Milwaukee Boutique Is More Than Chic Clothes, It's A 'Sanctuary' Of Sisterhood
We’ve been reporting the last few weeks on how minority small-business owners have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in our COVID Earners series. Many business owners are grappling with the financial impacts of shutdowns and social distancing, but there's been also a social toll that they've had to work around.
JohnRae Stowers runs a clothing boutique called JazzyRae' Jewels and Accessories on Vliet Street in Milwaukee.
Stowers’ boutique is more than just a place to get chic outfits and chunky, statement jewelry, she says, it’s also a community hub for the women who go there, a place for conversations and networking.
"Before the pandemic, the space was an open space for women to come and just hang out," says Stowers. "It was a hangout. Women would plan their Saturdays around come into the shop, right? We would have cheese and crackers, cookies, you know, whatever we needed to just — we may order pizza that day in the shop."
Stowers, who gleefully describes herself as a people person, says the community vibe set JazzyRae' apart from other boutiques.
"When women come out of the fitting room, you know, we're like, 'Hey, go ahead and rock walk the runway, you look good!' It really pumps the woman up," she says. "So that is that in itself is so much fun just to watch and see."
Stowers also organized an annual event called "The Divas Brunch." It brought together more than 500 women on Marquette's campus. There was a fashion show, a small business entrepreneurs marketplace and, of course, good food.
"Just being able to stand on the stage and look out, it's like, Wow, all of these women are here to celebrate one another, to celebrate the brand JazzyRae,'" she says. "It's our staple fundraising event, if you will, and all of the love and different entrepreneurs there, it was it."
When the pandemic closed the shop doors, what hit the hardest was not the financial toll, it was the social one, Stowers says.
"I remember the first time we did curbside, one of my customers pulled up to get her order and she just cried in the car," she reflects. "When I tell you, it gets me emotional so I'm not gonna do any crying."
Stowers says it was her customer's first contact with adults other than her husband and children.
"It was like, 'Wow,' and the fact that they miss being at the shop and when women you know start to realize that the shop is their place, right, that's it's almost like when you go to Target, you're at Target, but you're shopping, shopping, shopping. You're not necessarily meeting with people. But at the boutique, you're shopping, you're meeting with people, you're being loved on, you're sharing information."
To keep the business viable in the pandemic, Stowers says she got creative — ordering fashionable, yet comfortable clothes and selling them in sets: legging sets, different colors, all kinds of sets for curbside pickup. But to continue the shop's camaraderie, she's gone virtual, like starting a private Facebook group.
Stowers says of the group, "[when] we're in there, we could be changing clothes and so you can see what an outfit looks like. We're putting encouraging messages. We're asking questions, you know, 'What's happening in your world? How are you feeling about this?' You know, the hot topics."
She has also set up two additional initiatives, including the Divas Connect Initiative: "That is where women get paired up with other women. And throughout the month, they're expected to get together, whether it's for coffee, whether it's for Zoom or something like that."
They also have a book club where members read a book each month, and get together to talk about it at the end of the month.
All of it in hopes the women will have the love and support they had before the pandemic. "Just to kind of keep the community going within JazzyRae," says Stowers.