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Female Entrepreneur of the Year: DressWell Boutique bring unique clothing options to area

April 6, 2019

Christy Smith once traveled to Chicago or even further north to find the kind of clothing she liked.

Smith, a Bourbonnais resident, has never been a fan of malls or large department stores. She had ventured to faraway boutiques for at least a decade before deciding to do something about the lack of unique clothing options in the area.

In 2015, Smith hosted a pop-up shopping event at Smitty’s Bar in Kankakee, where her husband is part owner. She invited two boutiques from Morris to bring their clothes to sell, and it was a hit.

“It went over really well, and it was a lot of fun, and it kind of got my wheels turning,” Smith said. “I thought, gosh, if there’s a need for this sort of thing in town and people are excited about it, someone should do something. But even thinking about being a small business owner in a small town is daunting because you’re investing time and money into something and you don’t know whether it will work.”

So, Smith pushed the idea onto the back burner, and continued her job as a respiratory therapist at Riverside. When she shared her dream of opening her own boutique, friends and co-workers would warn her of the pitfalls of opening a business in the area, stressing how hard it is and telling her people around here don’t support local businesses.

She wouldn’t give up on her dream that easily, though. In January 2017, she decided to dip her toe back into the waters of retail and started out small. She created a Facebook page and started doing pop-ups all over town — sometimes as many as three per month.

“It really took off from there,” Smith said. “We did a lot of traveling with the clothes, which was a huge task, but the community loved it.”

During the pop-ups, women would practically beg Smith to open a storefront, saying they wanted more than two or three opportunities per month to try on her clothes. So, in February 2018, when a friend called telling her she had to check out an available property, it was the push Smith needed to finally dive in and give her dream 100 percent.

“I went and looked at the property, and there was just no turning back at that point,” Smith said. “We had signed an agreement within a few days, and had the store open in six weeks, on April 4, 2018. It really has just been full throttle since then. The business is growing and growing, and we’ve had such a great response from the community, we’re trying to handle the growth as fast as it’s coming.”

The business she opened is DressWell Boutique in Bourbonnais, and its emergence and immediate success has brought Smith the distinction of being named Female Entrepreneur of the Year by the Daily Journal as part of its annual Progress Awards.

The boutique offers a variety of clothing, shoes and accessories at a modest average price of $30 to $60 from 60 different manufacturers. To keep her regulars happy, Smith restocks the store with 20 to 25 new pieces per week, and almost never purchases more of an item after it sells out, so buyers can feel like they have a one-of-a-kind piece.

“I like women to be able to come in and find a cool blouse, and know they’re one of only five or six that are going to have that blouse,” Smith said. “I have items that will sell out in a couple of hours, and women will be on Facebook asking me to restock. While I hate saying no, that’s the great part of shopping at a boutique — it’s not cookie cutter, it’s not big box; you’re meant to come in and find a piece special for you that you aren’t going to see everyone else wearing.”

Almost exactly a year after first opening, Smith has her sights set on continuing to evolve and change with the trends, and relaunching her online store. She also wants to continue the styling work that companies such as Sarah Jane Photography, the Kankakee County Visitors Bureau and even the Daily Journal have hired her to do. And while the year has been a difficult adjustment in balancing the store with being a wife and mother to her 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, she’s kept the business a family affair, making her brother store manager and having her daughter help whenever she can.

“My daughter has had a hand in the business from the week we signed the lease,” Smith said. “Just having her look up to our family business, and at 10 years old putting in the hard work and knowing what it is to go to work every day and do something that makes you happy, but also realizing it’s not easy and it’s not always fun, has been great. She knows the blood, sweat and tears of hauling boxes and steaming clothes and burning yourself — the construction and painting and cleaning. She spent her entire summer break working at the store with me, and she loves it. And that’s been my proudest accomplishment so far, showing my kids you can have a dream and pursue it, but also that it takes a lot of hard work to do it.”