Kathy Smith is headed for the big boutiques. There's no other way. If she doesn't make the move soon, she says, someone will copy her sweatshirt designs and take them to the big time without her.
Boutiques - called craft fairs in other states - are booming in Utah. As the holidays approach there will be a record number of boutiques held throughout the state.Boutique organizer Jean Bentley says that in 1983, when she held her first boutique, there were only 50 local folk artists making high-quality crafts. "Now there are at least 300," she says.
Like most of those artists, Smith started out small. She first showed her hand-painted sweatshirts in a home boutique.
"My mother does flowers, one sister does dolls, my little sister does teddy bears. . . . All my sisters and my sister-in-law, we are all rather crafty. We have plenty of friends. We put on quite a show."
Smith showed 10 shirts at that first boutique. She took orders and painted more shirts. Later she expanded her line, adding two-piece ensembles that she sewed herself before painting.
Soon she decided she'd come out ahead by renting a booth in a commercial boutique, giving the boutique promoter 10 to 15 percent of her gross earnings.
Smith stayed up until 3 a.m. for weeks before the event, painting furiously.
At the boutique, it wasn't just friends and neighbors anymore. Total strangers bought her artwork. "We all like to have a pat on the back," Smith says. "To have somebody say, `You made that?' is the reward. You don't need to make a dime. It's just a fun business. And how often do people get to work at something they love?
"Now I'm addicted to it. I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of some new design, and jump up and run downstairs and draw it."
Each time she finishes a show, Smith takes her profit and sinks it back into sweatshirts, paint and glitter.
Next year, she figures she'll have amassed enough shirts to show in one of the big boutiques, one that runs for five days and features 60 or 100 booths. Smith says, "I think I'd need $10,000 worth of my inventory. It's scary to invest that kind of money, to take that chance."
Then, she may have to get someone else to help her sew. Bentley says, "Some artists do all the work themselves. Maybe they are too fussy, they don't trust anyone else. But then there are others who have 20 people sewing for them."
Bentley is one of the big boutique promoters. All together, there are probably a dozen more Utah women who started out making crafts but now have given up that part of the boutique business to become promoters.Sue Harkness seems proud of the five boutiques she holds each year, though she says she's got to cut back next year. She's in it for the fun, she says. Harkness likes seeing women enjoy themselves.
"I fell into promoting seven years ago. My original boutique was on the deer hunt weekend. I wanted to offer some sort of an outing to women, with some elegance. I like to offer them a nice buffet and a shopping experience. So I dress it up a little bit."
Eva May Cook says she started promoting 11 years ago, running off fliers, passing them around the neighborhood. Early on she charged artists $10 to set up a booth and took 10 percent of their profits. "When we were first doing it, the art was plastic grapes and little crocheted things," she says.
Cook kept a mailing list. Several times a year she and her neighbor addressed 2,000 fliers by hand. Six years ago she bought her first computer. Her mailing list now has more than 10,000 names.
These days artists pay $60 for a booth in a big show and pay up to 15 percent to the promoters. Cook says most artists sell about $2,000 worth of merchandise in a show. "Top sellers do $8,000 or $9,000."
Though promoting may sound like an easy way to make, say, $50,000 a year, it isn't, says Cook. "A lot of people try it and fail because they expect too much. The risks drive them out."
She's been working eight hours a day for a decade, says Cook, as the boutique business gets more and more sophisticated. Mailing lists aren't enough lately; promoters now take out expensive newspaper ads, too.
In Provo, Pam Steineckert says it's also a good idea to advertise in the boutique bulletins. Two newsletters have sprung up to serve Utah crafters.
Bentley says there may be too many boutiques this year. "It hurts everybody, crafters and promoters. If people know they can go again next week, they don't feel like they have to get there."
"This used to be more fun. It's a business now, not a diversion."At Judy Dunford's "Beary Unique" boutique, on a typical weekday afternoon, the shoppers are having fun even if the promoter is hard at work.
There isn't a man in sight. Women mill among the displays, holding small children, chatting with a mother or friend, having a bite at the little deli.
A Christmas potpourri scents the air. There are more than 80 booths, displaying rubber stamps, wreaths, dolls, wooden scarecrows, Christmas tree ornaments, baby quilts, boot scrapers, flower arrangements, Cabbage Patch clothes, toys, pencils, T-shirts, table runners, jewelry. . . .
"Cute" is the word shoppers use most often, as they browse. "Country" is the theme. These customers are charmed by geese, pigs, cows, bears, hearts, flowers."My house is decorated with cats," says one shopper.
Dunford never sits down. First she helps a woman carry a Barbie dollhouse to her car. Then she takes an order for an artist. ("I want this," says a customer holding up a small wooden replica of an English cottage. "Only I want windows painted green instead of blue. My daughter's living room is green.") If promoters provide a central checkout, artists don't have to be at the booth.
Dunford has hired women to run six cash registers near the door. They do a steady business. Holding up a fall centerpiece, one customer asks a salesclerk, "Is this really only $4?"
Jean Bentley says boutiques work for two reasons. "Consumers can buy a handmade item for one-third less than in stores. Avoiding the middle man is great for the public and great for the crafter. They can make more out of their item than if they sold it wholesale to stores."
Boutiques also work well for the woman who wants to be in control of her own time, says Bentley. An artist can choose to kill herself with work during the fall, be in five boutiques in December, buy a new car and take a month off.
They work hard, but nobody makes crafts prettier than these artists do. Says Bentley: "I would pit Utah crafters against any in the country."