An eye for fashion and a heart for people has helped entrepreneur Jill Card turn Jeans and a Cute Top Shop into a successful business.
The downtown St. Charles boutique opened in 2010 and is actually Card’s second of three locations. The first opened in Wheaton in 2009, and the newest store opened in Downers Grove last fall. The store’s name is an apt description of its merchandise, with accessories and even a few shoes rounding out the mix.
In addition, the store offers styling assistance and complimentary alterations.
“I’m filling a niche,” Card says. “I’d always wanted to find a store like this, so I created what I couldn’t find.”
Card and her staff like to tell customers that when it comes to jeans, they’re three deep knee bends away from the perfect fit.
“Everyone’s shape is different, every pair of jeans is different and we’ll always be honest about how it looks,” Downers Grove store manager Cathy Jankiewicz says. “If it’s not right, we’ll say, ‘We can do better,’ and we keep looking until we find the right pair.”
Card compares the experience customers receive at her store to shopping with a girlfriend.
“You don’t have to shop alone, unless you want to,” she says. “We can be that girlfriend who couldn’t come with you. That’s what we love to do, and it makes our job more fun.”
Fashion has been part of Card’s life since childhood.
Growing up in Elgin, she and her sister, Lisa, wore carefully coordinated outfits put together by their mom, Judith Imming. Imming recalls a trip to the Merchandise Mart when Jill was 3 and her sister was 5 when everyone was captivated by the little girls in matching Kelly green and white dresses, coats and tams.
“We couldn’t get anyone to show us anything, they only wanted to talk about my daughters,” Imming says.
As a teen, Card worked at The Limited and dressed the store mannequins. Classmates at Larkin High School voted her best dressed.
Still, fashion wasn’t in her sights as a career. She majored in advertising at the University of Illinois in Champaign and worked in Chicago as a membership manager for two private clubs.
There, she learned the importance of customer service and how to market intangibles.
“We worked to create an experience that made them want to come back,” she says. “I had no idea that transferred so perfectly into a retail boutique.”
After marriage and eight years as a stay-at-home mom of her two boys, Card took a job at Ann Taylor, which proved a natural fit for her style sense and outgoing personality.
“I just talked to people, asked what they wanted and gave them ideas for little things they could do to update their look,” she says.
It was during this time that she began to consider opening her own store, incorporating ideas she’d had over the years such as personal fittings, styling assistance and alterations. She investigated franchises but ruled them out because they didn’t offer the freedom to incorporate her ideas.
Her husband, Richard, was behind her 100 percent, Card says.
“He thought this was a winning idea, and after two years of doing research, we were prepared for what we were getting into,” she says. “We figured out ways to manage our schedules and our family.”
What she lacked was a business name. Though she’d described her store’s merchandise as “jeans and cute tops,” it didn’t occur to her initially that the right name was staring her in the face.
“Then one day it just hit me,” she says.
The phrase even had a connection to her personal life, as it was what her future husband had suggested she wear on their first date. With the name and online domain in place, she developed the store’s logo, color scheme and website, and secured a 900-square foot location in downtown Wheaton.
The shop was a hit, despite its small size and lines for fitting rooms.
“I think being busy put us on the map, and we turned a challenge into a benefit,” Card says.
Another early challenge was the steady stream of donation requests from schools and other local groups. Although she didn’t want to refuse anyone, Card felt overwhelmed until she hit upon an idea and enlisted her mother’s help, creating silent auction baskets with a gift certificate, small accessories coordinated in the school colors, and an invitation for an in-store private styling and shopping party.
“It’s a way to help the community and get our name out,” Card says.
The shop’s success brought expansion offers, but Card was wary of growing too quickly, setting aside all offers except for one from St. Charles.
“It piqued our interest to be part of the rebirth of downtown St. Charles,” she says.
With two stores to run, Card learned to rely on her staff, and in 2011, she was contacted by downtown Downers Grove about a vacant storefront. Yet, after visiting the location, Card and her husband felt it wasn’t quite right.
“We told them to keep us in mind, and then we started doing some investigation, going out to dinner in Downers Grove, looking at foot traffic and getting an idea for where we’d like to be,” she says.
A few months later, another store in that area became available, and the Cards grabbed it. The shop’s September opening coincided with Downers Grove’s popular downtown art fair.
“We opened our door, and there were 1,000 people walking past,” she says. “We couldn’t have planned it better.”
Card says one of her biggest lessons as an entrepreneur was learning to delegate and rely on her skilled team, as well as her personal support system.
“No small business owner knows how all-consuming it is until they’re knee deep,” she says. “Make sure you have good backup in place — friends, husband and parents — because you can’t do it alone.”
And just as Card is quick to credit her employees for the shop’s success, Jankiewicz returns the compliment.
“[Jill] has energy and fashion sense,” Jankiewicz says. “People love working with her. We all bring something different, and Jill brings the sunshine.” kc