Wilson College of Textiles alumna Kayla Brewer always knew her future was fashion. From the moment she decided she wanted to own a clothing store, each class she took and every position she worked was part of a larger strategy. Now, just three years after graduation, she has opened Voda, a women’s clothing and accessories boutique in downtown Raleigh.
“I knew early on in my career that this was what I wanted to do, so every career move or job that I took was to align myself to get to this point,” she said.
Brewer is from Star, N.C., a small town of less than 900 residents at the geographic center of the state. She grew up far from the ocean or any major lakes, but her family spent their vacations at the coast. When naming her boutique, she kept circling back to memories of these summer months.
“When I started thinking of the store and environment that I wanted to provide, I knew that I wanted to provide a very laid-back, welcoming, relaxing shopping experience for my customers, and I also knew that I wanted it to have some significance to me. I love being at the beach, by the water — always have,” she said.
She combed the internet for words in other languages that fit the aesthetic and environment she wanted to create, finally choosing Voda — a word that means “water” in Czech, Croatian and Slovenian.
“Plus, for logo purposes, I loved that it was four letters,” she said.
She majored in Fashion and Textile Management with a concentration in Textile Brand Management and Marketing; while in school, she interned at Lash Clothing and worked at Cary boutique Scout and Molly’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. After graduation, she moved to Charlotte to work as a merchandise assistant for Belk and aid in the launch of its exclusive brand Crown & Ivy. She then took a position with Cato as an assistant buyer for their Girls and Plus Knit Tops and Activewear divisions.
“I started out working at Belk at their corporate office on a product development team to get the corporate side and learn more about how that operates,” she said. “I learned so much in just a year of being there — I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned. But I knew that I didn’t want a career in the corporate world.”
She then accepted a position as an assistant manager at Boem, a small, hip women’s clothing boutique in Charlotte, to learn the ins and outs of running an independent retail store.
“I took that opportunity and learned even more,” she said. “There were times at Belk when I thought, ‘I have learned so much in this role, for sure I can go and open my boutique now — I have everything that I need.’ Then I took the role as a manager and learned so much more.”
After a year and a half as manager at Boem, Brewer was ready to open Voda. She and her now-fiance moved back to Raleigh, for reasons both nostalgic and professional.
“Each time we would come back to visit, I would see a new side of Raleigh,” she said. “I really missed (it) and thought this was where I needed to be. Not to mention the economy, the growth that Raleigh is experiencing right now — from a business perspective, it only made sense to get in now…and it’s really important to me to be at the forefront of the retail movement that’s going on in downtown Raleigh.”
Brewer said that her time at NC State helped her become more outgoing and more confident, through relationships formed with her sisters in Delta Gamma and also the bonds forged with her fellow students in the Wilson College of Textiles.
“A lot of my classmates were in all of my classes, which were mostly project-based, so they required you to work closely with a group of people,” she said. “I learned to work with others and network. I’m still friends with people I had class with and we keep in contact — and they are all over the world.”
She credits her coursework with preparing her for the reality of owning a clothing store, from a group project in which she helped develop a merchandise display to lectures about consumer trends and how they are influenced by current events.
“Whatever is going on in the outside world, you will see that transition through fashion and home textiles,” she said. “It’s a whole industry thing. For example, during the Olympics, there’s a lot of red, white and blue, a patriotic feel. It’s the same with presidential elections — you will see a lot of graphic tees that say ‘Vote’ and ‘Express Yourself.’”
Brewer had a soft opening for Voda in June, using the summer to quietly build buzz and iron out details, and held the grand opening on Aug. 12 — complete with a trunk show by local handmade jewelry brand Peppertrain, a braid bar, refreshments and a photo booth. Due to customer — and canine — demand, dogs are welcome in the store.
She put in her first inventory orders last February, traveling to AmericasMart in Atlanta and to showrooms in New York City to make her selections.
“Buying trips are crazy — but good crazy,” she said. “They are usually two to three days and they are all day. They are in this huge, convention-type space. A lot of times I will have meetings scheduled with my vendors that last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour just reviewing three months at a time worth of brands. I will go through and pull what I think will do well in the store and I will place my order. Then six months later I will get it in the store.”
This long lead time means Brewer has to stay ahead of the fashion curve. The selections she makes for Voda are informed by her own edgy, bohemian style and the fashion blogs and Instagram accounts she follows, including Damsel in Dior, Sincerely Jules, The Blonde Salad and Rocky Barnes, and fashion-forward emporiums like Revolve.
“Everything that is in the store now and what I will continue to get through the holiday season, I placed in February — with no customer knowledge whatsoever,” she said. “The biggest part in choosing the clothes was what I liked. And of course, that might change over time, once I learn who my customer is and what they want, because ultimately, that’s what I’m here for — to give the people what they want.”
Brewer is currently the only full time employee, which means she works six days a week doing everything from ordering product and accounting to dusting and changing clothes on the mannequin, as well as posting to social media at least three times a day. She has part-time employees, but enjoys being hands-on and involved in the day-to-day details as well as the larger picture.
“It changes so much,” she said. “Owning a business is not for the faint of heart, and if you like structure this is not the path for you…because at any given second it can change and you have to be on your feet and ready to move with the changes and there’s not a lot of room for second guessing yourself. You have to be confident in your decisions.”
Her plans for Voda are simple in the short-term. She wants to “make it through the holiday season alive and successful” and set up a more comprehensive website. Her long-term goal is to open more boutiques — and one day, spend more time closer to the water.
Voda is located at 725 Tucker St. in downtown Raleigh.