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Kitten Flower Boutique moves the needle on local piercing culture

Zack June and Kaitlin Siebken

Sarah Vandyken

Sarah Vandyken

Zack June and Sarah Vandyken

Steven De Polo wondered what a new neighborhood boutique called Kitten Flower sold. Was it kittens? Flowers? He ventures inside to get the scoop and finds a charming couple who sacrificed their shoes to open the boutique of their dreams.
Everybody in Grand Rapids knew about the computer repair shop on Lake Drive across from Smitty’s by the post office. Hundreds of cars passed the funky triangular building everyday.
Then one day the shop was gone. It was replaced by something called the Kitten Flower Boutique. Did it sell kittens? Flowers? Was it a dress shop? I decided to check it out before it became something else.
Counter Culture Mr. Rogers
One evening while walking in the neighborhood with my 7-year-old daughter Lourdie, we decided to poke our heads into the Kitten Flower Boutique. The front door led to a staircase down to the basement. Expecting dowdy dresses and clever t-shirts, instead we found a rather spare space enlivened by a happy purple and red paint job.
We moved past the brightly lit vitrines to stand before a gentleman with arms covered in tattoos, septum piercings, stretched earlobes, and wearing a sensible cardigan sweater. He very sweetly asked if Lourdie would like to see the gold and platinum body jewelry.
Lourdie’s brown eyes eye’s sparkled as she moved her Nutella-colored fingers past the nostril jewelry and naval curves in gold, platinum and surgical-grade stainless steel.  
Putting two and two together, I figured out that I was in a very high-end piercing studio and my little girl was charmed by this counter culture Mr. Rogers. “We can get almost any of these pieces in sizes that fit her pierced ears,” he reassured me.
With Lourdie’s haute couture taste and my Hot Pockets budget, and with a mom at home who did not trust my fashion sense, I grabbed my little girl and hightailed it back to East Hills.
Kitten Flower
A couple weeks later I returned sans daughter to properly interview Zack June and his fiancé Kaitlin Siebken, fetching with her philtrum and nostril piercings and surface anchors. They are co-owners of Kitten Flower, and their relative youth and quirky look belie an iron will and ambitious business plan with a goal to establish a chain of high-end piercing studios across West Michigan.
He began by explaining the name Kitten Flower. “The kids know us already,” said Zack. With nearly 15 years of experience as a professional piercer in Chicago and Oregon and one of 50 studios accredited by the Association of Professional Piercers in the world, he oozes street cred. He doesn’t have to advertise.
The name of the boutique is meant to be welcoming and charming. These are no adolescent pain merchants. They are highly trained professionals with world-class high-end body jewelry. Housewives and professionals are a major part of their piercing and jewelry business. “We don’t want to turn off anyone,” said Kaitlin.
The name of the shop reflects a willingness to embrace anyone who wants to explore body art. “People are looking for quality and experience when it comes to body modification. The other piercers and tattoo artists in town come here to work with us,” said Zack.
Plugging the Void
Zack is the head piercer and driving force behind Kitten Flower. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Zack grew up in a straight-laced home in the Saugatuck area. His dad was a workaholic entrepreneur and his uncles were ministers. Of course he got into tattoos and piercing. And became an entrepreneur.
“People have been modifying their bodies for thousands of years. Only recently has it become controversial,” said Zack. Piercing is a way to express himself and understand himself through his body. Many others think the same way.
Zack had worked in piercing studios for over a decade and ended up working in Oregon. The piercing culture had become so entrenched in the state that even small towns could support a full-fledged studio with dozens of employees. The best studios expanded to include numerous shops employing over 100 employees. Zack saw how passion and excellence could become an economic driver for a region.
Having met Kaitlin in 2009, he convinced her to move to Grand Rapids to start a business. He saw that the seemingly straitlaced city had a thriving body modification culture with nobody filling the high-end space. He knew he could fill that void. They packed up his classic Datsun pickup truck in May and made it to Saugatuck by June 2012.
Zack and Kaitlin did not have much when they moved to West Michigan. They pitched a tent in his mother’s back yard and then set about to making their dream real. He got a job as a bouncer for Mulligan’s Pub and she waitressed for Bombay Cuisine. Jobs they still have.
They saved every penny and promised to not spend anything on themselves. Zack looked at his shoes and decided not to buy another pair until they opened their shop.
The Shoes
Over the next six months, they found the hapless building on Lake Drive. With neither loans nor credit cards, Zack began to slowly gut and then rehab the building himself. He had to teach himself how to do framing and put up the walls. “We hardly saw each other during that time,” noted Kaitlin.
Wearing his increasingly threadbare shoes, Zack installed electricity, HVAC, lighting, and flooring by himself. Then in the evenings he went to work at Mulligan’s. He and Kaitlin survived on fruit, tuna fish sandwiches, and granola.
In May 2013, Zack realized there was nothing left to do. He was done. He sat down and used his phone to post a photo of his disintegrating sneakers on the Body Modification Learning Forum Group on Facebook. He added a post entitled “The Shoes” about sacrificing to achieve your dreams.
By the time Zack attended the Association of Professional Piercers Conference in June, the piercing community was buzzing about his shoes. People were coming up to him to take pictures with him wearing his shoes and wanting to tell him he did it the right way. “He is internet famous now,” said Kaitlin.
Body Art Work
That same focus and integrity guided Zack’s merchandising plan for his new store. “I want to know where my money is going,” said Zack. Kitten Flower Boutique only sells the highest quality pieces.
Everything is expertly designed and crafted with the finest stone, natural bone, and metals that fully meet ASTM standards. The attention to detail is key. For example, all jewelry is internally threaded which means that a sharp thread never passes through your body.
“The internet is our best advertising. Most of our clients start out buying their pieces online. It’s cheaper and more convenient, but you get what you pay for,” said Zack.
He promised to never skimp on anything or cut corners when it came to what he would sell. “We only buy jewelry that is made in America,” said Zack. “I go out and visit the manufacturers and meet the people who make the jewelry.”
Zack works with NeoMetal, manufacturers of titanium and gold body jewelry located in Silverdale, WA. The company makes a point to employ older women, military widows, and the disabled and pay them a fair wage. “We want our money to go there.”
He pointed at a piece that was so delicate it was easy to miss. “These are black gold surface anchors with white opals made by Body Vision in Los Angeles,” he said while showing where they would be placed on the face. “They make almost all of our gold jewelry.”
By working with high-end manufacturers in the states, Zack can get better quality jewelry, faster, and order custom designs. Those designs sometimes enter production.
Economic Bubble
Open for almost six months, business could not be better. Zack and Kaitlin still work in the evenings, and they still don’t splurge on themselves. They are also fully part of the community.
He is a member of the Body Art Work Group of the Michigan Department of Community Health and is working with the City of Grand Rapids on developing scarification regulations. She is a member of the Eastown Business Association.
All the profits from the boutique are plowed back into the business. “Instead of selling junk and making a ton of money, I would rather buy another gold barbell or burl wood ear plug for someone who appreciates it,” said Zack.
Kaitlin, who handles client intake and prep, showed me around the the separated contaminated and sterilization rooms that Zack designed and built. Everything can be accessed without using hands. “There’s nothing like this place in West Michigan. But we still keep working,” she said.
Looking ahead, Zack is inspired by his time in Oregon, where small towns could support a chain of world-class piercing studios. “I am not a capitalist, but I want to create an economic bubble in the area,” he said.
“I want us to keep growing so that we can use the profits to open more shops so that we can provide opportunities for more people to get into this business.”
One day there may be a garden of Kitten Flower Boutiques across the region.

Steven Geoffrey de Polo, a resident of Grand Rapids, works in nonprofit fundraising. He also serves on the board of the Creative Youth Center and writes a monthly column for Revue Magazine.
Photography by Adam Bird
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