Amy Stearns and Kari Mulvihill, co-owners of Cheap Chics Designs in Nicollet, can sum up their boutique in four words: cute, affordable, sarcastic, and real.
“Our goal is to not be like a typical boutique,” Mulvihill said. “We like loud music, and we like cheeseburgers, and we like cocktails, and we like swearing. We just want to be real and have fun, and we want people to feel that from us when they come in here.”
The two women opened Cheap Chics in 2015, starting in their garages before moving to Nicollet in 2017. Now, they open once a month for special sale days, while their inventory is also available throughout the month on their website. It’s constantly rotating as the women design new clothing, décor and more, always with the goal of offering affordable and unique pieces for anyone who walks through the door.
“We want people to feel comfortable when they come in here and feel like there’s something unique for everybody,” Stearns said.
Co-Workers and Collaborators
Stearns’ and Mulvihill’s partnership started with trips to the thrift store. Stearns, who lives in Gaylord, met Mulvihill, who lives in North Mankato, when the two of them were working as graphic designers at the Taylor Corporation. The two women quickly found that they both enjoyed visiting local consignment shops together during their lunch breaks.
We want people to feel comfortable when they come in here and feel like there’s something unique for everybody.Amy Stearns
“We started connecting, and then we realized that we had common interests in styles and shopping,” Mulvihill said. “We liked hunting for those things and trying to find good deals. That was our main goal—to always try to find a good deal and keep things really affordable and cheap for ourselves.”
“We’d both be picking out the same things [during shopping trips],” Stearns added. “And we’d say, ‘Wouldn’t this be great, to do this as a job?’ We both wanted to use our [creativity] and design skills.”
The women also enjoyed hunting for pieces of furniture that they could update with a coat of paint or some other creative twist. After a while, they decided to go out on a limb and start not only buying but selling.
“We just got this crazy idea to try to start hunting for all of those things and maybe do a little cleaning or fixing up or up-cycling, and try to bring those things to life a little bit,” Mulvihill said. “And keep them at an affordable price.”
The women began offering their up-cycled furniture at the Whiskey River Flea Market in St. Peter, soon branching out to some local retail establishments. They worked out of their homes, each taking pieces home and working on them individually. Eventually, though, the two work locations proved too difficult for collaboration, so they decided to find their own studio.
“We got kicked out of our houses by our husbands,” Mulvihill said with a laugh. “It just got to be too overwhelming to do it at home, and we knew that we needed somewhere where we could grow and that we could work together to be able to collaborate a little more, instead of working separately and then coming together.”
After some searching, they found a perfect location in Nicollet. The historic building, located along Nicollet’s main thoroughfare, had been used as everything from a thrift store to a grocery store throughout the last 100 years. They moved into the space in 2017.
“The building is really beautiful,” Stearns said. “It has some flaws, but those all add to the beauty of the building. And I think it represents our furniture pieces. Some have character flaws, but they’re still beautiful, and I think that just adds to our pieces that we’re selling.”
Real Life Designs
While Stearns and Mulvihill started out selling “strictly vintage” pieces, such as items they found at consignment shops, they quickly realized that their backgrounds in graphic design gave them a unique opportunity: designing their own merchandise.
“Since we were designers, we were always thinking about how we could expand from our vintage finds,” Stearns said. “That’s when we started using our skills as graphic designers to create the apparel, and we found that it was well received, so we just kept going with it.”
Now, Cheap Chics’ inventory includes custom designed apparel such as shirts and sweatshirts, accessories such as hats and jewelry, décor and even stationery. The owners continue to up-cycle furniture as well, finding the pieces at garage sales, estate sales, thrift stores and even from people who just drop it off because they don’t want it anymore.
“We’re always on the search for new types of products and things we can print on, or things we can create,” Mulvihill said. “We have a lot of flexibility, because we do it all ourselves. When we’re designing apparel, we’re also looking at things like, ‘Can we make a new hat, or a new bag, or a new stationery card?’ And when we’re looking at furniture pieces or things that can be up-cycled, we’re always thinking outside the box and trying to think of new ways that we can bring those pieces to life, whether it be paint or a little wood glue, or handwriting something on a piece that might bring it a little character.”
It’s messy and it’s time consuming, but it’s fun at the same time. It’s so rewarding to see it when it’s all done.Kari Mulvihill
The women describe their custom pieces as “a little sassy,” or, as Stearns puts it, “What you can’t find at Target.” They point to their custom “Piss and Vinegar” collection, which includes cards, candles, stickers and more. Cheap Chics’ website describes the collection as “a little profanity, a lot of sass, all real life.”
“A lot of people like our Piss and Vinegar collection,” Stearns said. “It’s real life [and] not so starchy.”
Mulvihill added that some of their most popular merchandise right now includes tie-dye clothing, camo prints and face masks.
“I think we try to stand up with the trends, but at the same time it’s really important for us to stay unique and be very inclusive,” she said, adding that the boutique carries plus sizes up to 3x to ensure everyone has something there. “It’s really important to us that we include all sizes and we’re appealing to all ages, genders, everything.”
Right now, Cheap Chics Designs is a two-woman operation, with Stearns and Mulvihill doing all of the work with a little help from family members before market days. Because of this, they’re only able to offer market days on one weekend a month, since it takes so much time to find, design and create their ever-changing inventory. In between monthly events, there’s ordering, book-keeping, cleaning and more to be done.
“It’s just us two, so we’re doing all the work behind the scenes to get everything ready for our once-a-month opening,” Mulvihill said. “So right now, we’ll just stick with that.”
The boutique is also available by request, while the inventory is always offered on the Cheap Chics website as well.
While COVID-19 forced Stearns and Mulvihill to postpone some of their monthly markets, they said online sales grew quite a bit throughout the past few months, which encouraged them. But they’re looking forward to their next in-person event, which will be at the end of August.
“We certainly struggled with the closure due to COVID-19, because we missed seeing our customers,” Mulvihill said. “We have a lot of local followers and a lot of huge support from the community, so we see a lot of familiar faces in each of our sales, and we meet a lot of new people too, so that’s super fun for us. It’s important to us to keep that face-to-face aspect.”
She added that they’re considering hiring some help for the holiday season, which is their busiest time of year, but it depends on how things go until then.
For now, the two women will continue to hunt down pieces of furniture and create custom designs for new apparel. No matter how hard they work, they say it’s worth it for the end result.
“It’s messy and it’s time consuming, but it’s fun at the same time,” Mulvihill said. “It’s so rewarding to see it when it’s all done.”