There were times in Estilo’s 15-year history that Stephanie Coultress O’Neill was scrambling to keep the clothing boutique open.
Times when she’d call the landlord or the vendors promising to make a payment on Monday because she believed she could sell five dresses that weekend to do so.
Times when she’d postpone picking up the merchandise she’d ordered and then rush into the UPS office at the 7 p.m. deadline five days later with her cash on delivery check so UPS wouldn’t be forced to send everything back.
Times when she’d be up at night looking at spreadsheets hoping to figure out how to keep her dream alive, even though she knew she was going against the recession that was hitting Austin.
"I was the fat people cut out," she says.
People stopped coming downtown to shop. People who were working downtown stopped taking a break from work to shop because they feared losing their jobs. People stopped spending money on designer clothing or bought only one shirt when they used to buy five, plus a cute skirt, a pair of pants and a going-out dress.
She changed some of the inventory at Estilo to make it more likely to sell under this new normal. She cut out staff because she couldn’t afford them. She made it work, she says, because she didn’t have children yet, and her boyfriend (now husband), Todd O’Neill, was supportive and would pitch in to help.
She kept inviting friends to come for a drink, and then that drink would turn into a "let me show you what we just got into Estilo" pitch to get them to come into the store and shop, even if the store was closed for the night.
Right after the recession began, her Estilo partner Cami Cobb left the business.
"This is everything," she says. "We have to be here every day to make it happen." That wasn’t so easy.
O’Neill felt a bit stuck because there was a 10-year lease she couldn’t really afford, but the landlord worked with her because she was always transparent and communicating how it was going, what her receipts were and what she expected in the coming days.
O’Neill began to see stores around Estilo close. "I was not as bad," she says. "I was able to endure."
And endure she did. She survived more than 10 years downtown on Second Street, then took a leap to move the business to Tarrytown. She went from having both women’s and menswear to having just women’s, then to offering both again but in two separate stores in the same retail center.
And she’s done it with major life changes, including going from being single to getting married, and then having two daughters.
O’Neill, 43, lived in San Antonio and the Valley before moving to Austin as a kid. She went to Westwood High School and then the University of Texas, where she got an undergraduate degree and master’s in psychology. She planned to be a child and family therapist and even practiced for three years. She liked being part of people’s lives, but, she says, "I couldn’t leave it at the office."
She says she loved every aspect of working with people, but she also loved fashion and working in retail. She had been working evenings at a Giada Rocco boutique on Sixth Street, which is where she met Cobb.
She felt like retail was a better fit for her personality, because it’s a way to make people happy, plus she says she "loved buying the clothes."
She did learn that she couldn’t just buy clothing for herself and be successful as a boutique owner. She’s learned what sells and what doesn’t.
Now, she sends all the slow-moving merchandise to Le Garage Sale twice a year, and she has her own sale three days before. Le Garage Sale, which is happening this weekend, is where boutique owners bring excess inventory to the Palmer Events Center and sell it for deals.
She knows that she hasn’t really left the psychology degree behind.
"That’s how I endured the recession," she says.
She knew how to give clients a great experience and how to read what they are looking for and offer solutions. She knew how to create and maintain relationships.
She describes herself as "naive but bright-eyed" when she decided to open Estilo, which is Spanish for "style." She used money from family and a small business loan to open it. She remembers creating a PowerPoint to secure the loan.
They secured a space in the new Second Street District with a 10-year lease, but instead of it opening in fall 2004, the space wasn’t ready to open until July 2005. It was definitely opened on a budget. She used painted PVC pipe as her clothing racks, and her whole family was involved in getting it ready to open.
O’Neill ended up selling all of her personal furniture in her condo and turning her condo into a temporary showroom because they had already ordered all the stock for the new store that wasn’t opening yet. That’s when she began having people over for drinks and having them shop her condo.
Some of that same feeling continues to this day at Estilo, where there might be a glass of wine as part of the shopping experience, and it does feel like you’re shopping a curated collection of clothing with experts who can tell you what will look good on you. It’s kind of like shopping your stylish best friend’s closet.
Frequent shoppers have been known to gather in the store to celebrate a birthday with friends. Sometimes they buy something, sometimes they don’t, but it’s become a welcoming place with trusted style experts.
The downtown store opening came with its own drama when the air conditioning went out and had to be patched together at the last minute.
Despite a shaky start, Estilo built a following of professional men and women who might be looking for stylish things to wear at the office as well as something unique and fun for after work.
The downtown store did have a men’s store, and the menswear did very well at that store. "We had very loyal customers," she says.
Even with that loyal following, O’Neill started to question whether this really would be doable, especially once she had children. She began to realize that the only reason this worked once she had kids was because they could rely on Todd’s salary and benefits. "It would have been tough," she says, if she had been alone.
She just continued to have this sense that "I can’t let this it fail," she says. Midway through the 10-year lease, she began to ask herself, "What’s my exit from this?" she says. She gave it five more years to complete the lease.
And when that lease came up, she went month-to-month and began to ask herself, "What if I moved?" Perhaps downtown wasn’t the right space.
When she considered the move, she again made a PowerPoint and pitched Estilo to the landlord in Tarrytown, which had an opening when a kids shoe store was closing. And somehow she received funding, even after years of making partial payments and late payments.
Estilo in Tarrytown opened November 2015, and the downtown store stayed open until that New Year’s Eve. Husband Todd O’Neill, whose parents were in the home remodeling business, helped design the space. He and his dad drove a stone slab for the counters down from outside Pittsburgh, where he grew up.
O’Neill might never have considered moving her downtown store to Tarrytown if her own life hadn’t changed. She met Todd O’Neill when her longest friend, whom she’s known since kindergarten, was working on a project with Todd, who was a consultant. "He’s kind of your type," she was told.
He was working on a project in Colorado and they dated long-distance until he got a project in Austin. Right before their fifth anniversary, he proposed. They were married two years later and then had two daughters.
They had moved out of the downtown condo and into a Tarrytown house. She began to hang out at that shopping center where there are essential things like a grocery store and Starbucks, as well as boutique shopping.
The store is across from Casis Elementary, which is why Estilo opens at 8 a.m., sometimes earlier, as customers show up post-carpool dropoff. The 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. hour is busy. "Meet your client where your client is at," she says.
She also has been known to leave the store in the afternoon, walk across the street to pick up daughter Lillian, 8, and then head back to the store. Next year, Lillian’s sister, Madison, 5, will also be across the street.
"I can still be the mom I want to be and do the business I love," she says. And that sentiment extends to the employees, many of whom are also moms and might work a part-time schedule for work-life balance.
Estilo found success in this location because it’s where the store’s buyers are.
Suddenly O’Neill could fully stock the store. She was no longer always on the phone with the bank or the vendors to try to beg for more time before paying the bill or working out deals to make partial payments. She could add more designer brands. She added shoes, too.
She says people often think this store is bigger than the downtown store, but it’s the same size. It just has more stuff in it. "It looks full," she says.
She’s no longer having to try to cover up not having as many styles as she would like.
She’s also considering adding more offerings, including style boxes that would be filled with things picked for you to try and then decide whether to buy.
When she moved Estilo to the Tarrytown location, that retail center already had a men’s clothing store, so she only moved the women’s collection and got rid of the men’s. She would give her male clients or the women who shop for them tips on where to shop, but it was always a couple of different stores instead of one store with all the brands she had been known to carry.
When a spot in the retail strip opened after the previous men’s store had long been closed, it gave her the chance to relaunch a men’s store last fall. The two stores now have umbrellas in case of rain to help customers go between the two during bad weather.
When O’Neill looks back at those first 10 years, she thinks of a lot of sleepless nights. "I never want to go back," she says.
"It still feels surreal," she says, now that she can fill the store with merchandise and not worry about whether she can pay for it.
"It’s the right place for us," she says. "I feel very blessed."
She says now, "I can have the store I want to have."