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Charlottesville's Jean Theory denim boutique expanding to Richmond

Expansion was always part of the plan.

Even before Mandy Edwards took over the Jean Theory women’s denim boutique in downtown Charlottesville, she knew she wanted to own a small business and see it grow.

"I had always hoped and dreamed of owning a boutique but had not really pursued it much," Edwards told The Daily Progress.

She described her past self as a "work-from home mom, dedicated to be the kid taxi, the cook."

When her son and daughter went off to college a few years ago, she said her husband pushed her to pursue those hopes and dreams she had always talked about.

"My husband was like, ‘Do it. You’ve always wanted to do it. Do it.’"

So she did.

Edwards acquired Jean Theory from Laura Van Camp in April.

She had been a Jean Theory customer before the acquisition and knew that Van Camp was interested in selling the store.

Even in the early conversations with Van Camp, Edwards said she was direct: She didn’t just want to buy Jean Theory; she wanted to expand Jean Theory.

"Laura and I had talked for a while," Edwards said, sitting at the counter of the boutique she now runs. "I had been put in touch with her through a denim rep. We talked, and she knew my plan was always to try to do something in Richmond."

Van Camp opened Jean Theory roughly 14 years ago, and while it has been in three different locations in the Charlottesville area, it has called 101 W. Water St. home for the past five years.

Edwards, herself a Richmond resident, said she scouted spots for a second Jean Theory in the River City for months.

"It took a while to find a space in Richmond. It’s just a tough place to find space," Edwards said. "A friend of mine texted me in the morning and saw a space on Patterson there was going out of business. She knew I was looking. And that’s how it happened."

The new Richmond Jean Theory is scheduled to open in mid-November at 5708 Patterson Ave. in the city’s Near West End neighborhood. It will occupy what was once McHugh’s Restorations, a ceramics restoration studio that closed earlier this year after roughly 40 years of business.

The new Richmond space is "slightly larger" than the Charlottesville boutique, which Edwards estimated has about 600 to 700 square feet of retail space.

Despite its larger size, and Richmond’s larger population, the Jean Theory there will open with a staff of one, Edwards said. The Charlottesville location employs two.

"That will probably change," she noted with an air of confidence and a smile. "I would like to think it’s just the first step. I would love for it to be something that grows, grows into different cities and different markets. I really feel, as does anyone I talk to, anyone I tell what I’m doing, whether it be close friends or people I just meet, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, we need that. We need that.’"

Jean Theory in Charlottesville carries a variety of denim brands, including AG, Agolde, Citizens of Humanity, Hudson, Joe’s Jeans, Paige and Pistola. Citizens of Humanity is an Edwards favorite, but she does have a pair of Hudson jeans that she just bought and now wears "on repeat with tons of compliments."

The store also carries tops that Edwards and her staff curate to match the denim that lines the walls of the store.

Edwards said that the denim brands at Jean Theory have not changed since the Van Camp days, but she has increased the non-denim products.

"Laura had a very smooth running operation," Edwards said. "I have definitely added some different brands in terms of clothing, not denim, but some things that have done really well."

That includes sweaters by Minnie Rose — "they do a lot of 100% cotton sweaters and cotton-cashmere blends" — and blouses by Emerson Fry — "printed blouses, 100% cotton, generally organic that just fly out of the store."

The Charlottesville and Richmond locations will have all the same denim brands and, for now, the same style and brands of non-denim products. Edwards said she’s still not sure if the clienteles at her two shops will be so different.

"It’s a plaid sort of town," Edwards said of Charlottesville. Richmond? Not so much.

"We carry some plaid shirts here that we just roll through," Edwards said. "Talking to the previous owner, I said, ‘I wonder if they’ll do well in Richmond. I don’t see a lot of plaid.’ She said, ‘Maybe because it’s not available.’"

Edwards said she wants Jean Theory to be responsive to customers; it’s the benefit of a boutique, it’s what it offers that department stores can’t and it’s why she wanted to own and operate a small business to begin with.

"I’ve always wanted to own a small business, keep it small," Edwards said. "Even years ago, when I was contemplating doing something like this, my husband said, ‘Maybe you should look at a mall.’ I don’t want to be in a mall, I do not want to be in a mall, I don’t want to pay the rent, I don’t want to do the hours, nobody wants to go there."

There’s a reason why, Edwards said, when consumer spending started to rebound after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic that traditional indoor shopping malls and major department stores didn’t see the foot traffic return.

Since 2019, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney and Lord & Taylor, once mainstays of the American shopping experience, have all filed for bankruptcy protection. Just north of Charlottesville, Fashion Square mall is a shadow of its former self. The owners of the mall filed for bankruptcy protection in 2021, and home improvement retailer Home Depot acquired most of the mall’s real estate last year. Today, Belk is the only remaining department store anchor there.

Online shopping was supposed to make things easier on the customer, but even point-and-click retail has proven itself to be more of a hassle than it’s worth to some customers — Edwards included.

"I hate ordering jeans online, because you have to order a size down, your regular size, a size up, the washes are all different," she said. "You end up ordering six or nine, however many pairs, and then end up having to send them all back."

In fact, she said she decided to focus on pursuing a denim boutique while scrolling online for new jeans. It wasn’t just more of a hassle; something was missing.

"What I’m offering here is customer service and supporting a local business," she said.

"I think quality too," interjected Nicole Walden, the Charlottesville Jean Theory’s stylist and sales associate, whom Edwards calls her "sales guru."

"Having worked for some of the high-end retailers before, I’m trying to think of the stores you can walk into and find the quality we have," Walden said.

"It’s about options and styles and offering a lot of the things that you can’t find everywhere," added Sam Small, who was in the Charlottesville store preparing for her new role as manager of the Richmond location.

"That’s it," said Edwards, that confident smile returning. "That’s what we’re doing."


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