The six-year-old version of Melissa Bigarel, who looked forward to visiting her grandmother partly so that she could ransack her trunk full of vintage clothes, never dreamed that she’d have a career in fashion. As a 19-year-old college English major, she started working in corporate retail, and was such a natural that she kept getting promoted. She ultimately spent more than a dozen years helping to right the ship of sinking chain stores—and learned more than a few valuable lessons along the way about how to run (and how not to run) a business. So in 2011, she struck out on her own with Louisa Ellis, a beautifully merchandised, loungewear-to–black tie women’s fashion boutique in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The store, which is open six days a week, caters to modern women who have classic sensibilities. The cuts are feminine but, as Melissa puts it, “infinitely wearable,” allowing for multiple uses within a wardrobe. Louisa Ellis (named after the independent-minded protagonist of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”) carries a variety of contemporary fan-favorite labels, including Rebecca Taylor, Plenty by Tracy Reece, Nanette Lepore, Milly, and Issa London, with some smaller, locally made labels thrown into the mix. Melissa sat down to talk about personal style, her do’s and don’ts, and what she’s loving right now.
Fresh American: Tell us about your first memory of being interested in fashion.
Melissa Bigarel: It goes back to me playing in this big trunk of clothes that my grandmother had when I was six years old. Every time I would visit, it was about, “Okay, what kind of outfit do I want to create?” I played in that trunk until I was probably too old to be playing in that trunk. [laughs] I think it’s a natural love. You either really like fashion or you don’t.
FA: Who are your past or present style icons?
MB: Right now, I’m a little obsessed with the ’60s, so I’ve been looking at a lot of photos of Jackie O, especially in her Hyannisport days. She used accessories better than anyone else I can think of in that era. Brigitte Bardot has been on my list lately. For contemporary women, I love Sarah Jessica Parker. I also always watch Olivia Palermo and Eva Chen.
FA: What is it about the ’60s that resonates with you?
MB: I think it’s the happiness of the era. The use of color, the Mod prints. Many designers are in a ’70s mood, and I love that they’re using the fluidity of that era—we all want comfort–but I’m having fun in the ’60s.
FA: Where do you get your inspiration for the store?
MB: We definitely have a vision, and we curate from what the designers are designing to fit it. We really think about the way our clients live their lives. Our clients have busy lives, they’re very successful women, and they need style that allows them to look great but isn’t too complicated.
FA: Do you have any favorite items in the store right now?
MB: I have many favorite items! There’s a Milly dress with an artistic floral print—it’s gorgeous yet practical; it has some arm coverage, and there’s great placement of color, so it’s slimming. I love the Inhabit scarves we have—they’re this frothy, air-spun cashmere, so they feel really delicious to put on. This blouse by Daniella Korte that I’m wearing. She’s outside of Boston. I like to support designers like her, who make locally. Nanette Lepore is a huge supporter of bringing back the garment district in New York City, so most of her clothes are made there.
FA: What’s your approach when a customer comes in needing styling or fashion advice?
MB: If it’s the first time we’ve met her, we ask a lot of questions. We have to figure out what she’s looking for, what she likes, what’s important to her, what her style is. From there we’ll usually make suggestions and work together until we find the right fit and color. But once we know someone, the process is really easy. When a new collection comes in, we know who we should call to tell them about a new piece we know they’ll love. We might say, “We got a new blouse that works perfectly with that skirt you bought a couple months ago.” We’re very involved in their closets. I sometimes know their closets better than they do.
FA: Do customers ever bring in things from their own closet to ask for advice about?
MB: All the time. We are a store, but we do a lot of styling. We all like to help women and we all like clothes, so we really love finding things that make them feel amazing. Styling is probably 50 percent of what we do.
FA: How can a woman develop her own personal style?
MB: You have to start with, What is your vision of yourself and what do you want to portray to the world? Even if a woman knows nothing about fashion probably has an idea of what she wants to look like. Some women may have a celebrity or style icon in mind; for some it’s a fictional character. If she has the basic idea, then she can start looking at colors and fits that are best for her. It can be hard to do on your own if you’re not into fashion—it’s good to have a guide.
FA: How can we learn to curate our own closets as our style evolves?
MB: There are so many tricks that people say to use. You can hang all of your hangers one way, and turn them around as you wear the clothes. If certain items are still hanging the original way several months later, then you’re not wearing it and it might be time to let it go.
FA: What about pieces that might not seem as relevant but that you have a sentimental attachment to?
MB: I say keep them! If you have the space for it, it’s fine to keep these things. I keep my wedding dress, even though I’m never going to wear it again. I think we sometimes get too invested in culling, but it’s really okay to have some things, especially if they can be repurposed or updated with new clothes to create a different look.
FA: Do you have a lot of sentimental pieces?
MB: I don’t—maybe five. I’m a frequent donator; I clean out my closet a couple times a year. I like the evolution, and I’m comfortable with change. If you compare fashion to interior design, one thing I love about fashion is that tomorrow, I can put on a different dress to suit my mood. But I can’t always change out my couch.
FA: What are some of the most common mistakes you see women make with trying to develop their wardrobes or personal style?
MB: One of the biggest mistakes I see when women go shopping is they indulge in too much negative self-talk, and then that becomes part of the shopping experience. It doesn’t need to be! A lot of that self-talk is about things we’re uncomfortable with and we’re trying to use clothes to become comfortable with, and we don’t know how to reconcile the two. That’s when it’s really useful to pull in help from a friend or a stylist.
The other shopping mistake is not having a plan. You should always know what you need or what gaps are in your wardrobe.
FA: So you’re not a big advocate going shopping for the sake of shopping?
MB: Oh no, I go shopping for the sake of shopping. [laughs] I’m talking more about building your own style, and if you’re trying to do that, it should be done in a more planful way. Once you have that plan, you can go shopping and look for what you need and what speaks to you. Then you can use the tools you’ve developed and have fun with it.
FA: Do you encourage women to try on clothes that aren’t within the “rules” for their body type?
MB: We always throw in one wild card that we think might be a little out of the client’s comfort zone or we’re maybe not quite sure will work. But you can often be surprised. Sometimes that piece will end up being the best thing you tried on.
FA: If a person really isn’t into fashion, do you try to cultivate the interest or just accept that it’s not their thing?
MB: It’s not their thing. It then becomes our job to make the experience as easy and fun for them as people. For those women, I recommend they call us before they come in, and we’ll pull everything and get the dressing room ready, so we can get them in and out of here in no time.
FA: Which trends are you loving—or not loving—right now?
MB: Even though I’m drawn to the ’60s, I do enjoy the ’70s-inspired designs; I think it’s fun. I’m really happy to see wide-leg pants back. I know some people are afraid of them because they’re not quite sure how they want to style them, but when they see them with some of the cropped tops—not belly-baring; just shorter—it’s really elegant and wearable. And I like the black-and-white graphic trend—again, it’s really wearable, and it also mixes with dozens of other pieces most women already have in their wardrobe. I’m happy that dresses have reigned supreme for so long. I love dresses because they’re so easy, and they make so much sense for so many women. I’m not a fan of the new “upscale” Birkenstocks trend. I don’t think it needed to come back.
FA: What’s one piece of clothing or accessory that you can’t live without?
MB: I have a Pink Tartan dress that is my absolutely favorite. It fits me perfectly, it’s navy and black so it’s a really easy palette, it packs well, I can dress it up or dress it down, I can wear it to work or out on the weekends. I pretty much take it everywhere.
FA: What’s the most treasured piece in your wardrobe?
MB: The cashmere wrap/scarf I wore on my wedding day. It’s this big wrap in a beautiful green that I used to keep my shoulders warm, but now I wear it like a scarf. I love that I can still wear something from that day.
FA: Talk a bit about “disposable” fashion—the really inexpensive, mass-market stuff that’s not built to last and that often ends up in the garbage after a season or less.
MB: It’s been around for a while, but I think we’re starting to see a backlash against it. I can understand why a woman in her twenties might like disposable fashion—I remember the days of buying a going-out top practically every Saturday night. But I don’t think it makes sense in the long term. It doesn’t help you to cultivate a personal style, it’s not very intentful, and it can be very wasteful. It’s unsettling how many tons of clothes we throw away—not donate—every year.
[FA note: In 2014, The Atlantic estimated that Americans throw away 10.5 million tons (!) of non-decomposing clothing each year—and buy five times as much clothing annually as they did just 35 years ago.]
I think there are people who prefer quality over quantity, and people who prefer it the other way. I don’t think they’re always cognizant of why a well-made piece costs more. To some people, a jean is a jean. “I don’t get it. Why is this pair of jeans $100 when I can buy a pair at X brand for $30?” But if the fabric is organic cotton, the seam has been reinforced two or three times, it’s been fit tested by multiple people—when you put all of that together, it’s going to cost more.
FA:What’s the one takeaway that you really want a customer to have from coming to Louisa Ellis?
MB: We hope that she enjoys herself. Even if she doesn’t buy anything, we want her to feel like she’s spent time in a nice, welcoming environment.
FA: Do you take any of the lessons you’ve learned from fashion and apply them to your home decorating?
MB: I do. I’m not afraid to use color in my home—color makes me happy. Also, from styling myself and others, I’ve learned that the idea of taking one accessory off before you leave the house is very valuable, and I apply this to my home. I feel happier when it’s less cluttered.
FA: What’s in your Netflix queue, and which books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m a big reader. Right now I’m reading Together Tea. It’s a great book, and we styled the author, Marjan Kamali, for her first public reading. Omnivore’s Dilemma —I know I’m late to the party, but I’m reading that now. And I have Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. I started it this summer but got distracted by other projects, but now I’m coming back to it.