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The Michel Sisters Go From High-Tech to Boutiques

Tamara and Julie Michel turn their love of clothing into their dream boutique.

Tamara and Julie Michel's love for clothing and quality began at a young age, when their grandmother taught them to sew. Now, with their own boutique on Castro Street, the sisters have a place to house not only their own brand but other small-name brands as well.

They may have gotten their start in the high-tech industry, but the Michel sisters have since taken a different path to reach a level of happiness in their lives. 

is a place set on simplifying women's lives, while providing them with stylish and timeless fashions, says Tamara.

The sisters hope to help their customers fit into an affordable outfit that works for every occasion.

Mountain View Patch: How long has your store in Mountain View been open?

Tamara Michel: The end of September it will be four years.

Patch: Do you have any other locations?

Tamara: No, not anymore. We did have one in Menlo Park, but we closed that at the end of this past calendar year.

Patch: Why did you decide to close that one?

Tamara: The downtown there has really become very quiet. It’s pretty slow. There are a lot of vacancies there now. ... The last year we were there, there were quite a few boutiques coming into that area, but, I don’t know, they have a lot of odd stores down there. They have a lot of furniture stores, not a lot of restaurants. There’s not really a good draw there.

Patch: How long was the Menlo Park store open?

Tamara: That was about seven years, so we had that one for three, and then we opened this one, or I guess we had that one for almost four, and then we opened this one as our second location.

Patch: Is it just the two of you working in the store?

Tamara: No, we have people helping on the weekend, so we’re usually here during the week, and then we have girls who have been working for us since the beginning actually of opening this store.

Patch: Who is older?

Tamara: I am.

Julie Michel: We’re one year apart.

Patch: Have you always done everything together?

Tamara: Pretty much, yeah.

Patch: Is there any sibling rivalry?

Tamara: No, not really. We have very different personalities and backgrounds, so it works out pretty well. (Julie) is more of the artistic type. I’m more of the mathematical, scientific type.

Patch: Why did you decide to open a clothing boutique?

Tamara: When we were really young girls, our grandmother taught us how to sew, so we have been sewing our whole lives, and we’re shopaholics too. It’s just something we’ve always been passionate about, clothing. We were both working in high-tech, and then we kept talking about this, as kind of like our dream as something we would like do at some time.

Patch: In high-tech, what companies were you working for?

Tamara: I was working for like Texas Instruments and semiconductor companies, so I have a background in engineering, so that was kind of my focus when I got out of school. And Julie was working at several startups also.

Patch: Where did you go to school?

Tamara: I went to Ohio State. We grew up in Ohio.

Patch: Where are you from in Ohio?

Tamara: Sandusky. It’s a very small town. It’s between Cleveland and Toledo up on Lake Erie. There’s a big amusement park there, called Cedar Point.

Patch: When did you move out to California?

Tamara: When I graduated from college.

Julie: I came about a year later, but I went to Columbus College of Art and Design, which is also in Columbus near Ohio State.

Patch: What brought you to California?

Tamara: For me, when I graduated from college, I was hired by Texas Instruments in Dallas for training, and then I got transferred out here after I got through my training program with them, so I was working for them in the Bay Area.

Patch: Where in the area do you live?

Tamara: We live near downtown San Jose.

Patch: What brought you to Menlo Park and Mountain View to open your stores?

Tamara: When we were doing our research, we were looking at different towns and the potential. It was kind of by accident that we found Menlo Park. We had called a realtor and were looking at a spot in Palo Alto on University, which was very expensive at the time. We didn’t really see anything that fit what we were looking for, and he recommended we go look in Menlo Park. So we went down the street and immediately saw this open spot right on the main street. It was a good location, the foot traffic was good, and the clientele in that area have a lot of disposable income, so we thought it would be a good spot. It was a really good spot for the first several years.

Patch: At the time you opened the Menlo Park store, did you have plans to open the one in Mountain View?

Tamara: When we wrote our business plan, it was always our strategy to have several stores, so when we were in Menlo Park and got that going, learned the ropes and decided, OK, it’s time to expand, and that’s when we found this place, which again seems like a great location in downtown Mountain View. It’s a really up and coming downtown, very active.

Patch: How long had the Mountain View spot been vacant before you moved in?

Tamara: It was available for quite sometime.

Julie: Since it’s such a big location and such a big spot it's kind of a hard spot to lease out.

Tamara: For at least a retail store. I mean, if it was a restaurant, but the owner of the building didn’t want to have any more restaurants coming in. He wanted to try and make the downtown a little better well rounded, so he really wanted retail to be here.

Patch: Was it hard to start up your own store?

Tamara: Not really. The hardest thing was quitting our jobs, I think. That was the scariest part. We worked on a business plan for, like, six months, so we did a lot of research, we went to trade shows, and when I was working in high-tech, I was kind of responsible for running a business anyways, so I kind of knew what the process was; it was just different subject matter. I think we learned it pretty well and pretty quickly.

Patch: I know you had the Menlo Park store that is no longer there, but do you have any plans to expand?

Tamara: Not at this time. What we are trying to do, now that we have closed that store and are able to focus a little more here, is to work on this store more and do our website.

Julie: We still have a lot of work to do. We kind of just started (the website).

Patch: Are you hoping to get a lot of business through the website?

Tamara: We are hoping. We have a lot of customers who are still in Menlo Park and keep calling, so we have that group of customers who are wanting our website, and then we have other markets we are hoping to be able to expand into that we are not hitting right now. So that’s kind of our expansion plan, is the website.

Patch: How did you come up with the name, Boutique 4?

Tamara: When we were writing our business plan, it was based on an idea we had about the four different color groupings that people fall into, and we thought it would be a really neat thing to have our store organized by those four different color groupings, so when somebody walked in, we could say, oh, you should go to that section, and everything there will be flattering to your coloring. But when we actually tried to implement that, it was really difficult to do, but the four kept coming up when we were writing our business plan. Like women have four different body types, four different color groupings—it just kept coming up, so we thought we would stick with the name.

Patch: How often does the selection in the store change?

Tamara: Every few months.

Julie: Right now it’s probably one of the bigger switches of the year. There’s two huge turnovers, which is summer to fall, and in the winter, we start going into the springtime. ... Over the next few weeks, pretty much everything in the store will be different.

Tamara: We get inventory in pretty much every day. ... Sometimes it's more housewares stuff or gift items; sometimes it's clothing, T-shirts, whatever, but we pretty much have stuff coming in at least three times a week at a minimum.

Patch: What do you like most about running your own store?

Tamara: Helping women, trying to solve a problem for women when they come in looking for solutions, I guess—you know, when they just had a baby and they’re going back to work and they’re not feeling great about themselves. Just helping find those things that make them feel good and look good and feel better about themselves when they find that perfect outfit, or whatever.

The whole buying for the store part of it, too. We really love clothing. We’re passionate about clothing and selling it. We’re passionate about the way it looks and feels and is constructed.

Patch: Do you have your own clothing line?

Tamara: We have our own private label, so we have our own brand. About 30 to 40 percent of our things (in the store) are our own brand. We were hoping to do more design, but just the day-to-day time required to run a business ... We do get involved with some of our lines and determine what fabrics or what designs, so we’re somewhat involved in it, but we are not managing the whole design process ourselves, which is a full-time job in itself.

Patch: Do you eventually hope to do more on the design side?

Tamara: I’m not sure. I mean, we like being involved at the point we are now. It’s kind of a nice compromise, because we get things that are custom for us that nobody else will have, but we don’t have to manage buying the fabric and the thread and the buttons and making sure it's sewn correctly and that whole part of it, which is a lot to manage. I think we will probably keep doing it how we’re doing it. It’s kind of being involved, but not completely doing it.

Patch: What’s the hardest thing about running your own store?

Julie: The hardest thing is being on your feet all day.

Tamara: Yeah, I think that’s probably it.

Julie: I mean, really, it’s just a fun job to have, whether you’re with people every day or processing inventory. I enjoy all those aspects of it. Seriously, just being on my feet all day is the one negative thing I can say.

I mean, before … when I got to the point with my other job when I was working in high-tech, every day I would wake up and think, gosh, I don’t want to go to work today, but now I never feel that way … I enjoy it.

Tamara: In fact, I don’t think either one of us has had a sick day in seven years … and we can’t, either, because we know. It’s not like I can call in sick, because she’s going to know if I’m sick or not.

Patch: How would you describe the style of the clothes in your store to people who haven’t shopped here before?

Tamara: Our focus is mostly to have things that are kind of timeless and somewhat ageless. We do pull in trendy things every once in a while, but for the most part, we want to offer clothing that you can wear 10 years from now, and it's still going to be in style. ... We have clothes that 18-year-olds and 60-year-olds will wear, the same skirt or something. Then for it to be very affordable and well made.

Patch: Who makes up your customer base?

Tamara: The bulk of our customer base is probably ladies from mid-20s to mid-50s. … A lot of our customers are women who are working, who have busy lifestyles. That’s what we're trying to focus on is helping them simplify their lives by giving them clothes that they can wear for anything at any time, and they’re easy to take care of.

Patch: What’s your reasoning behind choosing lesser-known brands to sell in your store?

Tamara: There are a few reasons. One is that what we found is some of the more popular brands that are pretty expensive, you’re not really getting that great of quality for your money. It’s more about the label.

Julie: And you can get it anywhere.

Tamara: ... And you can get it anywhere—and you’re basically paying for their marketing and advertising costs. That’s what you’re paying for and not really for the clothing or the construction or the quality. ... There’re really great designers that have really great stuff that’s like a fraction of the price of the designer stuff, and it’s better made and lasts longer.

Julie: Plus, when every other store, including Macy’s, Nordstrom’s and every boutique has it, then what would be the point of carrying it … We try to find things that are more unique that everybody else isn’t going to have but is still stylish.

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