Out with the power suits and in with the trendy leggings and cute boots.
Madison’s own boutique owner Sukara Sterling has officially made Business Weekly’s “Top 40 Under 40” list for their upcoming March issue, and she’s definitely breaking the mold. She’s not afraid to say what comes to mind, but not to worry, because it’s sure to come out with a smile and a giggle. Making Business Weekly may seem intimidating, but this down to earth Madisonian is anything but.
Originally from Denmark, Wis., Sterling made her way to Madison in the same way most others do: to attend the University of Wisconsin. Starting off in the masses of freshmen, she began working towards a major in fashion merchandising. What’s the big difference between Sterling and most of the other students on campus? She’s got balls. At 21, Sterling took out a small loan, got a lucky deal on a State Street location and took a chance most wouldn’t dream of. She opened her own boutique. The financial risk on this alone is something hard to wrap one’s mind around, much less leaving school early. This is the sort of high-stakes gamble that leaves people sweating profusely, but not Sterling.
When asked if she had a backup plan at the time Sterling laughed and said, “Umm, I guess not,” with a smile. Over three years later her shop remains a growing success.
Fortune doesn’t always come easily, and for Sterling, it did not materialize without hard work. With no training whatsoever, Sterling says, “I learned so much owning the store that first week as opposed to the whole college thing.”
Learning everything by trial and error, Sterling worked in her shop every day for almost a year before turning enough profit to hire other employees. She also had to get a foot in the door of the fashion world.
“The first year I went to shows people probably thought I was the stupidest girl ever, but now I have relationships with people,” Sterling said.
One of the largest things that has changed over the years are her price points. She started with much higher priced items, which sold to a small population of students. Yet she quickly realized the lower the price point, the wider her clientele became. Shoppers willing to pay top dollar didn’t stop shopping — they just bought more.
The new lower prices got the green light and have remained that way today, which actually comes as a shock to many shoppers.
“So many girls come in here and say they are so surprised about the prices because they thought it was going to be so expensive,” Sterling said.
Other lessons, like figuring out which items were the best sellers, and ways to generate sales, led Sterling’s boutique to be best known for its fun dresses and frequent sales.
Still, generating and keeping a clientele is no easy feat on State Street. In the land of Bop, Up and even more mainstream stores like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, it can be hard to maintain your ground in fashion territory. Sterling keeps shoppers loyal by making sure their experience is as unique as possible. Walking into a party and realizing another other girl is wearing the same outfit is one horrifying moment Sterling actively prevents.
“My thing is everything is unique and original — I’ve never gotten more than six of each piece,” she said.
The individuality of Sterling’s pieces thankfully breaks some of the monotony of Madison fashion. She also ensures her store is a little more funky and fun, and promises all of her workers are really friendly so shoppers can relax without worrying about snotty attitudes.
Another large draw is her sister’s jewelry line, Stacy Sterling Jewelry. Based in California, the line sells mostly to high-end celebrity status boutiques. Her pieces have graced the bodies of stars such as Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and that’s just the beginning. Sterling says a lot of her clients really appreciate knowing the brand they’re wearing is successful, especially in trendy areas like LA.
Not only devoted to top quality products, Sterling is also dedicated to being as eco-friendly as possible. A member of the Forest Friendly 500, which currently has 728 businesses listings, she makes conscientious choices to reduce usage of non-recyclable items in her store. Sterling also tries to only endorse products that are manufactured in the US. She admits this does raise prices but says, “I think a lot of people appreciate the effort, especially in Madison since people are so conscious about those types of things here.”
Breaking the boundaries of working from her shop alone, she and a friend recently started their own non-profit called Global Summit. Sterling and her friends plan to do the grunt work in the beginning, but hope to eventually have a full time staff to ensure their plans of building schools and orphanages around the world are accomplished.
They will start in Venezuela, where Sterling’s friend is originally from, and hopefully grow from there. Sterling is excited about teaching the entrepreneurial skills she has learned herself and passing on, as she calls it, her “scarily optimistic” point of view to inspire others to take risks.
The group is getting started by applying for grants but will be doing fundraisers in the future that might include some fun T-shirts and jewelry. Sterling admits Global Summit won’t solve all the problems in the world but says it’s “definitely a positive step in the right direction.”
Sterling definitely has her active mode permanently on at work, but it doesn’t stop during her free time either. She loves snowboarding, wakeboarding and hopes to master surfing on her upcoming trip to New Zealand. She hardly ever watches TV, but does have a soft spot for Project Runway and would definitely go on it because she “loves trying everything.”
Looking to the future, one of Sterling’s side projects is designing a fall fashion line. In addition to selling other designer’s lines, Sterling does design some things piece by piece that she sells in the store, but would love to expand by starting her line locally in Madison.
On top of that she will be styling for an upcoming movie in Chicago for a friend who owns a production company. Her website, www.sukarasterling.com, will also soon be up and running as a fully “shoppable” website. Ideally, Sterling would love to relocate somewhere in California where she would have more styling and growth opportunities and she hopes her website will help make the transition.
She’s fun, she’s quirky and she’ll definitely make you laugh. Sterling is one of those rare people has you spilling all the intimate details of your life within five minutes of conversation. She’s the farthest thing from a snotty boutique owner, and when it comes to fashion, she doesn’t judge.
When asked which were her least favorite trends of the season she just said, “I like everything! If you like it, you should wear it.”
Sukara Sterling, located on 551 State Street, is worth a browse for shoppers of any budget. Even if you don’t find something the first time Sterling’s personality is bound to keep you coming back.