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.