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Designing women: Ariana Boussard-Reifel

June 17, 2013
Ariana Boussard-Reifel of Mode Marteau

Ariana Boussard-Reifel of Mode Marteau

Interview by Elizabeth Heywood

We all dream of turning the thing we’re passionate about into our life’s work. In the case of one artist and entrepreneur, a creative way to stock her closet on a budget took a surprising turn and blossomed into a thriving business. This week Damsels sits down with Ariana Boussard-Reifel, owner of Mode Marteau, a curated online boutique that gives high-end clothing a second life.  As a special offer for DID readers and members, Ariana is offering a 20% discount on everything in her shop between now and June 30th. Use the code GOODDESIGNSAVESLIVES at checkout.

What brought you from a Montana ranch to running your own curated online shop in Manhattan?

I moved to Manhattan right after college to pursue a career in art. I dreamed of being a famous sculptor- or at least making a living. I was working at an art gallery and hobnobbing with the art world elite and really struggling to dress the part. The only way that I could afford the Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent that I coveted was to thrift for it in the same places I was hunting art-making materials. At the time I’d never imagined I would open a shop or work on the internet. I had always had a love of fashion and of found things, which, I suppose, lead me to founding my own fashion company.

Montana is very much a do-it-yourself kind of place. I grew up learning to work hard and to get my hands dirty. I took that approach to building a business. It was a one-person team for a long time. I sourced, modeled, web designed, photographed, shipped & schmoozed until we grew to a place where I could afford help. My parents were both artists, so from early on I was imbued with a sense of the importance of craftsmanship and design in all things. With Mode Marteau I take these lessons to heart. Everything we select, regardless of expense or origin, is beautifully and thoughtfully made.

At what point did you realize that you could turn how you shopped into a business model?

Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I had just quit my promising job at a Chelsea art gallery because I wanted to take off on a voyage through India. When I re-examined my finances I realized that I would have to keep working. I knew I wanted to work for myself, but at 22, without significant capital (and before the big web 2.0 boom) my choices were limited. I knew that I had good instincts for quality and that I loved the thrill of discovering things. I’d been reading Vogue and watching Elsa Klensch religiously since I was a child so my recall for important labels was spot on. I took these seemingly meager skills as my resume and started a small shop on eBay. My love of treasure hunting met my admiration for entrepreneurship and before I knew it I was in business. It took years after that, as the internet evolved, for me to build my own shop and design my own brand that has become Mode Marteau.

Moschino plaid

Moschino plaid pencil skirt ($75) and vintage Gucci bag

What is the greatest risk or biggest mistake you’ve taken in your career? If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice what would it be?

Last year I was offered a reality show with a major network, so I spent loads of my time rethinking my brand for an unfiltered audience, negotiating with lawyers and worrying, lots of worrying- not to mention jetting to locations, filming and applying false eyelashes. After all that the show was put on hold. In some ways it felt like a big waste of precious energy, but in hindsight I can’t even count the number of things I learned from the experience. So, you never know what you will gain when you say YES.

My advice to my younger self is to be bold! Early in my career I made choices to keep my business and my life at a scale that I could easily understand. I didn’t push my limits and really ended up limiting myself. I lost the chance to be the first to throw open the online vintage market. There is always comfort in doing things you know, but the real adventure happens when you step into uncharted waters.

Louboutin 6sq

Christian Louboutin heels

What advice can you offer women who would like to start their own online businesses?

It really depends what business, but as far as retail goes I think the most important thing is to figure out how your store differentiates itself from all the others. There is a lot of noise online now, so standing out means having a distinct voice that is of interest to a distinct audience and then staying responsive and loyal to them.

Patricia Underwood felted fedora ($195)

How do you go about discovering and selecting the unique pieces for your shop?

Serendipity has something to do with it, and that is part of the fun. I can find amazing things anywhere, it is all about keeping my eyes open. I bought a vintage Hermes scarf last week on the street in Bushwick for $1 while I was attending Bushwick Open Studios. Or I’ll find myself talking to a woman at cocktail party who just realized she’d love to consign her 40 pair of Christian Louboutin heels.  Being open to discovering treasures is the first part and then paring down all the fun and wonderful stuff in the world to a razor sharp curated collection, that is the second part.

We only buy things that are “rare & remarkable”. Immaculate craftsmanship and fabrication is the number one criteria, after that we look for a sense of timeless wearability that transcends trends and finally we want pieces that are unique, that can express the spirit of the woman who will wear them and tells the story of the woman who wore them before. All this, plus a little humor- not too much to ask!

Ultimately we select things that will make our customers tingle with excitement. Our customers are smart, self-actualized, young professional women who express themselves creatively through their wardrobe. They are savvy enough to know that they don’t want to pay retail price and that they don’t want to look like everyone else.  We aim to make it indiscernible whether an item came from Barney’s (via a fashionista’s closet) or from a flea market, channeling another place and age. Our growing fan base knows to come to us for fashion that is wearable, international and unusual, so if I see something, even if it is a really good deal, and doesn’t meet those criteria I won’t buy it.

Global Vintage leather envelope clutch ($75), By Malene Birger leopard coat

How has your experience as a fine artist affected how you run your business – and vice versa?

It is really beneficial to bounce back and forth between my creative mind and my business mind. In the contemporary art world it is just as important to have a strong brand and voice as it is in business. So that is an area where I apply the lessons I’ve learned building up a business to my art career. Running Mode Marteau, involves making tons of aesthetic decisions, so I apply my fine art training in that way. Also I aim to make Mode Marteau more than a vintage shop. I see it as a lifestyle company that has soul and speaks to the women who shop there. Infusing my company with a soul and purpose feels a lot like making an art piece.

Geiger vintage wool maxi skirt ($125)

Your career seems to be very much about connecting to the right people with the right pieces. How has networking helped you build your community and garner support? 

I really don’t think you can network too much. I’m a bit of an introvert, so getting out and talking about the things that I’m passionate about isn’t always natural to me so I’ve sought out groups like DID, or the Women’s Entrepreneurship Festival where I know that I am in an environment of like minded women, who understand the struggles of being a solopreneur and are thrilled for my successes. I’ve found that this kind of networking has not only brought my clients and professional relationships but also friendships.

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