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Who says chic can’t be cheap?

Jen O’Neill (left) and Nicole Niehaus have turned a quiet retail spot into a shoppers’ playground with fun, affordable clothes and accesories.   - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Jen O’Neill (left) and Nicole Niehaus have turned a quiet retail spot into a shoppers’ playground with fun, affordable clothes and accesories.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Nicole Niehaus and Jen O’Neill put no premium on fashion.

Off the shady sidewalk of Madrone Lane a block north of Winslow Way, a small storefront sat waiting for a new venture.

Islanders Nicole Niehaus and Jen O’Neill were looking for a new venture, too. They saw the space and decided to fill it with something sweet.

“Something just kept drawing me to it,” Niehaus said. “I kept peeking in thinking I wanted it for something. Four weeks later, we opened the doors.”

The new shop, Sweet Deal, made its debut a month ago. With a stamped tin ceiling, crisp color scheme and racks jam-packed with tops, bottoms, dresses, accessories and even “98110” T-shirts designed by islander Taylor Tan, Sweet Deal strikes an inviting note somewhere between “vintage” and “boutique,” with lots of room for creative merchandising and personal attention built in.

The concept behind the store, Niehaus says, is to offer a lot of “one-ofs,” or just one of a single clothing item, while also adding fresh pieces weekly and maintaining a steady stock of cheap, cool accessories.

While neither O’Neill nor Niehaus has a background in retail clothing – O’Neill sold furniture in her early 20s, and Niehaus’ first retail clothing job was short and not memorable – they both love clothes, fabrics and above all, shopping for great deals. Niehaus said they’ve been known to go for nine hours straight with no breaks.

“We’re huge bargain shoppers,” Niehaus said.

“It’s sport,” O’Neill added.

O’Neill, also a seamstress, likes to take basic vintage pieces and do them one better. So she’ll start with, say, a plain 1960s sheath dress and then embellish it with vintage fabric. Or she’ll use material found at a rummage sale to sew something entirely new, like the rainbow-hued, 1970s-style top that Niehaus now wears.

O’Neill also recently whipped up what the two dubbed “the pillowcase dress,” adding straps to the patterned hem of a pillowcase to form a bodice and then using vintage fabric for the skirt. O’Neill had no idea how it would turn out, but a teenage girl bought it the first day it went onto the floor.

“Vintage flew out the door when we first moved in,” Niehaus said.

Right now, the most expensive items in stock are a pair of $175 handbags, but most items ring in at far less. Niehaus says you can pick up a nice dress for somewhere between $30 and $60.

Sweet Deal targets a wide age range as well. Mature women can find classic pieces or unique gifts for girlfriends, while teenage girls can actually use their baby-sitting cash to buy something of substance.

“They are so excited about it,” O’Neill said. “They’re thrilled. It’s so cute.”

O’Neill and Niehaus said that it can take customers a while to catch on to their concept; some people wonder if the shop is a consignment store since there aren’t six of every item, and some automatically assume that because of the boutique environment, items will be expensive and tiny.

But the shop owners make sure to keep a selection of larger sizes on hand, and they also want to delve more deeply into personal shopping. So if someone sees an item she likes and wants something similar or in a different size, Niehaus and O’Neill will happily pick up a few possibilities on their next buying trip.

Sweet Deal is already seeing repeat customers pop in once a week to see what’s new, and O’Neill said they’re getting “some really strong feedback” to affirm the store’s direction.

“They say, ‘Thank you for the price tags. Is this for real?’” Niehaus said.

The women, who became friends in Kingston in the late 1990s and moved to the island in 2002, have each had other ventures on Bainbridge. Until recently, Niehaus was a pre-school teacher at St. Cecilia Catholic School and chaired the yearly fashion show there. O’Neill is an artist who also works at Cafe Nola three nights a week.

To manage the shop and their families, they’ve hired two teens part-time, take turns watching each other’s three kids, and rely on supportive husbands for help.

The pair recently hit the Seattle Trend Show for an inventory stock-up and will head to Las Vegas soon to attend four trade shows. They’re also planning a buying trip to New York to scout for one-of-a-kind pieces.

“It’s fun seeing what you can find,” Niehaus said.

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Sweet and low

Sweet Deal, at 124 Madrone Lane, is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Phone 842-3233 or email sweetdeal@comcast.net. A website is also in the works, www.sweetdealbainbridge.com.

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