"Are we crazy?"
"How do we do this?"
"How do you become the 'it' place to shop in town?"
These are the questions Stephanie Horne and her husband, Brad, asked each other 10 years ago when they were planting Stephanie Horne Boutique in the Third Ward.
"I've always been interested in fashion since I was a little girl, whether it was my hair or what I was wearing," Stephanie Horne said. "It developed when I got into high school and I never wanted to look like everybody else."
Horne grew up in Waupaca, where exposure to fashion was limited. Baby-sitting for a high-end storeowner and shopping at the mall in Appleton was the extent of it.
"We didn't have the internet, so there wasn't online shopping like there is today," Horne said.
Horne studied fashion merchandising at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. After graduating in 1994, she managed a Buckle store in the area and quickly realized that job wasn't for her. A few months later, she began working in outside sales. The job was completely outside the realm of fashion, but she credits that time for giving her the opportunity to hone in on her sales skills — and meet her husband, who worked at the company at that time.
The people who had been around for a while were being replaced with less expensive models, Horne said. She was offered a package and took it. She used this as an opportunity to get back into what she loved: fashion.
"My husband begrudgingly said, 'Let's try this, let's build a website, let's figure out how to buy the things that people want,' " Horne said. "Luckily, he was able to fund me to start."
When the store went online, Horne housed the inventory in her basement. The people who knew her locally wanted to stop by and check out the merchandise.
"My husband said we can't have these people at our house all the time," Horne said.
So the couple began looking for a space, and their store opened in February 2007.
"People were noticing us," Horne said. "It was a time when people spent money freely."
Then in the fall of 2008, the economy crashed and Horne had to determine how to survive. She made her inventory less high-end, cut staff and took the extra hours herself, while raising two school-aged daughters, Sydnie and Mackenzie.
"There were a lot of times where it would have been easier to give up, and I just wasn't willing," Horne said. "Every time your lease renewal comes up, it crosses your mind. But that's when the fire in me starts going again."
The boutique moved in the Third Ward twice before landing at 244 N. Broadway.
Horne had a second location for around three and a half years that moved from Bayshore Town Center to Mayfair, then Blue Mound Road. The second store closed in 2012.
Customer service is one of the biggest reasons the boutique has been able to last, Horne said. A thank-you note is sent to each customer for every purchase.
"Customer service is a lost art. Nobody gives it anymore," Horne said. "We do have some customers that come in and are taken aback."
Horne knows exactly what her customers like and will look good in, said Susan Kuhlenbeck, a customer of Stephanie Horne Boutique for around seven years. Horne sometimes personally delivers pieces to Kuhlenbeck and picks up the items she isn't interested in.
Tabatha Dirubba, who has been a personal stylist and buyer for Stephanie Horne Boutique for almost four years, said Horne has inspired her. "She has a love for this industry and always tries to put her best foot forward with people."
Besides getting to know customers, buying for the store is the best part of the job, Horne said.
"I'm always looking for what I call classics with a twist," Horne said. "That piece that has longevity in your wardrobe and is good quality."
When the store was born, the website took a back seat. The boutique has just reached the point, Horne said, where she can dive back into the internet again. She plans on offering brands and styles that would be risky in Milwaukee, but are more sellable in Los Angeles or New York.
Horne began carrying shoes at the boutique this summer and wants a fully functioning shoe store to blossom within the shop.
"My goal is to bring in lines that are not readily available in town," Horne said.
Beyond that, Horne has no plans to expand. "This is the perfect size to keep it personal," Horne said.
ABOUT THIS FEATURE
This Is Us is a recurring feature in the Journal Sentinel Green Sheet, with stories on the people, places and things reflecting the spirit and heart of our community.
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