TRAVERSE CITY — Kourtni Rader always seems to be answering questions about her fashion sense.
“Whenever I would go to Korea and come back wearing gorgeous, funky, unique shoes, people would come up to me and ask, 'Where’d you get those shoes?'” she said.
The same thing happened with her clothing, and Rader would always have to answer, “In Korea.”
Those hard-to-find, one-of-a-kind, latest fashions from Korea are a bit easier to locate these days since Rader opened a clothing boutique in downtown Traverse City called SeoulSisters Boutique with her sisters Morgan Dix and Whitney Richardson. The sisters share a soul saga that begins with adoption, includes the unexpected death of a beloved sister, also adopted, and continues with the opening of the store on East Front Street.
The story behind the SeoulSisters Boutique is a circuitous one. The three sisters were born in South Korea to different families, and under different circumstances were relinquished to an adoption agency to be sent to an American family in Michigan. Here, they became part of a larger sibling group of 12, which included their sister, Jennifer Mills.
Dix, Rader, and their mother, Susan Mills, traveled to Korea in 2010, where Dix’s search for her birth mother was successful. That experience put Rader on the path to open her first SeoulSisters project, SeoulSisters Tours and Travel, in 2012. She also continued to work with overseas adoptees. She previously worked in public policy for Holt International, which pioneered Korean adoptions to the United States after the Korean War.
After the death of their sister, Jennifer Mills, in January 2013, Rader said she needed to do something to help her sisters work through their grief and to ensure Jennifer's memory would live on. One night, a month later, she brainstormed the idea of the boutique, and called Dix and Richardson the next day.
“I had this crazy idea … what do you think?” she recalled telling her siblings. “I wanted to give my sisters something to continue our sister’s legacy."
They had the boutique up and running in a little more than two months. They held the grand opening on Mills' birthday, May 25.
The store is located at the rear of Front Row Center at 140 E. Front Street and features one-of-a-kind fashions and shoes that Rader buys on her trips to Korea.
“On my buying trip in March, I visited over 2,000 vendors and designers, and I purchased from just fifteen,” Rader said. “I’m really, really picky. I hand-pick everything and I only get one or two of each style.”
The boutique also showcases Bead Alex jewelry and Love on the Blocks artwork, both handcrafted by Korean adoptees whom Rader has taken to Korea. Twenty five percent of the proceeds from sales of the designers' merchandise goes through Seoul Sisters to an un-wed mothers fund. Rader said she is an advocate for providing financial assistance to unwed mothers in Korea so they have a choice whether to keep their children or adopt. In Korea, she said, agencies that are set up to counsel unwed mothers are in fact adoption agencies, so there isn’t really a choice for unwed mothers.
Rader works and lives in Portland, Ore. so Richardson and Dix manage the boutique's day-to-day operation. They credit Rader with choosing high-end fashion at mid-range prices.
“Kourtni gets things you can’t get anywhere else,” Richardson said. Dix added, “We want people to feel good and be able to afford our fashions, especially in this economy.”
Dix said Korean climate is very similar to Michigan’s, with hot and humid summers, so the fashions they carry are a good fit for women here.
Both say they are pleased with customers' reaction to the store.
“We’re busy,” Richardson said, “This is our prime time; this is our Christmas.”
Many of the styles carried in the store are of soft, flowing, fabrics with immaculate attention to details, such as embellished collars on blouses or dresses. Rader said she keeps their merchandise unique.
“It’s what sets us apart,” she said.
Their focus on philanthropy also sets them apart, said Rader, who sees the boutique as a way to continue their sister’s legacy. They are establishing the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun Fund,” that will provide grant money to allow other sisters to do something fun together.
“We want sisters in the area to experience things together that they might not be able to otherwise afford to do, whether it’s take a bottle of wine out on the bay and enjoy a sunset, or run the Boston Marathon,” Rader said.
Seoul Sisters Boutique will award the initial grant on their sister’s birthday on the first anniversary of their opening May 25, 2014.