Turning Over a New Leaf: Old Town Boutique Offers Sustainable, Ethical Clothing

Photo by Sheryl Poe.

By Sheryl Poe

It’s the quintessential D.C. story: Girl wants to pursue a career in fashion but decides to take the safer, more stable route and studies law. She works at a law firm, then Justice Department and even the White House, all the while dreaming of shoes and clothes. Finally, with the flip of administrations, girl gets a second chance to pursue her fashion dreams.

That, in short, is the story of how Nicole McGrew finally opened Threadleaf, a sustainable and ethical women’s clothing boutique in Old Town, Alexandria earlier this year. “The idea had been in my head for years,” said McGrew, who studied at the Fashion Technology Institute before changing majors and transferring to Georgetown University to study law in 2002. “I transferred because I just thought it was frivolous and I should do important work, something serious.”

Nicole McGrew. Rashmi Pappu Photography

From the Pennsylvania Avenue to Royal Street

After college, McGrew worked on antitrust law with a private firm for five years, before becoming the assistant general counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs and finally, serving as deputy general counsel to President Barack Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

During her 12 years in law, McGrew became an expert in dressing for the corporate environment, but noticed a lack of sustainable and ethical clothing options for professional women in the Washington, D.C.-metro area. That’s when McGrew’s thoughts on fashion being trivial began to change. “I was always looking for things to wear to work and I liked sustainably-sourced clothing and designers that use fair labor,” she said. “I wanted to look appropriate for work but still be comfortable, and not having to worry about the factory conditions or where the clothes came from. When you look at it that way, it stopped being frivolous. You’re moving the needle on how people buying habits. When we stop supporting sweat shops, when we stop supporting factories that dump dyes and chemicals into their water sources that can have a huge impact.”

The change in administration provided the perfect opportunity for the Rosemont resident to take the leap. “I was thinking about what to do next,” she said. “I had lived her a really long time and I knew there were a lot of women in this area who were like me, looking for professional, comfortable clothing.”

The final push came from a 10th wedding anniversary trip to Amsterdam where she found inspiration while walking the cobblestoned streets. “There were all these cute little independent boutiques and just really great shopping and I thought, ‘I really want to have that,’” McGrew said. “It’s one of those things where you literally have something in your head for so long and I just had to try. You don’t want to be 80-something years old sitting in your senior center and you’re just wondering what if.”

Approaching Retail Like a Lawyer

McGrew began putting her dream into action in August 2017, applying for a business license and scoping out available space. “Honestly, finding a space was the hardest of this whole process. I spent like six months looking for the right place. I walked up and down asking about rents,” she remembers. “I sat in coffee shops counting foot traffic and how many people were walking in, really probably a very lawyerly approach.”

But before she even had a space, she had to find designers and source inventory. She emailed designers that she already knew and wore or had seen in boutiques in Amsterdam and while vacationing in New Hampshire. “That’s one of the reasons I started the store, I was spending a lot of time personally seeking out these designers myself,” McGrew said. “I read something somewhere that said, ‘Do what you would do for free for a living,’ and I was doing this stuff anyway.”

Through those designers, McGrew found out about fashion trade shows focused on sustainable and ethical clothing. But getting into those trade shows before she even had a storefront was another task altogether. “Some of them were hard to get into, especially before I had an actual store. They want to make sure you’re a legitimate business. So I had to build a website and get a letter from Eagle Bank, who were so helpful,” McGrew said. “There were all these chicken/egg questions. But at some point, you just have to do it.”

With inventory on order, the race to find a suitable storefront became even more critical. Luckily, McGrew also had the support of a strong network of female entrepreneurs in Old Town. “I’m friends with the owner of Red Barn Mercantile [Amy Rutherford] and she offered me a corner of her space to set up a small pop-up shop,” McGrew noted. “I go to barre3 and the owner there [Meredith Kaufman] offered me her back studio. There are a lot of women here who have been super helpful, offering advice or tips, and even space if I had needed it.”

Fortunately, McGrew finally found her perfect shop—a 500-square foot space on Royal Street, right below Alexandria & Company (Alx & Co.) jewelers and opened for business on Mother’s Day. “I tried to be as smart about everything as I could, like the space is not that big, so I don’t have a lot of excess inventory. What you see out is what’s out there on display,” McGrew said. “A lot of my designers are really small. They don’t have a lot of quantities. That keeps the store fresh and my customers get something different and unique, something they won’t see on everybody else walking on King Street.”

Good. Clean. Fashion.

Threadleaf’s focus, naturally is on professional, low-maintenance clothes that women feel comfortable buying and wearing. Along the walls are racks of colorful, printed cotton shirt dresses from Zuri Kenya, neutral work and casual tops and dresses from UK-based Beaumont Organic, and leather bags from Stitch and Tickle out of Boston. Shelves hold practical yet stylish shoes from brands such as Elk and Coclico. Handmade sisal baskets from Acacia Creations are nestled under tables holding supersoft hemp t-shirts and tank tops from Jungmaven, while a glass case displays “effortlessly chic” sterling silver jewelry by MM Druck, among others. “I have people who come in the store and say, ‘I literally want to buy everything in here,’ because, again it’s clear and not overwhelming,” said McGrew. “I’m always thinking about ways to rearrange and present things. People gravitate towards things differently, so I’m always tweaking things. Always trying to make it better.”

Threadleaf exterior. Photo by Sheryl Poe.

With the warm welcome she’s gotten from the Old Town community, particularly the Old Town Boutique District and Visit Alexandria, McGrew is making plans for the future, including hiring part-time help. “Right now it’s just me. I wanted a little bit of time, to see the traffic and what days were busy. By the time August rolls around and school starts, I’ll have help.”

She also envisions her shop as a community gathering space for professional women to share their stories and strategies. “I’m thinking about doing something in the fall on power dressing. I had a woman come in recently and say, “Well, you don’t have any suits, there’s nothing I can wear to work.” And I’m thinking, I used to work at the White House and I hardly ever wore suits. If I can get away with it, I think others can too.”

For now, McGrew is putting her lawyer expertise to good use as a shop owner. “Good lawyers always anticipate problems and questions, so that’s how I still think of it. I’m anticipating my clients’ problems,” she said. “I know that feeling when you are in an office and you’re wondering, ‘Is this too low? Is my bra strap showing? Is this appropriate?’ and nobody likes that feeling. I just think about how to make things better, easier, nicer for my customers. I’m happy when they’re happy.”

Threadleaf is located at 121 South Royal Street. It is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. Visit hellothreadleaf.com for more information.