At Minouchic Boutique, an upscale resale shop at 1900 Asbury Ave. #B, posh apparel comes at down-to-earth prices.
Here in the West Side neighborhood where she grew up, owner Mai Toussaint has curated a collection of seldom worn and new clothing that mingles vintage with trendy, glitzy with casual and career, plus-size with petite.
There is something for every holiday party, from charity ball to Ugly Christmas Sweater cookie swap. And no matter what the cachet of the name on the label, the price computes to less than $100. There is always a promotion, with the cash register price 20 to 50% below the one on the ticket, Ms. Toussaint says.
A sophisticated blue velvet Carolina Herrera gown with plunging back neckline, for instance, is tagged at $175 but “would be half that,” Ms. Toussaint says. Gliding past the bulging racks she knows by heart, she pulls out a Valentino gown in gold lamé–sashed black velvet; a vintage lace I. Magnin peignoir; costumes for period theater productions; suitable business attire; contemporary evening jackets with every sequin and bead intact; structured ‘50s handbags in butter-soft leather; antique chokers of crystal or coral; bold contemporary necklaces; ‘70s bell bottom jeans; new, cheetah-print leggings; silk scarves, hats and shoes; men’s and children’s wear.
The thrill of a treasure hunt and the romance of an unexplored attic reside in the shop. Filled to bursting but carefully arranged, it attests to Ms. Toussaint’s love affair with fashion. That affair began, she says with a laugh, “the day I was born.”
She is one of seven children born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to a mother who, at 88, still works at the shop every day. Ms. Toussaint and her sister Marie Lynn spent four years in boarding school on the island when their mother brought two older daughters to the U.S. and their father and three brothers stayed in Haiti.
The sisterly bond they forged then extends to the present management of the boutique, with Lynn adding her business and legal (she is an assistant public defender for Cook County) expertise to Mai’s fashion and merchandising skills.
Mai was 12 when she and Lynn immigrated to Evanston. The girls enrolled in St. Mary’s school speaking not a word of English but acquired the new language with the help of their cousins and Channel 11, which for them, Mai says, “was like show and tell.”
Along with English, the two Toussaint girls acquired a clutch of lifelong friends. The women’s enduring relationship is captured in a vibrant painting of the quintet that is the boutique’s logo. This and other bright-colored pieces hanging on the walls are the work of Haitian artist Herold Alvares. Born without arms, Mr. Alvares paints with his mouth and feet. Lynn Toussaint met him in Haiti in 2010 when she was doing relief work after the earthquake and brought him to Evanston to showcase his talent during Black History Month.
Early experience helped determine Mai’s vocational trajectory. Her first job was as cashier at the Dempster Street Burger King, her second in the cafeteria at the Presbyterian Home. “That’s when I knew the kitchen was not for me,” she says.
Instead, after Evanston Township High School she studied at the Harrington and Ray Vogue colleges of design. She applied her degree in fashion design from the latter to a 25-year career that took her to nearly every big-name store in the area, among them T.J. Maxx, Hit or Miss, Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott. Bloomingdale’s in downtown Chicago was her favorite, she says, because she met “people from so many walks of life.” She says she excelled at customer service, as she had at school.
In their spare time Mai and Lynn and their three childhood friends staged fashion shows for the public. They rented a hall, modeled clothes from various retail stores, charged for tickets and made a profit. The shows, Ms. Toussaint says, “were a success.”
Meanwhile the Toussaint sisters had begun scheming about another enterprise. For at least a decade, Mai (whom Lynn labels a “shopaholic”) says she had been “saving things” — that is, “opening a store in my mind and in my basement.” Then Mai found a space on the West Side they “thought would help the community,” and they say they took the plunge, thinking, “It’s now or never.” They named their store after Mai’s childhood diminutive, “Minouch” or “Kitty,” and called it a boutique for the special merchandise and service it would offer.
Minouchic Boutique opened on Black Friday, 2013.
In some ways the reality is “very different” from the “nice [shop] in the basement in your mind,” Mai says. Processing the clothing she purchases online and from estate sales and wholesalers is time-consuming. And though there is ample free parking on both sides of Emerson, she says she thinks the lack of foot traffic has limited their clientele.
Once customers do arrive, she is in her element. Though happy to let customers look on their own if they wish, she says, “If you need my help, I will walk with you. I love to work with people.” She begins by asking, “What are you looking for? What colors?” In response to a hypothetical request for “black evening wear,” she displays her skills. In just minutes she pulls together several outfits, deftly plucking pieces from around the store: shimmering, bead-embellished black jackets; a choice of coordinating tops; flowing black pants in satin or velvet; a ruffled maxi skirt.
Once she has created an ensemble, Ms. Toussaint says, “A customer really has to not be in the mood to shop to walk out empty-handed.” Confidently, she adds, “No matter what your chic may be, Chic Boutique will chic you up.”