls” at Shop B are wear­ing in the win­dow.

Michele Lee works on cre­ative ideas for a fresh win­dow dis­play at her down­town Guelph bou­tique, re­cently re­named Shop B.

Lynn Haddrall

Michele Lee pre­pares “the girls” for a new look in the win­dow of her Guelph bou­tique re­cently re­named Shop B.

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