I walked into the boutique, and the fashion-forward pieces on the simple, elegant white walls caught my attention. My eyes moved to the assortment of rompers and dresses on the right wall, and then to my left, I saw embroidered sweatshirts, off the shoulder tops, simple silky pieces and even some unique skirts. I looked down and there was a table of neutral, knitted sweaters. I then walked towards the back of the store and noticed a wall of brightly-colored sunglasses.
Someone walked out of the fitting room in a versatile, fitted black denim dress.
“I love that one. That’s so pretty,” exclaims the sales associate.
Acting as a sales associate in that moment, Ellen Shirk was just doing a small part of her job after opening a boutique called VAMP Official in the Short North this past July.
Shirk’s day starts with picking up packages of merchandise and preparing them for the shop floor. She then posts an outfit or flat-lay and sometimes a story on Instagram. For the rest of the day she goes from being a sales associate to a buyer, to a marketer and normally ends her day tidying up the store.
VAMP was born during Shirk’s time at Ohio State when she started taking fashion classes for fun while pursuing her bachelor’s in architecture.
“I approached [Alex Suer and Wendy Goldstein in the Fashion and Retail Department] about taking an independent study to start an online store with some of my friends,” explains Shirk. “We always had this dream of starting an online store [because] we were all obsessed with shopping online and [talking about] bloggers on Instagram [that] we would follow.”
“We put together a syllabus for the semester and the end goal was to have the online store up and going and have product ready to start selling,”
It started as just a fun activity for her and her friends, but Shirk says that her friends eventually realized that going to grad school the following year and running the store was not practical, so with the support of her friends, she decided to continue the adventure.
Shirk officially opened the online store around the time she graduated in May 2016 and had it running for over a year. During that time, Shirk worked at an architecture firm in New Albany and ran the online store on the side.
She ran everything out of her parents’ house, keeping the clothes in their spare bedroom.
In addition, she bought styles in small quantities and made a small photo studio with her dad in their unfinished basement.
She received online orders from time to time, but the main way she sold merchandise was at pop-up shops downtown, such as the Moonlight and Sunlight Markets. After getting off from her full-time job, Shirk says she should would just try to meet people and sell clothes in order to buy more and keep the store going.
Shirk expresses that in the beginning, the online store “was not because [she] knew this was what [she] wanted. It was because it was fun.” At the time, says Shirk, “I liked my job and I loved the people I was working with, but [eventually I realized] that this was my passion and what I really wanted to do.”
Shirk started working with a realtor to learn about potential spaces in the area, their prices, lease terms, and square footage. On her way home everyday from work, Shirk drove through the Short North, and she found a space with paper in the windows on the corner of W. Starr Avenue and North High Street that was willing to lease for a year.
After seeing her potential store, Shirk went home that night and used a 3D modeling program to create her ideal space. She created the floor plan and pondered the perfect location. Upon reflecting on the safety net associated with a short-term lease, she decided to go for it.
After getting the space, it took 4 weeks to build the the store’s interior based on Shirk’s design.
When she signed the lease, the space “was a gift shop…it was dirty. There was carpet, [and] there was paint in all different colors on each wall.”
She tried to build the store with as low of a budget as possible by using peel and stick tiles for the floors, having her dad make all of the fixtures, and taking advantage of help from other friends and family.
The next step was to expand the inventory before opening the store.
“I spent the first year in business…creating accounts with new vendors …so that I would be ready with the buying when I expanded,” says Shirk. “I started out with a lot of boutique labels that were easy for me [to get] because as a new business you do not have anything backing you up that is going to get you [an] account with the best brand.”
Now, Shirk finds a lot of her labels in store through bloggers on Instagram. She contacts specific labels directly and tries to get accounts with them to add some of their collection to her stock.
“[I] kind of have to sell [the store] to them because they have a reputation that they want to maintain…and a lot of [my vendors] now are Australian or European.”
Now that it has been open for about three months, her store is getting busier. Shirk believes her mix of relatively low prices and unique products is driving sales.
“I love it down here, and being on the north side. . .is really great for me because campus is right there,” and this “price point for the Short North is … something you don’t see down here, which has helped a lot.”
Shirk believes that her target market is young professionals and that a lot of of last minute shoppers come in looking for a unique outfit for the night or the weekend.
Utilizing this knowledge, she describes the styles in the store as an “on-trend [or an] always changing. . .mix between [one’s] wearable basics and statements.”
By consistently buying small quantities of new merchandise everyday, Shirk makes her store a source of “fast-fashion [so] when someone comes back [a few weeks later] there is all different merchandise.”
As Shirk says, “it is not a one-man job anymore,” and is excited to have her new “employees to bounce ideas off of.”
In addition, she plans on reinventing the online store. She also plans on refining her social media marketing and refining the styles she buys to match her brand and market better.
When asked if she regrets pursuing architecture instead of business or fashion, Shirk responds, “No, I love architecture…I [just] wish I would have known how much happier I would have been doing this…to start.”
Right now, Shirk knows that she is still learning about running a store and owning a business, but she “love[s] just talking to people” and that “people leave [the store]…usually really happy.”
I left the store as a group of students came in looking for outfits for this weekend. I happily walked out with a new, comfy, cold-shoulder black sweater that I bought and I knew I would probably be back in a few weeks with my friends.