December 2020

Egan + Ella Boutique: Experience the empowerment and confidence that comes with the right outfit

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

Passion peeks out from behind a hot pink facemask as Afton Ryan calls a cheerful, “welcome in” to the customer who has just stepped into her charming Bluffton boutique, Egan + Ella. In spite of a pandemic that shut her doors just three months after opening, Ryan’s eyes gleam with a contagious energy you’ll want to catch.

Her bright spirit is further evidenced in the surrounding merchandise: fun graphic tees, dresses, denim, hats, jewelry, and more! From casual daywear to date-night attire, the clothing speaks a language that every woman understands.

“I definitely feel like clothes have the ability to transform you mentally and emotionally,” Ryan said. “You walk out a totally different person than when you walked in. You’re given the tools to express yourself and to feel confident and happy.”

Ryan sets a perfect example, wearing a bright pink sweater “because I felt like I needed to cheer up today,” she said. “Here, it’s all about feeling good.”

Originally from Vermont, leaving for college at age 18, Ryan attended the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, earning her undergraduate degree in sports management. She met her husband Joey, a Hilton Head Island native (who is now a Realtor for Weichert Realtors-Coastal Properties), at a party while he was attending Flagler College in St. Augustine.

The couple had married and started their family when Ryan went on to earn a master’s degree in business management. Working part-time, with an infant and with another child on the way, she still managed to finish school in a year. “I can multi-task!” she said with a hint of pride.

Two years ago, the young parents decided to move back to the Lowcountry to set down roots and raise their children (currently ages four and two), stoking Ryan’s entrepreneurial fire. “I felt like I needed to find a way to insert myself into the community—to feel like I am productive both intellectually and socially. Opening this business checked all my boxes of what I wanted to accomplish,” she said.

Like many little girls who grew up playing dress-up, Ryan loved fashion from an early age. But she never thought she would own a boutique until a couple of years ago when her calling became clear. “I’ve always had an eye for merchandising and making outfits, whether it’s sports apparel or something you might wear on a date. That was kind of a natural talent for me,” she said. “I went to school for something completely different. But in the back of my head, I’ve always wanted to be a business owner—an entrepreneur.”

The store’s name was derived from Ryan’s daughter’s and sister’s middle names respectively. Egan + Ella has been open just over a year, and what a year it has been!

“[Starting a new business] was very scary because I had just moved here. I had no contacts; I had no friends here. So, I had to start from square one as far as branding not only my business but myself. And then, of course, the pandemic, which happened three months after I opened my doors … there were so many unknowns. I still had start-up costs that I hadn’t finished paying off,” Ryan said.

She closed the store just as her website launched and, for the month of April, was able to supplement her rent through online sales. “It was so awesome and so touching. The Bluffton/Hilton Head community really showed up for me,” she said. “I’m so thankful to be a part of this community.”

Now that her retail store is back up and running, Ryan reflects further on the lessons and blessings of her early struggle. “Opening a new business during COVID really forced me to get creative when it came to marketing and operation management. Since June, I’ve been doing a pop-up shop bi-monthly at the Lowcountry Made Artisan Market. Along with approximately 40 other local businesses, I am able to showcase products in an outdoor setting, which allows customers to shop small safely! Being able to reach so many new customers in our community has been massively beneficial to my business.

I’ve also added a feature to my website where customers can purchase an item online and pick it up in the store on the date and at the time of their choice. Not only is this perfect for shopping safely, but it’s great for the busy woman who has limited time to shop. Lastly, I’ve been hosting a lot of fun giveaways on Instagram for our followers. It’s a great way to boost engagement on social media and reach prospective customers. Being able to reward loyal customers while growing my network has been critical during these times.”

Ryan describes the overall style of her merchandise as Bohemian, for that free-spirited girl. “I really wanted something that reflected that youthful, artistic vibe of Bluffton,” she said. “We do a lot of trendy stuff—like bellbottoms (they’re back!), and lots of denim. I love Western-inspired fringe; I love animal print. Our hats are our bread and butter.

“I like to have things that you can wear fairly casual but that you can dress up,” she continued. “I get new stock every week. I like to keep things fresh.”

Ryan also incorporates regionally made products and items from other small businesses. “We’re all about girl power here. Any time a female artist or local jewelry maker reaches out to me, I love to support them,” she said, pointing out bracelets from Coast and Cove, made in Jacksonville; necklaces from Market and King, made in Charleston; clay earrings from artists she met on Instagram; and her sister’s handmade copper earrings.
What you won’t get at Egan + Ella is sticker shock. “Ninety percent of our merchandise is $60 or under,” Ryan said, “I pride myself on being a wallet-friendly store where you can get really great pieces but not feel like you have to spend your whole paycheck.”

Most important to her, she said, is empowering other women, whether through an outfit or by her business example. “I love the fact that I can show other young moms like me that you absolutely can be an entrepreneur,” she said.

While Egan + Ella is taking every precaution to provide a safe shopping environment, you are bound to catch an incurable case of confidence there. Stop in for something new to wear. Update your image, recharge your outlook, and leave with a renewed sense of personal power.

Egan + Ella is located in the Belfair Towne Village (Kroger Plaza) in Bluffton, Suite number 35 (next to Amigos). Store hours are Monday-Friday, Noon-6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. -6 p.m. Closed on Sunday. For more information or to shop online, visit eganandella.com.

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