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Budget boutiques aim for high-fashion and low prices

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Christie Griffiths left behind her New York City life — working with fashion lines like Diane von Furstenberg, Nanette Lepore and Rag & Bone — and opted to cater to more cost-conscious consumers in Baltimore. She opened Brightside Boutique and Art Studio, a clothing boutique specializing in pieces that cost less than $100.

The Federal Hill store, which also contains a tattoo shop, opened in January. Shoppers regularly comb through the boutique, choosing from trendy lines such as Mink Pink and Kensie. Griffiths attributes the initial success to her affordable merchandise.

"Girls in their 20s and 30s want to be able to wear higher-end, but it's not in their budget," Griffiths said. "They want those looks on the runway."

Griffiths' business model is in direct opposition to traditional women's clothing boutiques, which are associated with more mature shoppers and higher prices. But the ailing economy, combined with a generation of fashionistas accustomed to "disposable fashions" and inexpensive designer collaborations with national retailers, have paved the way for a new crop of boutiques that cater to younger, more price-conscious shoppers.

The cheap boutique not only lures shoppers from mall stores but also puts pressure on more traditional boutiques to offer less expensive options.

Dr. Jung-ha (Jennifer) Yang, assistant professor and coordinator of the fashion merchandising program at Stevenson University, attributes the latest trend to a "generational need."

"This generation has been attacked by the economic downturn," she says. "They can't afford a $300 dress. There is a consumer demand for a simpler pricing strategy. It sticks with a consumer's mind when everything is priced $100 or less."

Lower prices at Griffiths' Federal Hill boutique lured Caitlyn Meyer from her usual thrift-store shopping.

"People avoid boutiques because they expect higher prices," the 27-year-old Baltimore makeup artist says. "But [Brightside] is extremely reasonable. I like it because the fashions are more exclusive to this area."

Hanger Alley in Fells Point is another of the half-dozen boutiques in Baltimore that have opened in the past two years offering pieces for less than $100.

Since she opened in November, owner Nichole Daley says, she has built a loyal customer base — many of whom travel from as far away as Washington to take advantage of her frugally priced frocks from designers such as Ya Los Angeles, Delicia and Let Them Eat Cake.

"When people walk in and see the prices they are generally pretty shocked that everything is affordable," Daley says. "They say that it's great that more stores are popping up like this."

Amaya Roberson, a D.C. resident, drives up to Baltimore at least once a month to check out Daley's latest offerings. The 33-year-old events coordinator loves the fact that she can find unusual apparel at low costs.

"I'm a shopper," she says. "I want to be able to buy something unique and original that helps me stand out. To do that in D.C., I have to spend $150 to $200. At Hanger Alley, it's a lot less expensive to get something that looks high-quality and will get me noticed."

Roberson notes that younger working women are making less money but still like to have the newest things. "When you are buying items on trend you can't buy as frequently," she says.

Susan Singer, owner of Party Dress, is generally credited with starting the $100-or-less boutique trend in Baltimore. She opened her Fells Point business three years ago. The driving force behind the concept was the economy, she says.

"I think that people still want to look nice in a down economy," says Singer, who carries jewelry, shoes and more than 200 styles of dresses from lines such as Survival and Synergy. "I think that people wanted an option where they wouldn't break the bank but would feel good about their look and budget. The response has been fantastic. We have 3,800 'likes' on Facebook. Our fan base grows every day."

Although the boutique attracts a variety of clients, her research has shown that the average customer falls in the age 24 to 35 demographic, according to Singer.

And she thinks the cheap boutique trend is here to stay. "I don't think we will see an economy that we had before," she says. "People have learned a lot of lessons about not going over budget."

When nearby Fells Point shoe boutique Poppy & Stella expanded its space a couple of months ago, the owner added an extensive collection of apparel. All of the new summer dresses, maxi dresses and other frocks were priced at less than $100.

"When we wanted to bring in apparel, we wanted to bring in an easy addition to the shoes and not take away from them," explains Kelley Krohn Heuisler. "We don't want to be a 'clothing store,' but we wanted to have some easy, fun pieces that our customers could enjoy."

Krohn Heuisler said customer demand as well as surrounding businesses affected the new addition.

"They like the fact that they can make our store a one-stop shop," she said of her customers. "I'm sure we were influenced by the neighborhood. We all pretty much want to help each other grow. We are working toward a common goal — making Fells Point a shopping destination."

The trend has also trickled over to more traditional boutiques, such as Jones & Jones in Cross Keys.

The women's specialty boutique that carries designers such as Halston Heritage, Tracy Reese and Black Halo started selling $100-or-less merchandise during the holidays. After having success with that strategy, the managers decided to continue to feature more affordable merchandise.

"This is the first in all my years in this business that I've seen people lower their price points in this capacity," says Karen Ciurca-Weiner, manager and buyer for the boutique. "The demand is greater."

While the newer Baltimore boutiques have focused on selling all their clothing and other staple pieces at less than $100, Jones & Jones has focused on lower-priced accessories, such as scarves, handbags and jewelry.

"We're able to get those designer looks at a lower price," Ciurca-Weiner says. "But that ends up being a challenge. We work twice as hard finding [more affordable] pieces that look expensive."

Although it has been popular, Ciurca-Weiner doesn't predict that the lower-price trend in boutiques will remain.

"Fashion and price points are cyclical," she says. "It all depends on the economy. We are seeing a comeback as far as shopping is concerned. Our customer is interested in a designer-quality garment that will stay in their closet for years to come."

For now, Meyer, Brightside's loyal customer, plans to continue to shop at what she calls "more affordable" boutiques.

She hopes boutiques like Brightside stick around for shoppers like her.

"Everyone is having a hard time with money, but they want to look awesome," she says. "It makes people feel a little bit better about looking good if they don't have to spend a lot on it.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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