INTERVIEW: Katherine Virketiene, Owner of AvaMaria Boutique
In a city with millions of people and endless shopping options, it’s difficult to find a retailer that has what you desire with personal customer service. Katherine Virketiene wanted to change that. The former professional ballroom dancer, designer and superstar retailer opened her boutique AvaMaria in the heart of SoHo and carries both emerging New York City-based designers and discounted luxury goods including Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo shoes. With the philosophy that we all want “limited production quantity, moderate prices, good quality and great style,” she provides her clients with only the very best products and customer service. I had a chance to stop by AvaMaria and chat with Katherine about her design past, retail ideas and what she looks for in independent designer lines.
You were a professional ballroom dancer and designed costumes for So You Think You Can Dance. How was that amazing experience? What influenced you to go from dancer to designer?
It was a lot of fun but a lot of work. They don’t tell you which dancers need costumes until Friday afternoon, and they need to be in L.A. by Saturday morning. I did it the first season and realized it’s a little too hectic for me. But now I can say my clothes were on national network TV, so it’s still very exciting.
Ballroom dance costumes cost about $3,000 for one gown, and you cannot wash or dry-clean them. When I danced, I found it strange that people would pay that much money for something you can’t wash. So I started making my own and selling them at a slightly cheaper price point. There is a lot of demand for dresses, but not everybody has the budget to pay thousands of dollars. People always want nice clothes at reasonable prices, and that philosophy carried to my retail stores too.
How did you go from costume designer to store owner?
I used to make clothes and started the line Virketyne. I was going from store to store selling, and this amazing opportunity emerged on the Lower East Side. I said ‘you know what, I’m going to try my hand at selling my stuff and other people’s things,’ and it turns out I’m really good at it. And I enjoy selling! Now I get to call people and tell them I have the space to showcase their lines. It’s much nicer to be on this side of the table.
Do you think your background in costume design influenced how you designed regular clothing? How about the garments you bring into AvaMaria?
Absolutely. Because of all the dancing, I have a weakness for shiny things. Right now, the clothing in the store is very subdued, but if you come at the height of spring or after Thanksgiving, it’s mostly party dresses on the racks. We all need clothes to wear every day, but we also need fun clothes to add that fantasy element and make us feel special. Wanting clothes you can move in is also a big thing from being a dancer. There are clothes that look very nice, but if you don’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to look very good in them.
What do you look for when bringing in an independent designer to AvaMaria?
What is special about the garment and quality of the handiwork is very important. If your design is great, I can work with you season after season, but you need to provide me with good, quality garments. I can’t have customers come back after six months and say there is something wrong with a product they purchased here. Construction is very important. I love working with designers who make their garments here in New York because it helps the local economy and makes re-ordering simpler in the long run.
Aside from local designers, you have a fabulous selection of designer shoes at discounted prices. What made you want to sell this kind of merchandise in the store?
I think New Yorkers are very good shoppers, and everybody loves a good bargain. People get confused when they come into the store and see the shoes – they wonder if they’re second-hand. They ask ‘why are the shoes in such good condition?’ Because they are new! They may be Jimmy Choos from last season, but most women who purchase Jimmy Choos will wear them for more than three months.
I find a thrill in looking for these bargains and feel really happy when I see people find them here. It’s a little bit like playing Cinderella because we almost never have a full size range [in the store]. It’s very exciting when a match is made. AvaMaria is in SoHo, the shopping capital of the world. I need to keep up with all of the competition around me, so finding these designer discounts in very important.
You said that as consumers, we want “limited production quantity, moderate prices, good quality and great style.” Did this philosophy spark the inspiration for your business?
That is how I’ve always wanted to shop and I think there are a lot of people who want to shop this way and don’t have time to dig at Century 21. We provide much better customer service, a friendly atmosphere and a good selection of merchandise. We’re small enough that we can provide intimate customer service you won’t find at large discount stores. That is what boutiques are about, the importance of staff-client relations.
A lot of the time, customers ask for custom sizes or colors. That’s the good thing about working with local designers – it’s much easier to fulfill these requests. If something sold really well, you ask if the garment can be put back into production. Many times, tailoring is included with the price of the garment. I can give the designers feedback, like what sizes people have been asking for, and it’s beneficial to them too. Some designers need a few seasons to improve their craft, so I won’t drop them based on numbers. They need time, and a chance, to evolve. This is all worth it when the customer keeps coming back for a specific collection season after season.
Stop by AvaMaria at 107 Crosby Street to see all of the amazing merchandise, and check out the Facebook page here.