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Coterie Boutique Breaks The Mold For Women’s Fashion In Maryland

Dylan Roche
View Bio
August 23, 2017

When Bess Clark told people she was going to open up a women’s clothing boutique in Pasadena, many people told her, “Good luck.”

But Clark had a vision, and as a transplant from California, she saw a need. Many stores carried either clothing cut for younger bodies or else clothing that resigned 30-year-olds to dressing like matrons. “I missed women’s contemporary fashion from [Los Angeles],” she said. “Maryland was lacking. The department stores consisted mostly of missy and junior’s. There’s a whole other section of fashion called women’s contemporary, and it wasn’t here.”

Even though Clark had planned to stay home with her children, she couldn’t resist her workaholic nature, and after years of planning and researching, she opened the doors to Coterie Boutique in 2014.

In only three years, Coterie has garnered a following of loyal clientele and even expanded from its original location along Mountain Road to a much larger spot in the recently built Magothy Gateway shopping center. Together with her general manager, Jen Harris, and six other women as passionate about fashion as she is, Clark provides seasonal lines of clothing she herself selects, all at a reasonable price and with an interest in making her customers look and feel their best. “We’ve had a lot of people throughout the years who have never had their style or had maybe given up a little bit,” Clark said. “You put them in the right outfit, and suddenly, you see that light go on. We’ve had the opportunity to share that with a lot of people, to watch them blossom throughout the years.”

Although Clark and her team might have a natural knack for fashion, the road to success for Coterie has not been without hurdles. In the beginning, Clark realized that some Marylanders didn’t even understand what a boutique was. “It was such a foreign concept,” she said. “A boutique means you’ve hand-selected everything, specialty items, with your local people in mind. It doesn’t mean expensive.”

By filling a specialty niche and offering customer-centered service, Coterie was able to establish a reputation among fashion-minded women not only in Pasadena but even as far as Annapolis and Columbia, despite its original location off the beaten path. “You didn’t get any drive-by or walk-ins, which is a testament to our survival there,” Harris explained. “Our clients loved us, and they spread the word.”

Unlike big-name department stores and major retailers, which might have a group of businesspeople trying to stock their shelves with a bunch of bestselling lines of clothing, a boutique such as Coterie puts heart into it. As the staff members at Coterie get to know their clients, they can consider those customers’ needs when they travel out to Los Angeles to select what pieces they’ll carry for the upcoming season. Because their customer base ranges in age from 30 to 80, they have to create a collection with something for everyone while still having a cohesive flow. Every season at Coterie tells a story, as Clark described it, based on a vision she has.

There’s also an emphasis on “wear anywhere” pieces, which work equally well whether a woman is going to volunteer at school, going out to dinner or picking up groceries. “You can mix and match clothes, and it’s always easy, and you always look good,” Clark said.

As fashion-minded people, both Clark and Harris agree customer satisfaction is more important than closing a sale. “It does us no good to just have one of our pieces hanging in their closet,” Harris said.

Coterie also emphasizes a balance of practicality and wow factor, all while remaining timeless. “We follow trends without being trendy,” Harris explained.

To find all the pieces that the store will carry, Clark and Harris spend up to 14 hours a day looking at pieces when they’re at market, engaging personally with the designers and providing feedback on how last season’s pieces were received. “They listen to you, especially the up-and-coming designers, because they want to be successful,” Clark said.

Whereas a major retailer might wait to see whether an up-and-coming designer’s line will take off with customers, Coterie is willing to give them a shot and provide feedback to help designers grow.

Clark also has seen how major retailers will mark up a price four or six times when picking up a designer’s line, but a lesser known designer can offer the same quality at a fraction of the price — and those are the kinds of pieces Clark wants to carry in her store. “I want good-quality clothes that are reasonably priced, and that’s really hard to do, but that’s what I do,” she said. “People want good value — they want good quality for a good price.”

The customer base for Coterie Boutique has expanded dramatically over the summer — thanks in large part to the new foot traffic it sees in its new home at 147C Ritchie Highway in Severna Park — and Clark realizes her potential to change the face of fashion in Maryland. “We want to grow and expand and change the way things are done in the industry,” she said. “I’ve always been a trailblazer no matter what I’ve done.”

But don’t take Clark’s word for it — stop by the store and meet her in person, or call 410-431-7200, find and like “Coterie, a Boutique” on Facebook or follow @coterieboutique on Instagram. “We’re really good at what we do,” Clark said, “and we’re passionate about it.”

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