Gal Friday, Every Day of the Week

Heather McGartland lives her art. Beautician, musician and thrift maven, McGartland operates Imagination Creations, a distinct shop and salon lushly decorated with merchandise and ever-changing ephemera. She deftly fashions stylish hairdos and manages her resale shop, all while swathed in uniquely chic garments of her own creation. In December, McGartland celebrated the first year in her new location on Diamond Avenue. I sat down with her to discuss her growing business, creative richness and personal style.

Imagination Creations is a natural extension of McGartland. The venture began when she owned a large house in Eastown, where she operated a salon out of her basement. Her stylistic tendencies spilled into each room of her home. Every space was adorned with objects on display, from musical instruments commingled with mannequin parts to a room dedicated to vintage hats and other bits of whimsy.

No stranger to business, McGartland truly began her career at the retail store The Limited. “I was born in Detroit metro. I transferred out of the Limited and I took over the West Michigan district. I had Indiana, south of Indiana, Kalamazoo, Holland and Grand Rapids,” she says. As a regional manager of the well-known clothier, McGartland earned the chops needed to make it in independent business.  

“What I learned there you could never learn in a classroom. It was like going to school and getting a Masters in retail operations and, more importantly, customer expectations,” says McGartland. After years of service, she was eventually eliminated from the company, which proved to be a positive transition. “I was so loyal to that company. I was a company girl. I would have never left,” she explains. “When my life drastically changed at 30, I took a year off. It was the hardest year of my life. But, I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

During that year, McGartland relied on a generous severance package, sought to fulfill personal aspirations and enrolled in cosmetology school. “Hair was something I always wanted to do and I was shooed away from. There was always this expectation that you should do these bigger things,” she says.

 Always innovating, McGartland found a way to go beyond providing bang trims and special event updos. “I had latched onto the emotional side of hair. I worked with people who didn’t have hair, and I ended up working in hair science,” she says. “I worked for a good two years for them and also worked at the mall to do the fun stuff, to do the trendy stuff.”

After exploring independent work as a stylist in her home, McGartland sold the house and transitioned to a live-work space on Division Avenue, among the Dwelling Place artist lofts. “For me, selling a house and choosing to use the Division Street property was a starting point and testing point. Before I really bet the farm, so to speak, I really leaped into starting a business.”

Imagination Creations kicked off with a $250 overhead. The dual-purpose space offered a retail storefront with living quarters in the rear, couched among other working artists. “Division was so great. It allowed me to be sustainable; the costs are low. It allowed me to focus and be 100 percent on the business.” McGartland attributes a lot of her success to a debt free business model. “I own everything outright. I buy outright. That’s been a huge draw for us,” she says.

Following several years of significant growth, McGartland decided to transition into a new space. “I turned 40 last year. I set a bar for myself. At 40, I wanted certain things in place in life.” Along with the growth of her company, McGartland was not only ready to upgrade certain features of her shop, but she also was aware of the purpose of the Dwelling Place live-work apartments. “I felt like I was using the place -- I was no longer a start up,” she says. “Coming to the new Diamond Avenue location in East Hills is awesome.”

In addition to moving onward and upward, McGartland also is shifting her focus. “I’m still able to do everything I used to do, but I can now turn the work side off of myself,” she says. “But, I’m still driving home thinking, what’s the costume and theme for tomorrow?” And though she now lives offsite in Jenison, old habits die hard. “I sleep here quite a bit. I use the back area as an art studio.” Her creative mark covers every inch of the shop, looking much like her former house in Eastown, where merchandise displays appear more like still life scenes. “I always say that this is my version of a temper tantrum,” she says.
While McGartland still enjoys the hairstyling that is ultimately the bread and butter of her shop, she is seeking a 50/ 50 split between the retail component of Imagination Creations and the salon. In addition to selling everything from handmade jewelry created by her mother, Suzy, to vintage garments and ornamental curios, McGartland is adding furniture sales into the mix. “I’m lucky that I get to do a little bit of everything all day long so I never get bored.”

Beyond business savvy, McGartland exudes her own brand of chic, which manifests through fashion as much as her other artful creations. “I’ve always worked with what life dealt me,” she says. “I never really thought I had a style. For me, getting dressed was such a challenge. At one point in life I was over 200 lbs. and working around my disaster. There were so many things that people wore. And I was always frustrated with that, and I had to start making my own clothes.” McGartland compares herself to Tammy Fay Baker; emotions direct her choices, and she understands the power clothing and makeup have on mood.  “I [dress] to please myself, because I’m incredibly hard to please. For me, getting dressed is really about me dealing with me.” But sometimes it is just simple, creative expression. “Lately I’ve been really into beehives. This is my version of a ponytail,” says McGartland.

“I did exactly what I said I always wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in business, I knew I wanted to do fashion,” says McGartland. “I’m really pleased with everything in this shop.”

Audria Larsen, freelance writer for REVUE Magazine, is the  founder of Audacious Hoops hula hoop company, teaches Hoop Dance Fusion classes, heads the Atomic Hoop Troupe, performs with Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, is headmistress of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School Grand Rapids, produces Shimmy Shack Burlesque and is an occasional model. She also attends Aquinas College. 
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