– Story by Tess Van Straaten Photographs by Don Denton
Fashionista and entrepreneur Barbara Hubbard can’t believe she’s been in business for more than three decades.
“It actually feels quite wonderful and I don’t know where the time has gone,” says the owner of Baden-Baden Boutique and Barbara’s Boutique. “It certainly doesn’t feel like 35 years, but I went in with a very positive attitude that this will be it, I’m loving it and I will have this cute little boutique — and the cute little boutique really grew!”
After raising two daughters and managing her former husband’s law firm for a decade, Barbara found herself out of work when he was appointed a judge. She says it was a pivotal moment in her life.
“I had to really think about what I wanted to do,” Barbara explains. “I took a variety of courses. I did a securities course because I thought maybe I wanted to be a financial broker, but I realized it wasn’t for me because I couldn’t see myself selling something that I can’t completely know or touch or see.”
With a passion for fashion, good connections to the German fashion scene and encouragement from friends overseas, Barbara decided to open her first store in 1984 — Baden-Baden Boutique on Fort Street — and she hasn’t looked back.
“I jumped into the clothing business with no real experience in it and I learned fast,” the 76-year-old says. “We all need to dress, we can’t run away from it, so we might as well have fun and do it well.”
After success in downtown Victoria, Barbara decided to expand the business and she opened a store on Vancouver’s South Granville Street with two partners. But she says it was probably her biggest mistake.
“It was a holy nightmare and it was just asking for chaos,” Barbara says of the partnership with a man in Europe and another in Canada. “One piece of advice would be to do what you have in mind by yourself so you’re not dependent on somebody else.”
The store closed after a couple of years and it was a tough lesson, but Barbara says she still has customers coming over from Vancouver to shop because of that store.
Learning from the setback, the next expansion was to Sidney, where Barbara opened a second Baden-Baden outlet and then purchased property on Beacon Avenue for the store.
“I was the first one in the fashion industry to come to Sidney and it’s astonishing how many people have followed me,” she says. “It’s quite a fashion promenade now.”
The expansion continued with Barbara’s Boutique and a shoe store, but the retail dynamo had to make some tough decisions a few years ago. She closed the shoe store to focus on clothing, and she also decided to shut her downtown store in order to focus on the Sidney locations.
“I decided I really wanted to make my life smaller,” she says. “I had the clothing store on Fort Street for 27 years and it was very hard to close it after so many years, but I’m grateful I did because I’m so happy to be out of downtown.”
Barbara says parking was a major issue downtown and a deterrent for many customers. She admits not everyone is happy about making the trek to Sidney, but she says parking is easy and it’s becoming a popular destination for afternoon or all-day outings.
“I say, bring out your survival gear and come out to Sidney and have a nice lunch and do your shopping on Beacon Avenue.”
Barbara says she’s learned a lot about customer service over the years and how to keep staff happy. Many have been with her a long time and she believes they’re a big part of her long-term success.
“Without a happy group of employees we would not have lasted as long,” she says. “It takes a whole group of people to do it, and my best advice is don’t make the business completely dependent on you because you’ll get burnt out and won’t be able to operate long.”
Aside from closing stores, Barbara says, she hasn’t really faced any major challenges. But when it comes to tough decisions, she has another piece of good advice.
“My theory is I don’t make decisions today,” Barbara explains.
“I always make sure I have a night to think about it before I do it and usually the next day the decision is much easier and the problem isn’t as big.”
Barbara still travels to Europe twice a year to visit showrooms and select items from the various collections for her stores. It’s a creative part of the job she loves, but it also comes with its challenges.
“The big challenge is always to choose the right merchandise for the people that you’re serving — that is the forever lasting challenge,” she says. “When I’m over in Europe and I see all these wonderful collections, I have to think, what’s right for Sidney? What’s right for the island? What’s right for the west coast? And that is always a challenge.”
But it’s a challenge this septuagenarian doesn’t plan to relinquish anytime soon.
“I intend to carry on for quite a while still,” Barbara laughs. “I have no retirement plans because I love it. Why would I give it up?”