FARGO — What do you get when you find two young moms who specialize in family law, share a love for high-quality children’s clothing and have realized their professional careers threaten to overtake the time they wanted to raise their children?
In the case of Elle Risbrudt and Ashley Halvorson, you get
. Operating from a prime location inside the historic Loretta building, 210 Broadway, Vella fills a 3,000-square-foot space with diminutive dresses, tot-sized jeans and wee onesies for the well-dressed, Instagram-ready kiddo on the go.
In addition to clothing from casual to formal and from newborn to size 8, the boutique sells toys, blankets, swaddles, outerwear, accessories and some preemie items as well as mom swag and breastfeeding accessories.
This setting is posh — with huge storefront windows, exposed-brick walls and original hardwood floors — yet kid-friendly. On any given day, you might see dapper preschoolers running between clothing racks or coloring busily at the kids’ activity table.
In fact, those kiddos are sometimes family members: Mason Halvorson, 3, Addisen Halvorson, 1, and Parker Risbrudt, 17 months.
After all, the ability to merge work and family was the reason Vella was formed in the first place.
From plea bargains to end-of-season bargains
The backgrounds of the women behind Vella are strikingly similar.
Halvorson and Risbrudt both grew up in the same Fargo neighborhood and attended the same schools. Both graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law — although Halvorson graduated a year earlier. And both came to realize that the rigid structure and long hours of their work were not always conducive to raising babies and young children.
“I worked at a great firm with a lot of great attorneys, but I never really felt fulfilled with the practice of law itself,” Risbrudt said in a joint video interview with Halvorson. “I remember thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I leaving my daughter to go work a job that doesn’t even make me happy?’”
Risbrudt already had heard about Halvorson, who actually loved practicing law but had walked away from the profession a year earlier to devote more time to family. Halvorson’s solution had been to open
Looking for advice and perspective, Risbrudt reached out to Halvorson. They met for drinks — and talked for hours.
The connection came at the ideal time. Halvorson’s online business was rapidly outgrowing her home. “I was at the point where I didn’t know which direction to grow and how I wanted to do it,” she says, “and I also knew, with the brick and mortar, my goal was to be a mom more, and starting a brick-and-mortar alone would be difficult at least. I knew Elle had similar goals and aspirations in life, so that’s why I started that topic with her.”
It didn’t happen right away, but over time, Halvorson asked the question: Would you like to be a partner and build a physical store together?
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Risbrudt recalls. “It kind of felt like one of those things that was meant to be.”
She laughs as she imagines what husband, Nick, thought when she broke the news. “God bless him,” Risbrudt says. “I came home one day and said, ‘I don’t want to work as any attorney anymore and oh, by the way, I’m going to open up a children’s store.’ And his response was, ‘What do you need from me?’ Let’s do this.’”
“I’m so thankful he was my biggest cheerleader.”
Babystepping toward brick-and-mortar
It wasn’t the easiest shift to transition from practicing law to opening a storefront, yet the partners quickly realized their legal training would come in handy.
“I’m someone who believes you don’t ever stop learning at anything you do,” Halvorson says. “The background I had as an attorney really helped. It gave me that analytical thinking ability that helped when dealing with vendors, or dealing with all the legal documents from vendors.”
Last fall, they expanded Vella into a pop-up store in
The Local Collective,
a West Acres Shopping Center space which is reserved for start-ups looking to “test drive” what it’s like to operate a physical retail space.
“We are really grateful to West Acres for allowing us to have that opportunity in the mall and for people to get to know us and to let us get our feet wet in respect to the brick-and-mortar set-up,” Risbrudt says. “It was a really good learning experience for us. We had a lot of success there and we actually pretty quickly outgrew the space.”
Then they learned of an available space downtown: a spot once occupied by Fowler’s Heritage Company and
Pinch and Pour
on the first floor of
Kilbourne Group’s Loretta Building.
“We’ve been there. The interesting part about it, is when we’re in the store and mom is trying to talk but her 3 year old keeps getting into things, she’ll give me that mom look, like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And we’re like, ‘We get it. Hey, why don’t you come over here and color?’”
Elle Risbrudt, who co-owns Vella Kids’ Boutique with Ashley Halvorson.
“From the beginning, our goal was to be downtown,” Risbrudt says. “We wanted to be a part of that downtown business community with other small business owners. It’s just more inviting, from our perspective.”
After the lease was signed, husbands Nick and Matt Halvorson, jumped in to build the cash wrap and displays. Their spouses also stepped up to watch their little ones when the women found themselves working until midnight to set up the store.
Vella Kids Boutique held its grand opening Feb. 12. In the spirit of its online origins, Vella continues to sell high-quality, boutique brands like Appaman, Baby Sprouts, City Mouse, Magnetic Me, Mushie and Sweet Bamboo.
Halvorson says she chose these brands because they were the same reliable brands she grew to value as a parent.
The average price point is $40, but the partners say their clothing is built to last.
“It’s a higher price point than most,” Halvorson says. “The reason we have done that is that is really where you see the quality become better. I’ve had the same outfit for my toddler for a full year and then I can pass it on. And it doesn’t get destroyed in the wash on the first wash. It lasts longer, the quality is good, it’s a softer material and it doesn’t have the tags on the neckline where it’s itching your baby. The feedback we get from customers is that it’s good quality and they like seeing that we have those brands.”
Most of these brands have a softness that the customer can feel and a workmanship that is immediately visible. Garments are made from ultra-soft fabrics like
, a type of cotton whose longer, silkier cotton fibers produce a strong but cuddly fabric, Halvorson says.
“People can see and feel the difference,” Risbrudt says. “They’ll say, ‘I wish they made these in adult sizes.’”
Designed with moms in mind
In fact, Halvorson and Risbrudt both believe their parenting experience has given them an advantage in terms of running a store.
When planning the store layout, they made sure racks were spaced far enough apart to accommodate a stroller and that anything breakable was displayed well above a preschooler’s grasp.
They’ve also created a centralized activity table where children of customers can color, draw or play so parents can shop without worrying that their child is dismantling a window display.
“We’ve been there,” Risbrudt says. “The interesting part about it, is when we’re in the store and mom is trying to talk but her 3 year old keeps getting into things, she’ll give me that mom look, like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And we’re like, ‘We get it. Hey, why don’t you come over here and color?'”
Although the two women still work long hours as entrepreneurs, they appreciate that those hours are more flexible.
“There are days when we work until midnight or later, but we were able to go to our kids’ swimming lesson that day,” Halvorson says. “Or if you want to spend some time with your kid outside, or whatever it might be, you still can work pretty much from everywhere.”
Adds Risbrudt: “It honestly feels like we’re living a dream right now. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, besides kids and marriage. It’s the best decision I could have made for our professional life. My heart is so full being able to do this.”
Vella’s hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Beginning April 1, store hours will extend to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
The owners still maintain their online store at
. They offer in-store pickup or shipping, with free shipping on orders over $100.
Follow the business on Instagram @vellakidsboutique.
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