Elissa Kestner is a small business owner, mother, and active community member. We had a chance to talk to her about her brick-and-mortar business, building up the Monelle community, and how she balances being a mom and a business owner of several Monelle Vermont boutiques.
Can you start by giving us an overview of Monelle Vermont? What is the store like?
Monelle was opened at 136 Church St (currently Half Lounge!) in 1998 by Connecticut native and Saint Mike’s student Nell Soper and her sister Molly. Their mother Anne, a University of Vermont alumni, owned stores on Martha’s Vineyard and St. John and assisted the sisters in opening their own store in Vermont. The mother and three sisters have owned and operated iterations of Monelle in Edgartown, Nantucket, Watch Hill, Newport, Burlington, Stowe and St. John! Managers (like me, when I started) have been brought into the folds of the family business, and while each store is owned separately, the community they have built within a typically competitive industry is truly wonderful. We travel to New York and Atlanta markets together, share industry tips and complaints, attend each other’s weddings and are generally an amazing support system.
Where does the name Monelle come from?
Monelle is Molly + Nell together (turns out Monel is an element on the periodic table, so they added the “e”).
Oh amazing- So you didn’t start the business but came into it after. Can you first tell us a little about how you got into the business/fashion world and your inspiration?
My start in business was due to my love of numbers. I loved my studies in economics because it put numeric parameters on our everyday life (supply and demand, for example). My beginnings in retail were out of pure interest in clothes, but it was my background in business that allowed me to see the business career behind the racks of clothes and strings of pearls.
And what were you doing before Monelle? Was entrepreneurship something you had been interested in before?
I graduated from Bates College with an economics major and math minor and pursued a finance career in wealth management. I respected my colleagues and the profession, but knew I needed more creative fulfillment, so I quit my job and moved to literal greener pastures. I applied to the prettiest store I could find on Church Street to hold me over while I found a “real job,” but I fell in love with every aspect of the job and truly immersed myself in the industry. I traveled with the owner to the buying market in New York and to open new locations on Nantucket and in Stowe, Vermont before I approached her to buy the Burlington store.
Did you have a role model that encouraged you to get into business?
My parents are both business owners, so creativity, hard work, and integrity have been ingrained in me. I worked at my mom’s coffee and sandwich shop growing up, and I remember taking such pride in every meal I served and the tables I cleaned. I feel so lucky to be able to provide products I love that in turn make my customers feel beautiful in my own curated space.
How do you decide on what inventory you sell in the store? What are a few must-have pieces right now?
Going to the market is the most important (and fun!) part of retail buying. Trade shows in New York, Atlanta, Vegas, and more, showcase all of the next season’s trends. I use trends as a guide, but only buy into styles that I truly love. Half of what I choose is for my own closet, but the other half is circumstantial (what do people need) or aspirational (what do people want).
I have found it extremely important to be a reliable resource in certain staples. My customers have come to rely on buying their annual pair of pearls and leather sandals from Monelle, in addition to finding something unique.
A well-run store also needs a strong staff so how do you choose your team? What qualities do you look for?
Enthusiasm and excitement are the most important qualities to me. I want my employees to sell the Monelle brand more than they sell products.
How did the pandemic impact your business and what you were doing?
The pandemic changed a LOT for me. For one, it gave me the ability to slow down and step back for a moment. Retail is a revolving door of merchandise, employees and customers that keeps on turning. The shutdown allowed me to close the doors and assess systems that were working, but needed to be updated. It also allowed me to connect with my local customers on a deeper level as we built and ironed out our e-commerce platform and hand-delivered packages all over Vermont.
Lastly, it incentivized me to explore new locations and diversify my collections as customer behaviors shifted. I opened a second location designed primarily for local traffic, as opposed to the tourist traffic I was accustomed to, in November of 2020. It was a huge leap of faith, but has been a really wonderful experience.
What was it like at the beginning? How did you know what you were doing, and how has it changed over time and with additional stores?
I had the benefit of working for the previous owner, setting up new store locations and traveling to tradeshows with her and other store owners. I am very grateful for the experience I fell into and over the years have talked to so many women who want to open stores.
After completing my Middlebury project, I had the realization that my knowledge in the start-up process is valuable. I worked with a former employee turned interior designer to design both Shelburne and Middlebury, and together we are launching a boutique start-up consulting and creative start-up. We will coach clients in the process of opening a boutique, everything from state and tax incorporation, name and logo design, software, competition analysis, build-out and design, travel and buying schedules. I hope that the connections and relationships I developed over the past decade will be of use to other women who want to build the boutique of their dreams! We are currently working with a friend and test client as we build our portfolio and sales deck!
It must be so rewarding to help others in that way. What’s your favorite part about running a boutique?
I truly love it all! I love the buying, merchandising, remerchandising, changing around furniture and displays, dressing the windows, showing up on social. But the most rewarding part to date has been sharing it with my kids. They love spending time in the stores and showing their friends around the back rooms, stashes of toys and snacks, and bringing gifts to their teachers at school!
Can you tell us more about your new store in Middlebury? What is that partnership like for you?
I partnered with my hair stylist and fellow business owner to open Middleton in Middlebury, Vermont! It is wonderful having a business partner in this new venture, having run two stores solo for ten years! Lisa lives and works in Middlebury, so while she appreciates my experience in buying, I love her local insight on what the people want. It has made me look at line sheets differently, which I am applying to my Monelle buys.
That sounds like a fun change of pace after running Monelle on your own for so long. How do you make sure to take care of yourself, while simultaneously growing a business?
I make sure to find ways to exercise and move almost every day, whether it is skiing backwards, teaching my kids to ski or riding the Peloton after they are in bed. Owning a store is incredibly physically demanding (it is not just the pretty outfits on the mannequins), and I find I need to keep myself healthy to keep up!
How has being a mom changed your experience as a business owner?
I dedicated 6 (sometimes 7) days a week to the store before kids and was always available and on. Having kids has forced me to carve out specific time to work. It has also allowed me to offer important roles to current staff, which gives them the chance to grow in a role.
Are there any challenges to owning a brick and mortar in a small city or more rural area?
Understanding your market is very important. I am careful to source products that will resonate with my customers, but then I will push the envelope with both style and price to see what piques someone’s interest.
What advice do you have for other women just getting started?
Every job is an important learning opportunity and can be part of your story. Treat each experience (and boss!) with respect and curiosity.