North Laurel teen opens high-end, secondhand clothes store

At the age of 19, most women aren't worried about business plans. But Kelsey Kleinhen isn't like most young women.

Kleinhen, of North Laurel, is the owner and only staff member of Kelsey's Kloset, a high-end, secondhand boutique that offers affordable designer clothes for women on tight budgets. The store opened Nov. 6 in the Cherry Tree Center, located at routes 29 and 216.

"A lot of people are really excited about this, and I think it's a good market, especially with the economy," Kleinhen said. "If you're in high school, or on your own, your parents don't pay for your stuff, and it's the same at college. You can't afford these things, normally, with a minimum-wage job … You have a smaller budget, so this is helping. It's also helping the moms that want to buy their kids nice things."

Most of the merchandise in Kleinhen's store sells for about 50-80 percent off the retail price. Coach purses line the wall near the entrance, while sweaters and dresses from Abercrombie & Fitch and Charlotte Ruesse hang in the back. Kleinhen ssaid she'll take anything a person can find in the mall — as long as it's high-end, she said.

Most of the merchandise currently in her store came from Kleinhen's own closet, or the closets of her sisters, mother and friends.

"I've been holding on to a lot of my stuff over the years," Kleinhen said. "My friends and I have always traded stuff throughout the years and I was planning on selling some stuff on eBay, but I'd rather deal with people face-to-face."

Kleinhen's father, Kevin, said his daughter came to him with the idea of opening a store in August.

"My first response was, 'Show me a business plan,' " Kevin Kleinhen said. "She's always wanted to do her own thing; she took guidance very well, but she wanted to learn it and do it on her own.

"She sold me on the idea. I felt that it could work, so I went ahead and told her I'd invest in it, and if things go well, in a few years she'll be able to pay me back and be on her own."

Sweat equity

Kelsey Kleinhen secured a loan from BB&T Bank in September, found the location in Cherry Tree, signed the lease in October and got to work. She and her father put the shop together in three weeks.

"We built everything from scratch," Kleinhen said. "He did all the electrical work, we laid the carpet. Everything was made by us."

The ultimate goal, Kevin Kleinhen said, is to get the store running efficiently and then possibly expand. Kleinhen said she plans to keep the original location no matter what, because she sees it as her baby.

The store is open every day and Kleinhen works roughly 60 hours a week. She also takes business classes through Ashworth College, an accredited online school from which she received her high school diploma when she was 16. She attended Reservoir High School her freshman year, then opted for online classes so she could graduate early.

"I wanted a head start on whatever it was I would be doing," she said.

Kleinhen is no stranger to the world of work. Although still a teenager, she has been working for several years, she said, first as a waitress at Cheeburger Cheeburger, then at a hair salon and also as a nanny.

"I've always been a hard worker," she said. "Even when I'm in here alone, I'm doing something productive — advertising, event planning, everything."

Despite the tough economic times, Kleinhen said she thinks there always will be a market for designer clothes and accessories, simply because that's what in vogue.

"(Young women) are interested in the clothes because that's what all their friends are doing, and when people see other people doing it, they want to do it, too, and sometimes they can't afford it," Kleinhen said.

Fortunately, Kleinhen said, that same logic translates to shopping at thrift stores — especially upscale ones like hers, which looks more like a boutique, with atmospheric lighting and warm colors, than a thrift store.

"I know if you're young, and you're asked to go to a thrift store, the answer is usually, 'No,' " Kleinhen said. "This isn't like that. Girls like it, parents like it. One of the mottos is, 'Be your own kind of beautiful,' and that's what this is."

Kleinhen's already noticing repeat customers, like Kime Smith and her daughter, Emily, 14, of Laurel.

"It's a tough economy," said Smith, 39. "She's a young girl starting a decent business, and I want to see her succeed. I know it's tough."

Smith works as the office manager at D&S Karate, two storefronts down from Kleinhen's store, and said she stops in often, arriving at work 15 minutes early to stop in and see if anything's new.

"It's not the same-old, same-old," Smith said. "It's nice because it changes, and there's fun, unique stuff all the time."

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