Haute Stuff

No blue jeans here

by Will Lindner

jessWhen Jessica Pomerleau opened Jess Boutique nearly seven years ago, her clear intent was to bring a women’s clothing experience not found in other Burlington shops.

One day, on the cusp of February 2011, Jessica (Jess) Pomerleau ducked away from the whirlwind that had taken over her life, found a quiet spot, and took refuge in her flair for art. She was leaving art behind as a career path after eight years of study leading to bachelor’s degrees in art and animation.

It was a decision she could not have made so quickly without the help and support of her parents; it disrupted everything she had assumed about her future. Pomerleau was going into retail — women’s clothing — and would be opening a boutique in Burlington within months, once she had journeyed to a designers’ show in Las Vegas, purchased inventory, secured licensing for her new business, gutted and renovated the space on Church Street that would house Jess Boutique (she had already decided upon the name), and moved back to Vermont from Florida, where she had been studying computer animation.

As a respite from all of this, she took pen in hand and started drawing. She was designing her logo.

“I had always loved The Great Gatsby,” she says, referring to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s turbulent 1925 novel about Long Island society. “It has such a feminine, romantic feel about it, and that’s exactly what I wanted my store to feel like — feminine and romantic.”

So she experimented with fonts and images evocative of the 1920s, and came up with an elegant portrayal of her name, with graceful, swooping S’s, and a J crowned by an image suggestive of a butterfly with fine wrought iron wings. She knew immediately that it was right, and would complement the descriptions that today adorn her website, among them, “… the shopping destination for the sophisticated woman.”

“Thank goodness for art school!” says Pomerleau.

This may have been among the calmest moments of the six months between when her mother, Dee, called her in late January, and July 2, 2011, the day she opened Jess Boutique. She had recently earned her bachelor of fine arts in computer animation at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida (following a bachelor’s in art from UVM four years earlier), but an interview with Pixar for a job on a film project had troubled her, revealing that she might never find a way to express herself artistically in corporate entertainment.

“My mom said, ‘I have a question for you. Take away money [an immediate income], education [those eight years studying art], and location [assumptions about where she would live]. What would you want to be doing with your life?’ And I realized I couldn’t say computer animation.”

Her mother then posed a second question: “How about you move back to Vermont and open your own clothing boutique?” This wasn’t out of the blue: A family friend had done this years before in Massachusetts. “I always thought that was such a wonderful thing,” Pomerleau recalls, “to be able to be a female business owner … having something to call your own.”

Her answer, without noticeable hesitation, was yes. And the whirlwind started. Within two weeks, accompanied by her mother, she was purchasing inventory at the designers’ show in Las Vegas. “I had no idea what I was doing! I was buying clothes for a store that didn’t exist yet.”

This “instant entrepreneur” had the advantage of being the granddaughter of Tony Pomerleau, who founded Pomerleau Real Estate, which specializes in commercial properties, in 1951, and the daughter of its president and CEO, Ernie Pomerleau. So no problem obtaining access when the Church Street storefront became available. Her mother was another resource. While Jess was wrapping things up in Florida, Dee, an architectural designer, supervised the store’s renovation, guided by her daughter’s tastes.

“I said, ‘I want the main theme to be black and white because I want the clothing to be the pops of color. I want a round counter, and I want columns, because I grew up with columns in the entryways to our home and at Dad’s business. I want super-feminine French-inspired fitting rooms, and I want mirrors everywhere.’”

Design-wise, she says, her mother “hit the nail on the head with everything I asked for.” Meanwhile, Pomerleau was making other calculations, related to her inventory.

“I knew right from the beginning that I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, because I respected the other businesses that had been here for years. I was determined to do something different, find a different customer, or cater to a customer need that’s not currently available in town.”

Her first decision in that regard was not to sell jeans.

But if not jeans, what?

Dresses.

Pomerleau had always enjoyed dressing up for occasions, and during her years in Florida, dresses had been a quick and comfortable solution for a hot climate. “So I decided to dedicate 50 percent of my store to dresses, which was a big risk.”

Over the following six and a half years, by listening to her customers and heeding her own tastes, she has established and refined her niche in the Chittenden County clothing market. Nay, beyond. Thanks to tourism, and the presence of nearby colleges and universities (out-of-state students have mothers eager to shop during their visits) the store draws its clientele from far and wide.

Pomerleau does all the buying for Jess Boutique, although with input from her mother and from store manager Erin Brennan. “Erin has been with me since day one,” Pomerleau says enthusiastically, “and I’ve been extremely lucky to have her. In fact, other than people telling me they love the merchandise, hearing people out of the blue say that your employees are wonderful means everything to me.”

When buying, her vision is inclusive of generations. “I’m 34,” she explains, “and my mom is in her early 70s. I want to attract her age group. My favorite thing is when a mother and daughter come in and both find things they want. I think that’s the heart of it.”

Laurie Nickerson is a sales representative for Lisette L, a family-owned women’s pants company based in Montreal. She services stores in several Vermont communities, but Jess Boutique has become one of her favorite stops and one of the premier outlets for Lisette’s fashionable pants.

“There was nothing like that in Burlington” before Pomerleau opened her store, Nickerson says. “She must have done her research and identified her demographic. In our industry there are people who’ve got it, and others, unfortunately, who don’t. She knows who her customer is, and her taste level is spot-on. Jess is a firecracker! For a woman so young, she’s amazing.”

Brit Hibbs-Kelson of Burlington is often in the public eye. As a news anchor and feature reporter for WFFF Fox 44, she must be stylish on camera and off. Although she and Pomerleau have become friends, she started out as a customer at Jess Boutique.

“A lot of times, when I have something I need to get ready for — weddings, events I have to emcee, black tie galas or fundraisers — Jess is the first place I like to go,” Kelson says. “Somehow, in Vermont, we find ways to dress up, and Jess’s boutique is a reliable source for that.

“Plus,” Kelson adds, “she’s an exceptional person. She has a heart of gold, and when you talk with her she has this exceptional way of listening. She’s amazingly grounded, and people come to her for advice.”

Away from her store, Pomerleau has stumbled upon an unexpected passion, embodied by a four-legged companion named Willard. She grew up with poodles and expected to remain loyal to the breed, but was cruising a local rescue website one day in 2014 when the earnest face of a mixed-breed puppy of 12 weeks riveted her. Within a matter of days, she had adopted him.

Pomerleau’s partner, Jameson Halnon, has a dog named Jaxon and is similarly committed. “He owns a dog Instagram page called DogsBeingBasic that has something like 730,000 followers,” she says.

Pomerleau went all-in last January when she sponsored the Humane Society of Chittenden County’s Purrrses for Paws fundraising event, and she expects to do it again.

Pomerleau, an only child, also basks in the presence of her family. She calls her father her mentor in business, and her mother an irrepressible supporter and ally. Grandfather Tony recently turned 100 years old, and is lauded not only for his business success but for community and charitable events such as the annual Pomerleau Family Christmas he initiated 36 years ago.

As a young, successful business owner herself, Jess Pomerleau, too, has now embraced a commitment to causes important to her community — particularly her contemporaries’ place in it. She recently joined the board of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, where two objectives are paramount for her: supporting young entrepreneurs — especially women — and bolstering opportunities for millennials.

“There’s a struggle to keep those people here,” she points out. “By joining the board I hope to have some influence about how we can grow that job market — and even if the jobs are there, to convince people that the jobs are there. It won’t be overnight, or in the next few years, but I think we can succeed.” •