Startup Spotlight: Parliament the Boutique

Sometimes things are right under our nose when we’re looking for them high and low everywhere else.

If you haven’t had a chance to go to Avenue for the Arts' First Friday’s events, then not only have you been missing out on one of the most intriguing events of the week, but you may have also not had the chance to stumble upon the dynamic duo of Elyse Marie Welcher and Jake Vroon’s shop known as Parliament the Boutique, which houses both of their respective businesses, Littlewings Design and Harbinger Leather. 

We caught up with the business duo and couple to find out the latest rumblings on the avenue.

RG: What date did you launch? Why did you start Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather?

EW: Littlewings Designs launched in 2010 while Elyse was still a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and was technically her senior capstone project, before she first put it into the world using Etsy in the summer of 2010.

JV: Harbinger Leather Design launched in 2012, after Jake discovered leather working in college when he was hunting for the perfect messenger bag, and couldn’t find just the right thing, so he decided to make it for himself. After rebuilding that first bag around half a dozen times, he decided he liked working with leather and to just keep making stuff!

EW&JV: We both launched our businesses and stuck with it because first, we are both really independent people and didn’t want to see our energies poured into systems and places that didn’t value people; and second, because it was right after the economic crash of ‘08/’09, and for both of us, it was like why not, we aren’t getting hired anywhere else! My (Elyse’s) degree is literally in Accessory Design, and my industry had been in a virtual hiring freeze for three years at the time I graduated college in 2010, with that many years of graduates ahead of me to compete with for jobs if I was going to get involved in the traditional corporate scene. For Jake, he was entirely self-taught, and breaking into that corporate scene was of zero interest to him. Both of us came at it with an attitude of “There’s no better time than now,” and have kept that up!

RG: What is at the core of Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather? Where have you been and how has the journey been?

EW&JV: The core of each of our brands has always been centered around the value of handcrafted quality, from both an economic and an eudaimonic perspective; how is owning handcrafted, locally made goods not only a wiser economic choice in terms of products being better made and longer lasting, as well as keeping economic energy within your own community, but how supporting those goods and their makers also leads to a higher quality of life and well-being. 

Starting out, it’s really tough to launch a business alone, and be able to grow it to the point that it becomes your full-time gig. We were really lucky to meet each other in that stage of growth, and to be able to combine our talents together to support each other’s work, while still maintaining our own creative brands and voices. Maintaining the two brands has been intentional, and we’re able to voice a myriad of our artistic visions and problem solving skills by keeping them that way, which is also super rewarding.

The other portion of our journey has been owning and operating Parliament the Boutique together. I (Elyse) launched the business in 2013, but Jake was involved from the get-go. It has been a tough and crazy journey of navigating a business that frankly started out as an experiment, that had a third partner involved for part of it, and that in many ways has grown to be bigger than its combined parts. We now have finally landed in an ideal location on South Division that allows us to operate our retail shop, have our studio and production on-site, and has room for our continued growth over the next several years; we’re very excited about how this space has allowed us so many opportunities for collaboration, and can’t wait to see where it’s going to take us next!

RG: What are Littlewings Designs and Harbinger Leather's plans for this new year? Any new releases or shows you are looking forward to?

EW&JV: This question leads nicely from the last! Actually, this year, we are launching a new business and rebranding Parliament. Over the course of the last five years, we have learned extensively that our retail space serves not only as a shopping destination for those who are passionate about handcrafted, high quality goods, but also as a showroom for potential wholesale and large-scale production clients. Much of Harbinger Leather Designs’ work over the years has been private label work for local brands such a Woosah, Victor Axe + Tool, and even Horween Leather out of Chicago, and Littlewings Designs sells wholesale to around 35 boutiques around the country; our store has proved to be a fantastic little “garden” for seeding and fruiting independent, private label, and wholesale client work.

We also recently had a partner exit Parliament, and have thusly decided this is the perfect juncture to rebrand and take a new direction that better reflects those goals. From a public perspective, it will still be the same shop focused on creating a space that is a crossroads for makers and their community, but with a new name and branding that is more focused on Jake and I as a couple, and our back story (we’re not releasing the name yet, but it is centered around us being both born under the sign of Gemini), and with an internal value proposition of formalizing our offerings in private label, wholesale, and collaboration work for other brands. Keep tuned for the announcement of our new brand the first of March, and an official transition party at the end of March!

RG: What is it like having a live/work space on the Avenue for the Arts?

EW&JV: Similarly to our business journey, it is tough but also really rewarding, and very educational. Jake and I both came from fairly sheltered backgrounds, and getting involved in this community has been very humbling and has had a steep learning curve. There are some fantastic perks: we have awesome neighbors, live in a community of talented makers and artists, we’re within walking distance to an awesome food and nightlife scene here in GR, and have been fortunate enough to live in/next to our working spaces for the last five years.

We’ve learned that as able-bodied community members, it’s not just to our advantage to advocate for neighborhood improvements and additional measures to ensure safety, but that we have a duty to do so. Many of our close neighbors and fellow Heartside dwellers are disabled, elderly, shut-in, and often are without transportation; many of them lack the ability and energy to advocate for themselves in terms of basic human rights, such as working toward getting a public restroom in this neighborhood, or demanding more pedestrian lighting and law-enforcement to make safe transit by foot more possible for everyone. We are constantly thinking about how our actions both impact our own financial security, as well as how that advocacy is making positive change for the well-being of all our neighbors, not just us. For us, that comes down to working toward more safety measures, increased community cooperation, and public awareness/education about the realities rather than the rumors, of living and working in Heartside.

RG: What role does making/crafting have in our society? How does making/crafting fit into your everyday life outside of work?

EW&JV: We truly believe that making and crafting is a critical conduit for processing our human experience; making art or goods is a way of physically manifesting the energetic ideas within our hearts and minds. For us, it is a continued extension of our values, of living a life well-lived and not just financially earned.

Our wedding was one of the biggest demonstrations of this. We made most of it ourselves—the decor, the flowers, our gifts for our wedding party—we even made our own rings with Abbey Hunter at the Hot Spot GR! And I wore my mother’s wedding dress, both as a way to reuse a beautiful heirloom with family value, and also to not waste money on a very expensive gown that I would only wear one day.

Currently, we’re looking at buying a house, as we love living downtown, but it’s difficult to have a family in a one-room flat. As we house-hunt, we’re looking for spaces with history that we can preserve and renovate utilizing our DIY skills, and that also continue to allow us to be sustainable in our commute and live/work balance, by sticking within a couple miles of our current shop and therefore being able to walk, bike, and/or take the Silver Line into work everyday.  

RG: What are some of your favorite things about owning your own business? What are the downsides?

EW&JV: We love the freedom, of being able to make decisions for our life/family in a way that holistically support our values. We choose our work hours, and are able to bring the skills we love into our work every single day. And we both love being designers! It’s our passion, and to share that together is an amazing blessing. The downside is that managing it all is really tough. No one thinks about how difficult it is to write your paychecks, manage the finances of three businesses, and keep everything running smoothly while also remembering to eat, sleep, and be a healthy human! And taxes are really an annual nightmare, haha. But we wouldn’t trade it for all the world; Jake and I often say, we are ride or die when it comes to this life.

RG: What are your hopes for the small business scene in Grand Rapids and Michigan at large?

EW&JV: We have a rich and deep history here in Michigan of design, production, and businesses that when started, had the intention of working toward the common good. In a lot of aspects, we lost our way in the last 50 years: the fall of Detroit, the fall-out of manufacturing, the shipping overseas of valuable jobs and production that were the backbone of our local economy. My hope is that the many small businesses like ours, who are creating a sustainable network of production and collaboration, will continue to be a foundational part of Michigan’s economic recovery for years to come. You can’t build a strong foundation without bricks and mortar; the big businesses are the bricks, and the little ones like us are the mortar that holds it all together.

With continued clarification and activism, I think Grand Rapids is poised to be a leading location in this type of economic rebuilding for a long time, so long as we work together and continue to broaden the web of communication between these many entities, and understand that there aren’t “black/white” solutions to these problems. Big business isn’t all bad; small businesses aren’t all heroes. If we can see the complexity of our ecosystem with more clarity, we will continue to see abundance and growth; if we devolve into dividing and segmenting, we will fall back into the same scarcity-based thinking that led to much of the greed and crumbling of our local economy in the first place.

You can visit Parliament the Boutique at 136 S. Division or here. Elyse’s work with Littlewings Design can be seen here and Jake’s work at Harbinger Leather is here.

Their Instagram accounts can also be found here: Parliament the Boutique, Littlewings Design, and Harbinger Leather

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Images courtesy of Parliament the Boutique.
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