WILMETTE – It has been one year since Larisa Olson took ownership of Chantilly Lace, a boutique lingerie shop in downtown Wilmette that boasts an impressive assortment of lingerie.
“We have more kinds of bras than anyone, more than even Chicago stores,” Olson told DailyNorthShore.
Step inside and you’ll find the shop cozy and inviting, the walls lined with colorful bras from all over the world — Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Japan, Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, and of course, the United States.
“I think for a boutique to succeed it is really important to have unique things that can’t be found anywhere else, but keep things practical,” Olson said.
Olson didn’t set out to own a lingerie store, but now feels this path was her destiny. “It was so meant to be. I just had no clue. It was clearly a destiny thing,” she remarked. Her father owned a furniture business when she was growing up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, and she enjoyed working in the showroom. When her father retired Olson didn’t want to take over the family business — 20 employees seemed overwhelming to her.
But Olson was looking to start her own business, when a friend introduced her to the owner of Chantilly Lace. The store had been open for 20 years, and the owner asked Olson to provide some ideas on how to make it welcoming to a younger clientele. After Olson came up with over 20 ideas, the owner said she was ready to retire and would Olson like to purchase the shop.
“At first I was taken aback because I had never imagined owning a lingerie shop,” Olson said.
But Olson found she was intrigued by the relationships the shop had with its customers. “It was a sleepy little shop with a devoted clientele,” she said. With encouragement from her father, she took the plunge and hasn’t looked back since.
Owning her own shop came with a steep learning curve, but Olson has more than tripled sales since taking over. She is constantly reassessing what’s in stock, searching for the perfect lingerie for her customers, while seeking to grow her customer base. “I’ve learned that it is not about what I like and my agenda but what works for the customers,” she said.
Currently, the two top-selling bras are Marie Jo and PrimaDonna, both made by Van de Velde, a Belgian lingerie company. “I would say they are perfectly well made. You can’t get better than that. They are durable and perfectly styled,” Olson said.
Olson views her job as more than just selling lingerie, but helping women discover themselves and feel comfortable and confident. Bella Boguslavsky has worked at the shop since it opened 20 years ago, and she and Olson work seamlessly together to insure that their customers get the perfect fit.
“The customers just love her because she is a very kind, gentle and gregarious person,” Olson said. “I couldn’t run the shop without Bella. Bella and I are team. We have a great time.”
It is that cheerful outlook that sets the shop apart. For many women bra shopping is similar to bathing suit shopping, a necessary task that is full of dread and self-loathing. “Once they become our customers they love the process,” Olson said. Olson has seen many customers who have experienced “body shaming” at large department stores, but they find her shop transforming. “We are a refuge from the discomfort of bra shopping,” Olson said. “Our bras make them look so good. (They) are like new women.”
It’s impossible to talk about Chantilly Lace without mentioning Olson’s newsletter that goes out to 650 customers in a weekly email. It’s worth signing up for the newsletter, just for a good chuckle. “My destiny in the world is to revolutionize the business newsletter,” Olson joked. Indeed, her newsletter not only provides updates about new items in the store or sales, but it also includes plenty of personal anecdotes from Olson as she touches base with her “Chantilly angels,” e.g., customers.
The newsletter almost always includes a “news flash.” With the customer’s permission, Olson will take an anonymous picture of a customer wearing a new, perfectly fitted, colorful bra. Olson said the news flash really humanizes the experience. “When you put a bra on a human being it comes to life,” she said.
Keeping it personal is how Olson plans to compete in a retail climate that includes internet shopping. “My shop is about relationships and personal service and attention. What’s the point of selling an expensive bra (on the internet) to somebody and it’s not going to fit right?” she asked. And she isn’t worried about competing with larger stores. “I don’t think big boxes can compete with us,” she said, noting that her boutique sells brands that other stores don’t carry.
Going forward, Olson plans to continue growing her base of loyal customers. She recently started carrying a line of bras from England for the teenage set. She also makes sure to carry bras in a range of prices so that anyone can shop at the store. “We really specialize in practical bras with special designs so your everyday bras and lingerie can be gorgeous,” Olson said.
Chantilly Lace is located at 1144 Central Avenue, Wilmette, open 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information to to www.c-lace.com.