One of A Kind: Shop Owner Michelle Rizzardo
Michelle Rizzardo is one of the most genuine, magnetic women I've ever met. A pioneer in Vancouver's small but notable fashion retail community, she is the entrepreneurial force behind her Gastown boutique, One of A Few, which she opened in 2005. A curation of clothing and goods from unique independent designers sets Michelle's shop apart from others in the city, and her eye for such gems has gained her a loyal clientele, not to mention an adored reputation. I sat down with Michelle to learn how it all started, how she balances work and mom life, and what continually gets her excited to do what she does day after day.
Photography by Daniel Burke
How did you get into the fashion retail world?
“When I was 14 years old, my cousin who worked at Below the Belt was going away on a French tour and told them, ‘My cousin can work for you while I’m away so you don’t have to hire somebody.’ So they brought me on, and in those 2 weeks and I was their top seller. That was my introduction to fashion. I worked at Below the Belt until I was eighteen and when I quit, I cried. The only reason I quit was because I was moving away to go to University.”
Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
“My whole life I’ve worked in fashion. But it was just while I was in school. In my mind, I thought opening a clothing store was just for fun, like a hobby. I never saw it as a serious job. Through the next few years, I worked as a clothing rep, as a fit model, I worked helping buying, store managing – I was doing all the due diligence of actually owning a clothing store without realizing that that was the route I was taking.”
"I came out to everyone and was like, ‘I’m going to open a clothing store,’ and they were like, ‘Of Course, finally!’ You know that age when you’re like, what am I gonna do with my life, do I go this way, do I go that way, and then when I decided everyone was like, ‘Well, thank god! That’s what you are meant to do.’”
What steps did you take to implement your plan to open a store?
“At the time I was speaking Mandarin because I was living in Taiwan, so I thought, I’ll come back, do my MBA, and use my Mandarin skills to do business between China and Vancouver. When I came back to Vancouver I went to BCIT and wrote a business plan for a clothing store. When I presented it at the end, there were bank and finance people, and they were like, ‘You need to implement this. This is such a good business plan.’ I had saved money in Taiwan from teaching English, so I used that money, went to the bank and started with that. I wanted to do it on my own.”
What was Gastown like when you opened the store? What made you decide to open up in that neighbourhood?
“There were a few shops here: The Block was here, and that’s where I was working at the time. Dream was here, Ric Yuenn, etc. Water Street was fully tourists and there was also a lot of drug addiction that was going on at that time. When I opened, people were like, ‘Why are you opening in Gastown, you should go to Kitsilano or South Granville.’ But the cobblestone streets, the old buildings and just the energy in this area - I had to be here.”
“A lot of people who came down here were people traveling and loved Gastown for that character. Vancouver is really young – you don’t get a lot of that old school stuff. It’s such a creative zone in Gastown: lots of designers, warehouse spaces where people were going, graphic designers, writers. It just felt like there was a big art community in this area, so it was the right place to be.”
How do you stay relevant among other clothing shops in Vancouver and elsewhere?
“I think one of the keys to being successful is having a community around you. I think that by creating something different and unique, it creates more of an energy. You want somebody to come into your shop and say, ‘Where should I go,’ and send them to this shop because they’ve got something different, and that shop because it’s got something different."
What’s your favourite part about owning your own business?
“My customers, hands down. People always say, ‘Why are you still working on the floor, you should be working on your business not in your business.’ There’s a huge critique that people make looking in from the outside. But I do what I do for the community. I love my customers, I love getting feedback and I think it’s a huge asset when I’m buying for the store, because I’m visualizing clients. It’s community. It’s been 12 years now so a lot of them have become my friends.”
What’s your least favourite part?
“Well, it’s hard to leave. I’m definitely rooted, because it’s a brick and mortar. It’s hard to, say, leave for 3 weeks and not answer emails. I can’t shut off. And when I go home at night, its not like I can turn my phone off because what if my window gets smashed and I have to be down here at 2am. But you could hate what you do and punch in and punch out or you could love what you do and it doesn’t seem like such a waste.”
How do you manage raising your kids while running your own business, and how have things changed since becoming a mother?
"I have two kids, and there were a million women who did it with 3, 4, 5. It just makes it real. A lot of my customers have kids too. I think that a lot of people feel uncomfortable going into shops with kids because they don’t want them to touch things or look around. We’ve got a little toy bin now, when a mom has to breastfeed it’s like, go into the change room. It’s made that conversation really easy.”
“Stepping away [from the store] on weekends was a huge thing for me, and reminding myself that I actually needed to take some time for my family. I was in the store 7 days a week, I lived and breathed it, I loved it and I still do, but having my family is so important, so I’m just figuring out a proper balance to do it all.”
Where do you source your inspiration from (art, clothes, people, travel)?
“Art definitely influences me, because the clothing is my art. Curating an outfit is my kind of medium. I don’t have oil painting or anything like that. I get inspiration from my clients, through the internet, from travelling, just watching people, listening and having conversations. If I sat in a world that was super isolated and I stared at a computer, I wouldn’t get the same kind of inspiration as human interaction.”
Describe a typical day for you.
“I get woken up by my kids jumping in my bed, which is amazing. I get up and we make breakfast, do any homework and then get dressed for school. I walk my son to school, come back home, then I leave once somebody comes to take care of my daughter. Then I go to the shop and work all day, sometimes I have meetings, sometimes I’ll be on the floor or I’ll be answering emails, or we’ll be doing photo shoots. It’s kind of nice that it always changes. I head back home, I usually get home about 6 and if there’s no event then I get to have dinner with my family. My husband’s an amazing cook so he always makes dinner, because the only thing I know how to make is stir-fry! That’s my day, super boring (laughs), then once the kids get to sleep I’ll start to work again. Figuring out new brands, new things to come in, it’s never-ending.”
When you need time for yourself, what do you do to escape?
“I’m super social, I love escaping, just in Vancouver, going for a drink or food with a friend- I love it, I feed off it. I’m super community driven – so for me if I don’t have that I get upset. When I do get to travel, my husband and I have gone through stages of places we’ve been obsessed with. It used to be Palm Springs, then Joshua Tree and now we’re into Ojai. We’re super West Coast. But to be honest, my best escape is somewhere where I can’t have Internet, answer my phone or surf Instagram. Being with my family is number one.”
Looking back, what advice would you give your 26 year-old self when you opened?
“I probably would have wanted to figure out a better balance between being a mom and running my business. Figuring that out right away and talking to more moms about how they did it. Even talking about it now, there’s so much mom guilt. I see moms come in with their babies, they’re having a year off – and I never got that. I had a lot of guilt about breastfeeding my kids in the change room all day long, and just trying to figure it out. I would have told myself that it’s okay and that having a bigger balance and taking time for my family earlier would have been okay.”
What’s next for you? Is the West Coast where you’ll stay put?
“I’m never leaving Vancouver. I love it here. If I did anything I would have a little tiny bungalow on an island somewhere, with an outhouse, and go over there with my family and just hang out. I definitely want to be doing more of that in the future.”