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National Style, Local Roots

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

You may have known Kittsona as a local clothing boutique and unique home goods brand. As we learned, much has changed. The Grand Forks team that started as two is now an employer of more than 100, and is a serious retail- and online-player well-known on the national style scene.

There was a time when Kittsona’s vision for style and home goods focused solely on Grand Forks. For the first nine months of existence, founders of the clothing boutique and lifestyle products retailer yearned to provide a new shopping experience inspired by the traits that matched their unique personalities to a client base of Northern Red River Valley shoppers. That time—when founders Nicole Johnson and Tessa Hiney bootstrapped their vision with a $20,000 loan (they each took out $10k), spent many afternoons and nights swapping out sales floor duties while the other tried to catch up on sleep in the back room and their vision and abilities were only beginning to blossom—didn’t last long. After nine months, Nicole, the self-described guts of the operation, was in a car riding back from Bismarck, North Dakota. She recalls the late summer drive as an early defining moment that helped illuminate a dream only partially realized. “I will never forget that drive,” she says. “We were so excited because we could technically call ourselves a chain.”

They had just built-out, stocked and opened their second Kittsona store. The second site was all the way in downtown Bismarck. Neither Johnson or Hiney had a business degree. Neither were familiar (yet) with the technical language of construction or remodeling. And, according to Johnson, neither thought their retail dreams would culminate on the summer evening multi-hour drive from Central North Dakota back to Grand Forks.

It was at their third location when the Kittsona crew experienced their epiphany moment. A line of anxious and excited customers mingled outside the door of their Fargo store. Shortly after the doors opened, the scene turned into a beautiful chaos. “We were just trying to keep up,” Johnson says. At one point, almost everyone from Kittsona was located in the backroom rushing to bring more product out to the floor. “We had our boyfriends steaming skirts. Then there was this moment that was one of our best,” she says. “We were all in that room with steamers in our hands and we were crying, knowing then that it was all working. It was humbling, but empowering.”

From that back-room skirt steaming scene to now, much has changed for Kittsona. This year, Kittsona reached the century mark. The company employs more than 100. Their websites and social media offerings rival the quality and depth of major well-known outlets. This spring, Kittsona will open another retail store in Fort Collins, Colorado, adding to its list of nationwide locations that include multiple sites in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas. Stephenie Schiller, senior operations director, doesn’t focus on the style side of the business anymore. She recently spearheaded the launch of a company healthcare and benefits package as part of a greater effort to retain the talent Kittsona has amassed in the past five years. When she tells you she just got out of an update meeting with some of the other stores, she could be talking about calls with team members in Dallas, Austin, Charleston or Minneapolis.

Despite the national growth, Johnson believes Kittsona will always be a local success story. For the founders and the other 98, Grand Forks is still corporate headquarters and still enhances the success of the other stores. “It is probably the most ideal place to start a business,” she says. The area is diverse, business friendly and accepting of new offerings. Now adept at deciphering building codes and understanding larger consumer demographics and buying trends, Johnson is more connected to store openings and expansions than running a steamer. She—and the entire Kittsona team—is still dreaming and focused on empowering their clients to shop with confidence. They are still working to reduplicate the success captured here, she says, just in different spaces, different places and bigger markets. Based on the amount of travel and research she puts into other potential locations and customer demographics, it’s as if she never got out of the car after opening that second store. That pursuit of something bigger and more grand is still there. “We can never get too far away,” she says, “from where we started.” G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here


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