Last month, I had the distinct honor of walking in the Fashion Forward: A Catwalk for Charity event at The Sylvee, on behalf of Z Boutique. Z Boutique is a locally-owned plus-size boutique, specializing in women’s sizes 14-24.

As someone who has ranged in size from 8-18 over the years, I have had a wide variety of experiences shopping in the Madison area, with varied levels of customer service, from downright shameful, to absolutely exceptional.

Z Boutique and its owner, Zoe Schuler, promote body positivity and inclusivity. In working with her and her mother, Marvel, to prep for the show, I immediately felt as though I belonged.

I love that they use local women as models, highlighting the wonderful diversity of their customer base on both their web site and social media. In fact, I got to do a photo shoot at the shop last weekend as well. It was so fun!

Formerly Z.Bella Boutique, the shop just celebrated its 6th anniversary of being in business, and recently relocated from Middleton to the west side of Madison. If you haven’t had a chance to stop-in yet, I’d like to introduce you to this wonderful shop here in town via an interview with the owner, Zoe.

Tell us a little bit about your background…what lead you to open a clothing boutique? 

My first job was as a sales associate at Cornblooms at age 15, a locally owned shoe store at Hilldale Mall. I worked at Cornblooms all through High School. Then at Heartland Birkenstock (which was renamed to Madison Sole) on State Street during college.

After graduating from the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison with a Bachelor of Science in Consumer Science, I moved to Florida for a few years to work in event planning. I loved my job, but did not love living in Florida. So I moved back to Madison to get a degree in Meeting & Event Management from Madison College. While enrolled in that program, I was hired back at Madison Sole as the Assistant Manager.

Just before graduating from Madison College, I was promoted to Manager at Cornblooms. I took the job assuming it would be nice to have some stability while I searched for an event planning job. However, I ended up really loving it because I enjoyed the responsibility that came with running a store. I loved working with the owner and our general manager/buyer to make Cornblooms something really special.

In retail, every day is different. We had great customers, employees, and quality product that I felt good selling. However, I was surprised to find out how much event planning I was able to do as the manager of a footwear boutique. We had special events and promotions often and that is where I really got to shine.

After working closely with my bosses and learning so much about the industry, I knew I wanted to own my own business someday. Cornblooms was female-run and it inspired and showed me that I could do it too.

At the same time, I was on a mission to dress fashionably for work. As a result, I found myself constantly ordering plus-size clothing online and then returning it like crazy. The UPS guy and I were on a first name basis! It was hard to find clothing that was age appropriate (I was in my late 20’s) and of decent quality. The fit was all over the board, which is what lead to all of those returns.

Locally, I felt like my only options were either to dress like a teenager by shopping the plus-size section at Forever 21 – or like a Grandma by shopping the back corner of Macy’s. Plus, there was no place I felt I could go where the sales associates would actually help me. I grew up shopping at boutiques with my mom, who is not plus size, and knew that I wanted the same level of customer service that she often received. 

The idea of opening a plus-size boutique came after shopping at one in Milwaukee. The owner was young too and I kept thinking, “If she can do it, why can’t I?” I decided to take a class through the UW Entrepreneurial Training Program and was able to write a business plan and work with a mentor. I figured the class would help me decide if it was even realistic to open a plus-size clothing boutique in this area.

After all of my research and meeting with local professionals for advice, my family and I decided to go for it! Now six years later, we have made some big changes (most recently a new location and updated name), but we are still going strong and I am so happy we took that leap.

What makes Z Boutique unique? What is uniquely different about the plus size market from your “average” shop? 

Z Boutique is unique because it is the only exclusively plus-size boutique in the area. Until we opened, plus-size women in Madison had the option of shopping at chain stores or online. There really weren’t many places to get quality customer service and unique and fashionable merchandise in plus-sizes. At Z Boutique, we give customers the “boutique experience” that they deserve and that smaller women get when they shop at boutiques that cater to their sizes. 

We try to make Z Boutique a safe and body-positive space for our customers. We don’t ever want them to feel judged for their size and we encourage them not to compare themselves to anyone else. Our job is to help customers find something that makes them look and, more importantly, feel amazing in the body they are in today.

Who is your target customer? What is the demographic of Z Boutique shoppers? 

Z Boutique customers are women ranging in age from 25-65. Most live in the Madison area. However, more and more women from further away are finding us. We have women who drive in from Dubuque, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Tomah and more. That just tells you how hard it is to find affordable and fashionable plus-size clothing in our area! 

Tell us the story behind the name…you were originally Z.Bella, now Z Boutique. What does the name stand for or mean to you? 

We first opened as Z.Bella Boutique. The Z stands for Zoe (me) and Bella means beautiful in several different languages. It is my goal to help women feel beautiful!

When we moved to our new location on Mineral Point Road, relocating gave us the opportunity to rebrand. The new name was really just us simplifying and dropping our “middle” name. Our customers already know they are “Bella” and even without explicitly stating it in our name. Regardless of the name change, we will continue to help every single person that walks through our door feel and look beautiful.

Co-owners of Z Boutique
Zoe Schuler and Marvel Felton, The Mother/Daughter Team Behind Z Boutique

You work with your mom right? Are the two of you co-owners? Tell us what that working relationship is like…

Yes, my mom and I are co-owners, and we work together really well! She excels in areas where I struggle and vice-versa. I am so thankful to be able to work with my mom. We have so much fun together. 

What are some of your most favorite plus-size brands and why?

Comfy USA – because of the quality and unique styles. The fabrics are so soft. A jacket by Comfy USA was the first “investment piece” I purchased when I started as the Manager at Cornblooms. I had that jacket for YEARS (until my husband put it in the dryer by accident!). So, when we decided to open Z Boutique, I knew we had to sell Comfy USA. Unfortunately, the company is closing at the end of the year due to the owner being ill. However, I hope they will reopen some day.

I love anything that is soft & cozy this time of year. As a result, La Cera and Softies are two of my favorite brands right now.

However, my favorite jeans are by NYDJ – the Sculpt Pull-on Jeans from the Curves 360 collection. Because they are so comfortable! Literally, just the perfect fit. There is no button or fly, yet they actually stay up. Plus, these jeans are perfect for sliding into tall boots in fall/winter or adding a cuff to wear with flats or sneakers in the spring/summer. 

Do you have any upcoming events readers should look forward to?

There are so many fun things happening between now and the end of the year! We love participating in and hosting events in the Madison area.

Z Boutique will be participating in the Wine, Women & Shoes event on November 22 at Monona Terrace, which is a fundraiser and fashion show benefiting the Carbone Cancer Center.  

We will also be at the Madison Women’s Expo next weekend, Saturday and Sunday, November 23-24. We are helping with a makeover contest Brava Magazine is hosting and will also have a booth there. Z Boutique is launching a new line at the Expo too!

Lastly, Friday, December 13th is our Holiday Open House. We will have pop-ups in the boutique, giveaways, swag, food & drink and tons of fun! Check out the Facebook page for more info. And follow us on Instagram!

Remember to shop small this holiday season! And add Z Boutique to your list of local favorites. With jewelry, accessories, candles, etc. there truly is something for every gal in your life!

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