Tara and Ben Wegdam have created quite an empire for themselves under the umbrella of the West Federal Retail Family. What started as one home furnishing store in Holland, has grown to 30 plus home furnishing, clothing and accessory stores spanning from Boston to Atlanta. Headquartered in Middleburg, Virginia, the couple has created and managed successful brick and mortars of accessory shops (LouLou Boutique), clothing boutiques (Zest Clothing & Co., formerly also named Lou Lou) and home furnishing stores (Crème de la Crème Imports).
An avid shopper herself, Tara has an affinity for boutique-style shopping. Not one to pick through the discount stores, Tara prefers to shop in beautiful stores that reflect the style of the merchandise sold within, a concept that she has fully embraced and implemented in her own shops.
Originally from Nashville, she participated as a student in the Hollins Study Abroad Program through Hollins College (now Hollins University). It was during her time in Holland that Tara met her Dutch husband, Ben Wegdam. They moved to Holland after she graduated where Tara opened her first store called The French Shoppe. Tara’s shop featured items all of French origin.
The couple moved to the US with Ben’s job. He worked for Ahold Delhaize, the Dutch company that owns Stop and Shop, and Giant, among others. Their main office was located in Chantilly, but the couple wanted to live in the country, so they settled in Middleburg, Va.
Their move also involved bringing The French Shoppe with them. As Tara’s inventory began to expand to other European regions, she took the opportunity to change the name of the store to Crème de la Crème Imports when they relocated to the US. With this new name, Tara gained more freedom of what type of merchandise she could offer in her store.
The concept of the store started as home furnishings. It then spilled over to apparel and then on to accessories. The original Virginia store was located on Federal Street in Middleburg. The opportunity to move the shop to the more coveted location of E. Washington Street became available, so they jumped at the chance. The logistics of it all left the couple with two store fronts. It was at this time, that the division of home furnishings from clothing and accessories as born. Again presented with a store front option on E. Washington Street, they opened a third shop. This time they made the separation of accessories from apparel.
They quickly realized that the customer was really ok buying clothes and accessories at different locations. Says Wegdam, “When the customers responded favorably to shopping for accessories separately I was excited. I like it too! Sometimes it’s a relief not to have to look through clothes just to buy a super cute accessory item or a gift.”
But look for changes with regards to their clothing stores. I was so flattered that I was one of the first know that The Wegdams were working to rebrand their apparel shops. In the Carytown section of Richmond, VA, their clothing store is called Zest Clothing & Co. This store has a slightly different concept having a limited, specialized selection of accessories to accompany their outstanding clothing lines. Going forward, there will be a clear separation from the Lou Lou accessories boutiques and the apparel shops. The clothing stores will be completely rebranded and styled continuing on with the name Zest. They will have a more modern vibe with sleeker shelving units that will enable the customers to see the merchandise more efficiently. Fear not. The clothing style offering that you have come to know and love will stay the same. Says Wegdam, “The whole idea behind it is to help the customer shop.”
A self-described picky person, Tara truly feels that it is her job to sort through all of the products that are out there in the world so she can provide the very best for her customers. That is what she strives to do. She adds, “It’s our job to edit the good from the bad for the stores so the customers don’t have to look at everything. I want the customer to come in to a whole store of good stuff and be able to pick what they like out of the collection.” On a personal note, this is exactly why I shop at Lou Lou/Zest. I know, without fail, that I can go into the store and find something that will work for me and in a price range that won’t pulverize a paycheck.
Tara has equal love for each of her stores. She shares, “It’s like choosing a favorite child. You just can’t. I love it all. But what I really love are the customers. The customers are the most important people.”
Tara is inspired by her customers. She observes what they are wearing and how they style themselves and takes inspiration from that. Tara shares, “I listen to the customers all the time. That’s why I love to work in the stores because they’re the best buyers in the world.” Admittedly, we live in a time of fast fashion that moves and changes constantly. Customers want to buy it now and want to wear it now, be happy with it, and then move on to the next thing.
But her dream was always to own a store. To this day, Tara’s real joy comes from being around the customers. So for her, when asked how her reality differs from her dream, she answered, “I’m sitting in an office, behind a computer and I don’t like computers. I always thought that I would just work in a store. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I still want to do. But it’s ok. It evolved into something else that’s been great. But sometimes I’ll just disappear out of here and go to one of the stores. That makes me happy. It’s what I love to do.”
As my loyal followers know, I’m always interested in an entrepreneur’s underlying drive for taking the leap. Some have very calculated and focused paths. When Tara started to explain her motivation, she asked, “Have you ever read the definition of the word entrepreneur? The definition in the dictionary is a person who takes great financial risk. I had no idea! It’s so funny! That’s probably why we did it…because I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was just a person with an idea who was going to make it work. Which is the positive, dreamy version of a person who takes risks.” Having grown up with two entrepreneurial parents, Tara might just have a unique perspective. She never really thought about the risk. She never considered that it wouldn’t work. In her mind, if it’s not working, you just fix it and keep going.
Tara’s advice? “Everybody should try what they want to do. I always tell people, ‘Just do it. Just do it. See what happens. It’s never ever going to be how you think it’s going to be. If it’s going to work, it’s not what you think it’s going to be. It could be worse, but it could be better.’ I think so many people have such great ideas, they just don’t start.” She stresses the thought that so many people expect to be an overnight success. Even those that we perceive as overnight successes were not overnight successes. Tara adds, “People get caught up in the plan. Is it going to work? Well, it might not. It really might not.” She shared that people would tell her and her husband all of the time that their business wasn’t going to work. That was 20 years ago. Tara adds, “I didn’t even think about them. How can it not work? It’s going to work because I‘m going to make it work.”
With a family, multiple stores and store concepts, and the social media that accompanies each, how does Tara manage to keep it all together? She shares, “Honestly, it’s a lot. There are things that we don’t do well. And sometimes you just have to take those things and not do well at them because you can’t. My husband and I both say, sometimes you just have to do things 80% and it just has to be good enough.”
Tara reminds us, “We’re still a small company. We run our headquarters with about 20 people. It’s kind of amazing. Everybody wears many hats, and everybody does the best they can and they work really hard. We all do a lot, but you know, it is just clothes. When it comes down to it, we’re not curing cancer here.” The total employee count for West Federal Retail Family is roughly 240 employees, so managing all of the people is formidable. I asked Tara if she ever thought her one shop would grow to such proportions. Her response? “NO! I still don’t even think about it.”
The couple’s multi-store mini empire continues to thrive, but the looming concern of the consumer shift to online shopping extinguishing the brick and mortar is real. Says Tara, “I think the next couple years are going to be really telling about the customers shopping habits and the Internet. We’re going to have to reevaluate our online presence.”
Traffic is down in the stores. We’ve all seen the mall stores closing. Unfortunately, it’s likely to trickle down, particularly on days when the weather is less than awesome. People prefer to sit behind their computer and shop online. Tara warns, “It’s really going to be a problem. I don’t know if people believe that the shops are going to go away if the customers don’t start shopping in them.” Although, a town like Middleburg, as well as their other locations, are unique and might weather the storm better than most, the Wegdams are concerned about the other retailers as well. Says Tara, “We all need each other. We can’t have one store on one street. Everybody needs to bond together and make sure people are still touching things.”
I think we can all agree, that for a lot of us, “retail therapy” is a real thing. Tara takes her role in the community very seriously. When discussing her customers she shares, “You don’t know. Maybe those people haven’t spoken to anybody all day long. That is why we all, as a society and a community, have to be aware that store fronts serve different purposes on many levels. People are lonely. And if you are sitting behind your computer ordering things…what if all the stores were closed? We need to get out and have human contact. I realized that is what we do all day long. We have human contact with people, whether they buy anything or not. I think it’s something bigger than retail. I hope that we make a difference by being nice to people. We are family owned and we try to keep it like that. We want you to have that feel when you’re shopping and connecting with us. We are a part of your community.” Tara adds, “And I really do just LOVE the customers. That’s why we opened our shop.”
WANT TO SEE MORE?
You can get some insight on Tara Wegdam’s personal style in my Tastemaker Profile feature in the Spring issue of NVSL Magazine.
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