In 2020, one of the hardest years in living memory to start a business, Lily Sanford rolled up her sleeves and opened the doors to Lilbelle Boutique in South End. It was the culmination of a lifetime spent in the fashion retail industry under the nurturing wing of an entrepreneurial mother.
“While I’m the sole owner of the business, this was really a family effort,” Lily shares. “My older sister Caroline is an extremely talented graphic designer and responsible for my branding and many interior decisions. My oldest sister, Katie, helped me with business logistics and she accompanies me on buying trips. Her husband is a tech guru and graciously helped me with all things technology. And my mom helped me make this a reality. She saw my potential and believed in me from a young age and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Despite the myriad struggles of the year, Lilbelle has emerged a thriving, brightly colored, and airy boutique, guided by a young proprietor whose sunny disposition has the power to shine through others’ stormy days.
Read on to learn more about one of South End’s newest retail additions and the equal parts of pluck and style that set it apart.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Connecticut. After living through too many winters, I ventured down south to Davidson College. I loved Davidson and knew I never wanted to move back North.
You got your start working in your mom’s store at age four. How did that sculpt your passion for the fashion industry?
I remember customers asking my mom, “…Are you sure she can ring me up?” and my mom was like, “Oh yeah, she’s more than fine. You’re in good hands.” I don’t think it really sculpted my passion for the fashion industry, as I’m not your typical fashion lover, but subconsciously it really helped my wardrobe (my closet was the go-to borrowing closet in high school and college) and sense of style. Working at a young age for my mom taught me how to work hard and how to relate to people older than me. Retail isn’t that glamorous, so I’m glad the fashion aspect isn’t what sparked my interest in entrepreneurship.
What did you do before you started working on Lilbelle Boutique?
Right out of college I went through Belk’s Retail Development Program, where I was an assistant buyer in men’s clothing. I learned the ins and outs of how a business runs on a macro level and had some really cool opportunities to launch brands, such as Chubbies, which reignited my entrepreneurial flame. I left in the fall of 2019. Sitting at a desk ultimately wasn’t fulfilling my entrepreneurial needs. Serendipitously, my mom needed help running her incredibly successful boutique because she had seriously injured her back. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to move home for a year to learn from my mom in preparation for starting Lilbelle Boutique. It was the best career and family decision I’ve ever made.
Opening a business in 2020 is no easy feat.
It surely isn’t. I decided to open the store in the fall of 2019 before COVID-19 was a thing, so I didn’t really have an option not to open in 2020. I worked with my mom when the pandemic hit in spring 2020, and it taught me invaluable lessons as a business owner, like how to still serve your customers and be a bright spot when the world feels like it’s falling apart. While the rest of the world was shutting down, we maintained a strong presence in our small town, which didn’t go unnoticed. Quitting wasn’t and isn’t an option for me, especially when you’ve poured so much time into something and feel incredibly emotionally connected to it. As tough as things can be, I am as prepared as I could ever be.
Why did you set up shop in South End?
I lived in South End prior to owning the business and love it here; I rarely venture out of my little bubble. South End had so many places to eat and drink, but nowhere to shop so it just felt right. I also really love that the area is walkable!
What sets you apart from other Charlotte boutiques?
Well, for one, I am in my shop every single day… right now at least. I want to cultivate personal relationships with my customers, because honestly that’s why I love what I do. I love when customers keep coming back just to see what’s new and update me on their lives! There are plenty of places in Charlotte that you can go to get a cute outfit.
Describe a typical Lilbelle customer.
Honestly, I’ve had so many different types of customers and I love that. I don’t love to target a certain age group, but rather like to attract a lifestyle. I attract the woman who buys with a purpose, whether she’s going somewhere (granted there aren’t many places to go in 2020) or she simply wants to update her seasonal wardrobe. My customer is on-trend and spends money on quality pieces. I get all types of women, but my favorite encounters are moms shopping with their daughters, and I love when they can both find something they love (or share!).
Describe the process of building the business. Who did you work with to make it a reality?
In terms of the build out for the store, I have to thank Kazebee Design for helping me with the architectural layout of the store and to Fine Grit for making our vision of my built-in fixtures come to life. I hired Balfour Beatty as my general contractor, which was the best decision since we literally share a wall. The storefront (which wasn’t a storefront prior to Lilbelle) was painted by the insanely talented Jen Hill. She captured my bright, tropical aesthetic with the mural outside!