Tina Burgos: Founder and Creative Director of Covet + Lou

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Tina Burgos is the Founder and Creative Director of the absolutely dreamy women’s store, Covet + Lou. She curates, runs, and owns this treasure trove of clothing and accessories and is a huge champion of independent brands and local designers. She also has an online shop, which we’re very grateful for, so we can peruse from afar as well! She was so much fun to speak with, because she’s the type of person who tells you exactly what she thinks of things, and doesn’t beat around the bush. If you’ve ever dreamed of owning your own store, you’re going to love this one. Read on!

Can you tell us briefly about what you were doing before this?
I had another shop on Newbury Street in Boston called Stel’s. We were there for almost ten years. It was a higher-end shop and it was men’s and women’s - split 50 50. We didn’t have any home goods or accessories or anything like that so I really honed my business skills when we ran that shop. I mean it was a very different atmosphere, very different feel and Newbury Street in Boston, it’s just a tougher environment because there were a lot more transient folks coming through, tourists, people who weren’t necessarily there to shop. So making that transition from a much more commerce focused area to a small town center, that was a little bit of an adjustment.

What is the story behind the name Covet + Lou?
So I’ve got a good friend, who actually interned with me when he was in high school, and he is a master wordsmither. So I asked him, and he thought Covet was just perfect because it evokes just that, things that you want or desire, and then Lou is my mom and she’s been unbelievable, so I wanted to honor her in some way.

You’ve gone through several iterations of a physical store and online, what our your thoughts on the pros and cons of both options?
The online shop was a lot more manageable because my overhead was reasonable. I live in Needham so I was able to run the business out of my house. I didn’t have to deal with rent, insurance, I had one part time employee for the first four years; it was just an easier business to handle as a solo business owner. And I think I’ve seen retail change over the past 20-25 years, I could see that obviously online was taking off. I wasn’t ready to open up another store because the Newbury Street location was so intense and it was a lot to manage financially, but, after 4 years this business grew to a point where we needed office space and my husband said – you might as well open up another shop as another source of revenue, see if you can grow your business in a multi-tiered fashion. So, that’s why we ended up opening the store this past March. A lot of people are saying “oh you did it backwards” most people open with brick and mortar first. But, I had that brick and mortar experience and I knew how difficult it was and I just wasn’t ready to start there. The online just seemed a lot easier to manage and granted it has its challenges, but that was much less daunting then actually opening a physical space.

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You really are a champion of independent designers. What is the process of finding smaller designers and representing their brands like?
I always have been. A lot of the brands that we carry I have been familiar with from my old shop. And back in the early 2000s we were the first ones to bring Alexander Wang to Boston, Rachel Comey, Ace and Jig – we had their very first collection, we took them on consignment when they were just doing baja hoodies. It takes a lot of research and just reaching out and looking on websites and reading blogs and really trying to figure out who these designers are first of all, and how are they producing. Most of the designers we carry are producing in a very ethical and sustainable manner, that’s really important to me. The majority of these brands are women-owned. So all of that kind of plays into how we curate the store and how we pick our designers.

I mean it’s not an easy process, because a lot of these little brands do not have the bandwidth to actually produce large quantities. I think being a designer is the hardest part of this industry because you need an unbelievable amount of cash just to get your business up and running. Just to create samples alone, you have to buy the fabric in advance, you have to find a factory or seamstresses that’ll put the clothing together, you need to figure out your fit models, there’s some technical stuff behind it, you know I think it’s really difficult. So I may see a designer I really love, reach out to her and she’s just not ready to produce orders yet. It helps when brands are also doing their due diligence and trying to figure out, okay these are the shops I want to be in, these are the people who are really going to represent who I am as a designer and as a businesswoman, and they’re pretty good about reaching out too.

You’ve gotten quite a bit of press about your shop -- do you reach out to publications or  wait for them to contact you?
It’s a little bit of both. When we first opened the e-comm piece of this, I did have a PR person and she did have a lot of contacts with the digital arms of Vogue and Elle and Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. We stopped using her services because PR is very, very expensive. You’re basically paying for the network they know. And even if that person is very well connected, there’s no guarantee they’re going to give you the press. So thank goodness, even though Boston is considered a cosmopolitan city, it is a very very small town especially when it comes to fashion and lifestyle. I was able to maintain a lot of press contacts over the years and those guys are always interested in writing about small independent business owners, I mean that’s what’s interesting and what’s hot in the editorial world so I’m constantly barraging them with “we’ve got this new brand, we’ve got this new product, there’s this new designer you need to be aware of.” We also try to work with local people to give these guys some sort of platform where they can have their work showcased. And the press is receptive to that, they want local.

Do you think your sense of connection to the local community has changed now that you have a physical store instead of just an online platform?
It definitely has. I mean, from a couple of different perspectives. My demographic that shops here is very different from the demographic that shops online. I would say at least 50% of our web traffic comes from mobile, they’re using Apple Pay, it’s a younger demo. The person that shops here, they’re a little bit older, they don’t like to use computers, you know they come in here and they like the experience. They want to meet us, they want to talk to us, they want to know what is this brand, what is the story behind it. They want to try things on, they want to spend time here. So it’s tricky sort of balancing the two different communities because they’re buying the same products, but they’re coming at it with two different angles.

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What is an unexpected aspect of your current role?
Well, it’s still a lot of the day to day. I had to go to the dump the other day, take out the trash, and I was cleaning bathrooms and sweeping the floor and vacuuming. I think people have this idea of fashion as being very glamorous. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it and I think people don’t necessarily understand. They see what we want them to see, right? So there’s a lot of glitz and glamour and flash. But it’s still hard work, you know I’m still shipping my own packages, and I have to run to UPS two or three times a day to drop off shipments, so there’s still a lot of grunt work. This business has been a lot more successful earlier on than my other business so I wasn’t expecting to still be in the grind of all the minutiae, of all the day to day operations, but I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.

What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is actually meeting the customers and meeting people that appreciate the product. Even if they’re not shopping, it’s nice to have conversations with people. I mean, for four years, you know when I was running this from my house, it was just me and I’d kind of go stir crazy. I’d roll out of bed, feed my kids, get them off to school, crawl back into bed, watch my crappy tv, ship packages out. It’s nice to get that kind of feedback now, and I think it helps my business because I can gauge what people are into what they aren’t. Some of the feedback that we got back recently from the local community here is that a lot of our items have an oversized fit. Customer don’t want anything too form fitting, but there are a lot of women out there that just don’t want to wear big, baggy dresses or tops or pants and have a lower crotch. So that kind of feedback has informed some of what we’re bringing in moving forward.

Least favorite part of the job?
My least favorite part is probably just dealing with finances. And I think that will always be. For anybody that’s starting a business, you have to have a really really good understanding of whether you’re service based and you don’t have any overhead or need to carry any inventory or if you’re someone like me that always has a lot of inventory on hand and need to sell it. I think a lot of businesses go under because they just don’t realize what that means and they don’t understand how to manage it properly. And they’re not anticipating the ups and downs of what’s going to happen in a business cycle. And it’s – that can be very stressful. But that’s never going to go away, I mean that’s always something that any business owner is going to have to deal with, no matter what they’re doing.

What about fashion inspired you to take this path and follow your dream, even with the grunt work and the complications that it brings?
I just love it. It’s not even about the shopping. My own closet is very, very edited, I have the tendency to wear kind of the same thing over and over and over again. I don’t consume a lot when it comes to fashion, I just love to see what other people are creating. Some people are moved by art, some people are moved by literature. For me, I feel like even though this is a very big business and it’s commercial, I like to see what people are able to create and how other people put things together, I find it really fascinating. And it’s cool, it’s fun, it makes people happy and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that.

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How much do you think of your life is intertwined with your business? Do you have separate parts of your day for working and then for being done?
I should. Truth be told I really should, because I hear it from my kids all the time, “put your phone down, Mom”. And it’s hard because the majority of the business I run off of my phone because the majority of it is e-comm. So we’re very very good about getting back to people right away, handling issues, I’m constantly tracking sales, making sure inventory is correct online, trying to troubleshoot...there should be more of a separation. When my kids are home after school for a few hours when they’re doing homework, I really try to sit down and at least we’ll just talk. I want to give them that time, but it’s not easy. A lot of the time they’re here with me and they’re learning the business –  and they’re seeing that Mom works and has other responsibilities that are not just dealing with the home life. If I didn’t have the support of my husband and if the kids weren’t so sort of aware of what I did, I think it would be a lot more difficult. So no, the intersection is constantly there, it’s very difficult to separate the two. And we’re growing, we’re still relatively young, so I’m very motivated to make sure this business continues to be successful, and you have to constantly work on it.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
When I first got out of graduate school, I was a management consultant. It was horrible and I hated it. The hours sucked and I was dealing with banks and healthcare organizations. But, I think with all of the experience I have now,  I would probably set up some sort of consulting company for women who want to run small businesses. At this point I do do a lot of that just pro bono work and oddly, there are actually a couple of my competitors who have reached out just to ask me questions about operational things – how do you know when to go on sale? Or, a fledgling e-commerce company reached out to me. She sells a lot of the same brands. How did you figure out your shipping and do you ship internationally and how do you handle all that stuff?

That doesn’t threaten me because I think, this whole thing is me. Nobody else is going to be me. Nobody else is going to be able to – you may be able to pick the same stuff that I will, but you’re not going to be able to put it together the way that we merchandise it. It’s not going to happen. I think it’s important to support other women who are running small businesses. So I do have a lot of conversations with other women about their businesses and just try to give them advice if they want it. You’re going to find the information regardless, so why not pave an easier road for somebody? I mean, I never understood why people were so closed off with their information and unwilling to help. That never made any sense to me. There’s enough in this world to go around for everybody as long as you’re smart about the decisions you make. If you’re doing well, pay it forward and help people out.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self. 

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Thanks so much, Tina! You were an absolute pleasure to talk to, and we learned so much from your wisdom and stories. Readers, come back next week to learn how exactly Tina does all the purchasing for her store. (All photos provided by Tina Burgos)