October 2019

Getting Real with Michelle Taylor: Birdie James a place to connect

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

When was the last time you dropped in at your favorite boutique just to say hello and look around? It’s no secret among women that we sometimes shop to cheer ourselves up or reward ourselves for something we’ve accomplished. But we also shop for another important reason: to connect!

Trying on new clothes and liking what we see in the mirror is a mood booster in itself. But what we commonly refer to as “retail therapy” means so much more at Birdie James, one of the Lowcountry’s most popular ladies’ boutiques. “Clothing is a way to express ourselves. I love styling and the conversation around that. But we are more than just a clothing store,” owner Michelle Taylor said. Shopping at Birdie James embodies Taylor’s philosophies, which means feeling known, accepted, confident, and cared for. And it is this authenticity that informs every business decision she makes—from the merchandise she carries and the people she hires to the demographic she serves.

“My mom had me at an older age, and we spent most of our time with my aunt and grandmother. It was as if I was raised by The Golden Girls. In fact, that was my favorite cartoon,” Taylor said. “Being here on Hilton Head Island is much like that. I get to interact with the very women who raised me. It’s like a big hug all the time.”

But Taylor’s interest in connection goes far beyond helping ladies dress well and feel good about themselves. As a busy wife, mom and owner of two area boutiques, she also devotes a substantial amount of her time and energy actively promoting mental health awareness and advocating for those who suffer from mental illness. She currently serves as vice president of the board for NAMI Lowcountry (the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and is chairing the upcoming 2020 gala, which helps fund the nonprofit organization’s local programs and services. She’s also organizing a team for the local NAMI Walk, taking place Saturday, October 5, from 10-12 p.m. at Coligny Beach. It’s not too late to join her and be part of the movement to raise awareness and funds. For more information and to sign up, visit www.namiwalks.org and join Taylor’s Team, Change the Tide.

If you’re wondering about the connection between her day job and her volunteer work, you might be surprised to learn that fashion is a second career for Taylor. She dreamed of a career in the fashion industry, but her mother didn’t allow it. She was encouraged to get her degree and follow a “normal” career path. So, she earned a B.A. in psychology. But it’s what happened next that defined her future in mental health.

Shortly after graduating, Taylor experienced a three-month period of depression. “It’s that time in your life when you feel like everything is at your fingertips but there are so many choices. It was kind of debilitating for me,” she said. “I’m a big planner, so all of a sudden, I didn’t know what was next, and it triggered me for a little bit. I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, was crying all of the time, and felt so hopeless for reasons I couldn’t really explain. It was like the commercial that says, ‘Depression hurts.’ That was so true for me.”

Thanks to the support of her family physician and medication, it was a relatively short bout, “although it felt long,” Taylor said. And it was enough to inspire her to help others.

Michelle Taylor with her husband John and daughter Hattie.

Soon after her recovery, Taylor read about an opportunity to work at a substance abuse facility for adolescents and decided this was where she was supposed to be. She later returned to school for a master’s degree in mental health.

While earning her post-graduate degree, she monitored the Missouri Crisis Line—a veterans’ hotline and a suicide lifeline. This experience impacted her tremendously. “It was really high stress,” she said, “but it was such a neat exchange to be able to offer support to someone—10, 20, 30 times a day. It was an invaluable experience and has shaped who I am.”

Taylor went on to work in community counseling and was headed towards private practice when she decided to shift into non-profit, going to work for a children’s bereavement organization called Comfort Zone Camp in Richmond, Virginia. Loss is familiar to her, so this organization’s mission was one she could get behind. From there, she and a co-worker were recruited to Virginia Beach to develop programs for Navy Seals, specifically to assist surviving spouses and their children.

Taylor’s transition to fashion came after a series of emotionally charged events in her life, including the birth of her daughter and the loss of her mother after a long-term illness. “When I had my daughter, that’s when life became real,” she said. “My mortality came into play, and suddenly, my work in bereavement was a bit too much for me. I loved the journey, and I had the privilege of working with some very special people. It was just time for me to move on—to see what was next.”

After some soul searching and much discussion, Taylor and her husband decided to take a risk in pursuit of her lifelong dream. Once this decision was made, the rest fell into place quickly and without pause. They landed on Hilton Head Island in February of 2016, opened their first Birdie James storefront in May 2016, and the rest is history.

Taylor continues to combine her innate fashion sense and business acumen with a deep sense of moral responsibility to help bring focus to the subject of mental illness. “We must start to normalize the conversation,” she said. “If someone you know gets cancer, you would never say to them, ‘Don’t get help.’ It would be something you would want to talk about and offer support. But oftentimes mental illness is this big, scary, unknown thing. So, the more we can talk about it, the more acceptance we’ll all have, and it will soon be understood like cancer or any other illness—as it should be—because it is something medical that is happening within the brain and within the body.” 

Birdie James is located at 28 Shelter Cove Lane, #111 in Shelter Cove Towne Centre and at 52 Calhoun St. in Bluffton. For more information, visit www.thebirdiejames.com. Learn more about NAMI at www.namilowcountry.org.

  1. Thank you, thank you for talking about mental illness and our wonderful Michelle. This is such an important subject for us all to have.

    — Sarah Eliasoph    Sep 30, 08:25 am   

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