Small Business Spotlight: Threadleaf owner moves from White House to retail

Small Business Spotlight: Threadleaf owner moves from White House to retail
Nicole McGrew at her boutique, Threadleaf (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Nicole McGrew didn’t envision opening a boutique of her own when she left her job at the White House in January 2017.

McGrew attended Fashion Institute of Technology before moving to the D.C. area to attend law school at Georgetown University. After graduating, she worked in private practice, then as assistant general counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs before joining President Barack Obama’s White House in the Office of National Drug Policy.

She left the White House during the administration changeover after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016 – and took time to focus on what she wanted to do next.

“I was really taking a break and figuring out what I wanted to do, and then I just really kept thinking about that saying ‘Find what you would do for free, and then do that for a living,’” McGrew said.

With her background in fashion and talent for giving good fashion advice, McGrew realized there was something missing in Alexandria’s boutique scene.

“I really wanted a space here in Alexandria where you could get really clean basics for work

Threadleaf carries a number of eco-conscious brands (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

that you could wear all day if you wanted to,” McGrew said.

She began laying the groundwork for a boutique in August 2017, settling on the concept, the brands it would carry, its location and its mission. She decided to call the store Threadleaf after doing extensive research on native Northern Virginia plants – a name, she said, that fit into her business’ eco-conscious focus.

McGrew placed a heavy emphasis on brands that were sustainable and responsible. She aimed to create a store for women in the professional world and those who, like her, wanted alternatives to the traditional pantsuit.

“I hardly ever wore suits when I was practicing. I hated suits. So I wanted to find those alternatives where you could still be professional and see that you didn’t need to wear a suit, and then be comfortable on top of that [and also] making sure that they’re natural fabrics and they’re easy to care for,” McGrew said. “There are very few things in [my boutique] that need to be dry cleaned.”

She started the process by emailing brands she wore and respected, saying she wanted to work with them. She said she received responses from about 50 percent of the brands she emailed and, from there, she found trade shows to attend.

“Getting into your first show is really hard because they want to make sure you’re a legitimate business and not just someone who wants to come in and look around,” McGrew said. “It’s just like with everything – it’s getting your foot in the door, but once that door is cracked …”

The exterior of Threadleaf on Royal Street (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

Once she had the concept and brands in place, she set her mind to finding a location.
The Rosemont resident eventually settled on an Old Town space at 121 S. Royal St. Her space was previously occupied by Lawrence Miller & Co., which has rebranded to Alexandria & Co. Alexandria & Co. owns the building and has moved to a different space within the same building. Threadleaf is next to Fontaine Caffe & Crêperie and across the street from Forge Industrial Works.

“I like this street because it’s a bunch of smaller businesses,” McGrew said. “My
husband and I went to Amsterdam for our 10-year anniversary, and I remember
looking at all these shops. They were all different, they all had their own character, their cute little window displays, and that’s what I love about this street.”

Her boutique opened in May over Mother’s Day weekend. It carries brands like
Jungmaven, Fog Linen Work and Zuri Kenya.

McGrew said she utilizes the organizational skills and multitasking ability honed during her law career in her new venture.

“I’m using both sides of my brain. I have Excel sheets for my inventory and buying plan, but then I also love being on Instagram and I love posting things. Those are things you can’t do as a government lawyer,” McGrew said.

McGrew said she enjoys interacting with customers at the boutique and said she’s received positive feedback from the community so far.

“In some ways, I feel if I had opened a store earlier, straight from FIT, I feel that it would have been very different than what it is now,” McGrew said. “Knowing so many women in this area and just listening to my friends at work and my friends here about what they want when they get dressed in the morning, it’s helped me funnel and shape the store and that sort of practical focus [that’s] also very fashion-forward.”