Milborn-and-Raised: Episode 6

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#Milbornandraised is a campaign run by Milborn Advisors to reach out to the people that make Milwaukee great. This week, we interview Carrie Arrouet - the owner of Lela Boutique, a staple in the Third Ward that arguably helped the community propel into what it is today.

Interview and photography by Amy Lancaster.

I will admit, when it comes to shopping in Milwaukee, my knowledge is a bit limited. I tend to stick to shopping online, or, if the situation unfortunately calls for it, going to the mall. Normally it’s to be avoided, however, because shopping is one of my least favorite things to do. So, when I walk past the stores in the Third Ward on an almost-daily basis, I tend to not even bat an eye to the clothing stores around me.

Lela Boutique, however, always seems to catch my eye. Perhaps it’s the fact that they sometimes do really cool displays outside (with one being an outdoor living room - couches, carpet, and space heaters included). Or, maybe, it’s because Lela has been a name that’s been a part of Milwaukee for quite a long time now.

So, when I got the opportunity to interview Carrie Arrouet, founder and owner of Lela Boutique, I couldn’t pass up the offer. I was incredibly curious to see how she viewed the changes and growth in Milwaukee, and particularly the Third Ward.

Carrie Arrouet: I moved here to Milwaukee by way of Madison in 1995. I moved to Milwaukee, quite honestly, because all of my friends from college got jobs in Milwaukee.

Amy Lancaster: Did you go to UW-Madison?

CA: I did. When I moved here, I got a job with a non-profit – Junior Achievements of Wisconsin – and then that was my home for almost 10 years. I worked as a program manager and asked people for their time as volunteers. I worked with the education community here in Milwaukee. [I went to] the public schools and private schools in the four-county area as well as the businesses in Milwaukee to donate their time and money to go into the schools. So it was a really great training ground and a really great way to get to know a city that I had visited twice in my life before that. It became really apparent to me very quickly that Milwaukee is a great place. Today, still – I love it. I travel now - I have the ability to go to other cities and explore - and I always feel a sense of calm when I come back to Milwaukee. It’s just an awesome place to be.

AL: So, let’s back up a little bit. You said you came from Madison – what are some of the biggest differences you see between Madison and Milwaukee?

CA: Full disclosure – I grew up in La Crosse, and then I went to school in Madison.

AL: Okay, so you’ve been slowly moving east. (laughs)

CA: Exactly! I went from coast-to-coast in Wisconsin. At that time in your life, your life and perspective are very different. Your fabric doesn’t look quite the same as it does after you’ve worked for a few years. I say that a little tongue-in-cheek even; my folks would laugh at that because my parents would say, “Oh, give her some time! She’ll grow out of this persona.” Madison offered a really great eye-opening experience from La Crosse, where I was one of 62 graduating students in my class, and then you move to a place where your sociology class has 250 people. It wasn’t that bad or difficult – you just had to find your crew, your tribe, your people. Milwaukee is very similar to that – it seems very big and very spread out, but there are little communities all over the place. You can plug in pretty easily, and you can find your home really quickly in Milwaukee, whereas if you weren’t involved in academics or politics in Madison, it was harder to find.

AL: So you found that if you weren’t involved in those two big aspects of Madison, it was harder to find your people?

CA: Well, this was after I graduated. When you finish and you’re like, “I don’t get to go to choir every day and talk to my singing friends?” Whereas in Milwaukee, there are many more diverse interests, and you can plug into those interests easier here.

AL: So, before you said you were involved in Junior Achievement of Wisconsin – are you still there now?

CA: No, I now run Lela Boutique in the Third Ward.

AL: How did that get started?

CA: In 2001, I attended a class called, “Future Milwaukee”, which is still around today. It’s now housed at Marquette University. It develops young professionals. It affords them a broad base on how to develop different leadership roles in Milwaukee. At the class, I met a woman there, and we both worked really hard in non-profit. We were really hustling without making a lot of money, and we thought, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we could do this for ourselves?” So then we set out on a mission for a year researching the market and what Milwaukee could use and what it was missing based on our travels to other cities. We landed first on this neighborhood – Historic Third Ward – and then second on the idea of a boutique.

I was not really a big shopper – I liked to shop, but it wasn’t my be-all-end-all. What I did notice in Milwaukee – as a young professional working two jobs to pay off student loans and make a living – there weren’t places to shop for someone like me without feeling intimidated or thinking, “You don’t belong in that store because you can’t afford anything in that store,” and I didn’t like that. So, in traveling to other cities, there were places that had really great vibes for people who couldn’t afford more than a $20 blouse and didn’t feel like they were bothering anyone. That was the impotence for me. I wanted to create a space that feels unassuming, unintimidating, and really approachable for everybody.

Lela became alive and well, with about 85% of the store being consignment. We were able to achieve that dream – being approachable in a really cool neighborhood. Though in 2003, it wasn’t really much at that point. The public market wasn’t here yet, but we knew it was coming, and we wanted to be snuggled up to it as close as possible.

AL: Third Ward is considered a higher-end neighborhood now –

CA: - Yeah, it wasn’t at the time.

AL: And it’s interesting that you got to see that and your business developing pretty much at the same time. How has that affected your business?

CA: We’re in the 300 block of Broadway. When we opened our doors, there was nothing else on our block. It was still functioning as commission row – with stands of produce and fruit vendors from 4am to 10am, and then we would open our doors and be the next wave of activity on the block until close, and then it would be dark. There was no bar or restaurant scene on our block. And then at midnight, they would show up again and start loading up pallets of all the food. All the markets would get all their fresh produce. It was a cool marriage of using our street for different purposes. It was also kind of sketchy! People were unsure if they could park their cars down here.

AL: That is a far cry from what it is now!

CA: Yeah! The perception has changed. When people want to bring their friends to the shiniest part of Milwaukee, they bring them to the Third Ward.

AL: The last person I interviewed, who works with the Third Ward Association, said they do put a lot of money into beautifying the streets and neighborhood, so it sounds like they’ve made quite a difference.

CA: And the public market brings people from all over!

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AL: So let’s talk about Milwaukee as a whole for a little bit. How do you spend your free time here?

CA: I’ve been blessed with an amazing team of men and women that allow me to, despite running a business, have an embarrassing amount of free time in the last five years. I walk my dog, I spend a lot of time with my husband, we go for walks, I’m taking agility classes with my dog.

AL: Where do you take agility classes?!

CA: We go to a place in Oak Creek called Agility Ability – Miss Judy is our teacher! I like to cook, I spend a lot of time researching recipes. I think one of the awesome things about Milwaukee is that there are so many little pockets of resources. You decide you want to cook Thai food  - guess what? You can go to the Asian food market and find all the ingredients you need. Or you go to El Rey and you can find authentic ingredients that you can use to make delicious meals. We do like to travel a lot, but our biggest trip recently was moving from Washington Heights to out west in the suburbs, on a property with a 100-year-old barn, so we’re testing out our abilities to fix floors and restore buildings!

AL: Where else do you like to go in Milwaukee?

CA: We do have some favorite haunts that I think make us seem very old-school Milwaukee, but a great night out for us would consist of going to Elsa’s and having a burger and a martini, or going to Oakland Gyros and having a gyro and then heading to Foundation for a Mai Tai – those are our two different nights out. So you know, food, alcohol – I really do think we have a gem of a city to find the small little haunts. I don’t really need to go to the big, fancy places. I kind of really love that we have neighborhood establishments. If you can seek them out, you can find them. They have really great service, really friendly people, and really good products.

AL: Would you say that Milwaukee is one of your favorite cities? And why?

CA: So, there’s two different perspectives; as a business owner, I attribute a lot of my success to being in Milwaukee; not only in the Third Ward, but also as a whole. The market place is really nurturing. People genuinely embrace the “shop local, support your business vendors.” I don’t know if that’s the case in a lot of cities. I feel really lucky to be able to be a part of that.

AL: And Small Business Saturday just happened as well – did you notice a level of support on that night?

CA: Yeah, it was a very successful event. But I think more than that – Milwaukee embraces that year-round. I appreciate that American Express does this for small businesses. It’s a nice connection to the Black Friday and the Giving Tuesday and the Cyber Monday, and like, “Cool, we should have a day, too.” But – Milwaukeeans are super. They really do seek out shopping local and spending their dollars there. They understand the economics of keeping your dollar in the local economy.

As a personal resident – it’s a crime that it’s such a well-kept secret. We can live on one of the Great Lakes very affordably. I like that it’s a secret because it keeps it available to us all (laughs), but I also want to shout it from the mountaintops. It’s crazy. You talk to your friends that live in high-end places – places where everyone knows it’s lovely to live – and we say, “You know, Milwaukee’s pretty great, too!” I can live a mile away from a Great Lake and I can still afford to go out to eat, and drive a car, and take trips, and I can do all those things you can’t do if you live in some of these more “exciting” or “well-published” places.

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AL: I think maybe the reason Milwaukee doesn’t get as much credit as it should is because it’s in Wisconsin (laughs). Wisconsin has the reputation of Midwestern and, “Hey, I live on the farm” –

CA: The Fonz! And beer and brats! And we perpetuate it.

AL: And as someone who lives in Bay View and drives over the Hoan bridge every day or every night – that view is beautiful!

CA: Yes! It’s spectacular!

AL: And you think, “This is my city!” We have the art museum, we’re right on a lake as you said, good beaches, things to do –

CA: - and you can still afford to go travel. I see people come through every day to my store, who are tourists from big cities – you get San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Denver – and they don’t have the quality of life we have here because they spend a huge amount of their time commuting, or working so they can afford to live in a tiny little one-room apartment. Yes, they get to go out on their sidewalk and be in New York City – that would be great, but I feel really lucky to be here in Milwaukee. We have a lot of things going for us.

AL: Speaking of commuting – how do you feel about the new street car?

CA: This topic is so polarizing! It makes me so sad that it has been so polarizing. I, quite honestly, feel that – as a small business in a neighborhood, it has absolutely increased visibility, and it has absolutely brought more people who aren’t interested in figuring out parking. Now they can park somewhere else and ride the street car. Anything we can do to bring in something new and recreate ourselves is great. I embrace it. Let’s do it.

AL: I’m excited for when they expand it to other parts of the city!

CA: I do hope that its future holds that, and it becomes more of a useful transportation for a market that is not currently able to use mass transportation. We are lacking in that as a city.

AL: The amount of traffic we get for the size of the city is way too much – and I think this is a great solution for that. It just shows there’s potential for more growth. So, my last question – what advice would you give to those who are either looking to move here, or, if they’re already here, get more out of their city?

CA: If you’re looking to move here – I think Milwaukee is an awesome starter city. It’s a super easy place to navigate. People are nice. We do have the Midwestern charm in spades. If you’re coming from a bigger market and you’re concerned about plugging into what looks to be a place that’s fueled on beer and brats – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Give yourself six months, and never go to the same place twice – you’ll be amazed that you won’t have a hard time finding something new to do every weekend. There’s always something new. Again, that Midwestern charm – just ask someone, and they’ll tell you. That’s how I travel when I go to other cities. We flew into Austin last year and we started at the airport and asked our Uber driver, “Take us to your favorite place in Austin.” For four days, we would ask another person where we should go, and we just went around like that. We’ve challenged to do that in Milwaukee now, and it’s amazing! So we have that going for us – our Midwestern charm and our approach-ability.

If you live here, I guess it’s the same advice. If you’re saying, “We only go to Elsa’s every week.” I say that to my husband! I’m like, “Mark, should we go somewhere new this weekend?” Nah, let’s go back and see Steve [at Elsa’s]. Again, just ask, or search for the new things in Milwaukee, or the old things in Milwaukee. Force yourself to do it. We’re getting into shorter days and darker nights, and it’s harder to leave your home after work. But, if you just force yourself to get out once a week – I’m gonna do something completely different from anything I’ve done before – there’s plenty to discover in Milwaukee.

AL: I love that restaurants and businesses are embracing the winter weather – for example, Benelux with the Lux Domes – which I’m so upset that they’re already sold out!

CA: I cannot believe it!

ALL: Even just things like that – we know that winter sucks. It’s great to see people in our community trying to make it better.

CA: Last year, the ice bars – that was a brilliant little setup. You went to Mitten Fest at Burnhearts and then you came up here – it was a magical winter weekend.

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After finishing our conversations and our wine (provided by Thief Wine, which was actually the first time I had been there!), we said our goodbyes. I kind of felt like I had interviewed a local celebrity - as we walked from her store to the market, she would either stop people or people would stop her and say hi. People like Carrie are are the true definition of the community-theme that seems to be brought up by almost every interviewee so far.

Next time you’re in Milwaukee, make sure you stop by her store - and make sure to ask her where you should go next.

Would you or someone you know like to be interviewed next, brag about your favorite city, and gush about how you’re Milborn-and-raised? Fill out our contact form with the subject #milbornandraised to be considered!