by Sydne Tursky
At the beginning of 2009, Kirsten Blowers was a senior at the University of Arkansas, and the country was in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. With a degree in interior design, she didn’t have high hopes of securing a job after graduation. So in February of that year, she took a risk and started Riffraff.
“I was kind of nuts, looking back, probably a little too ambitious to think about opening a storefront, but somehow I pulled it off,” Blowers says.
Today, Riffraff is a thriving storefront on the Fayetteville square, but it’s more than just a boutique like any other. The shop’s website, shopriffraff.com, is a success in its own right, and Riffraff designs, produces and markets two lines of wholesale t-shirts, which are then sold to more than 600 boutiques across the nation.
The road from 2009 to the local powerhouse that Riffraff is now was long and meandering, marked by near catastrophes and happy accidents alike.
The first iteration of Riffraff, a small refurbished furniture store off Mission Boulevard, evolved quickly. Even in a harsh economic environment and working strictly from cash flow without a single loan, Blowers was able to elevate her business and move to a prime location on the square just a year and a half after the store’s opening. Riffraff was the first business to move to the square after the recession.
The new location had been a clothing store in another life, and some built-in racks remained. A handyman’s estimate for removing the shelves was simply too much for Blowers’ tight budget, so she took a chance and spent half of that quoted estimate on clothing to fill the racks instead. On the first night of the store’s reopening, every single article of clothing sold.
“[I] thought ‘I’ll just try it,’” Blowers recalls. “The very first night we were open on the square we sold out of all of our clothing, so that’s when I very quickly realized that that’s what women like, and that’s what’s going to help pay the bills.”
The social media website Pinterest started gaining popularity around the same time, and an increasing number of pins featuring painted furniture meant that more people were coming to Riffraff to look for DIY ideas for their own furniture, rather than buying the pieces made by Blowers and other local artisans. Switching to clothing and accessories was a no-brainer as furniture sales fell.
Once Riffraff was firmly established as a women’s boutique, other aspects of the business started to fall into place, too. When new items arrived, Blowers took pictures and posted them on the shop’s Facebook page — by the next morning, she had dozens of orders placed via comment or message. That stream of income helped keep the store open, so when a new Facebook algorithm forced business pages to monetarily promote their posts or else not be seen at all, it was a big blow. In 2012, shopriffraff.com was born as a replacement for lost Facebook sales, and Riffraff started to grow fast — in that one year, the store went from just three employees to 20.
Blowers has exclusively hired women younger than she is, so every member of her all-female team is in her twenties. She loves being able to create a healthy environment for young women in business and empower them to achieve their goals, she says. Her business acumen hasn’t gone unnoticed: She’s been recognized by the National Retail Federation Foundation and was one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in retail and e-commerce in 2016.
Riffraff made it through the post-recession troubles and shifting consumer trends with grace, but Blowers’ plans for the store are far less risky than its beginning. While she opened a second Riffraff location in Dallas for two years, she ultimately closed it. Running a business from five hours away was spreading her too thin, and she wanted to prioritize the Arkansas business.
“I used to be really ambitious and say, ‘Oh I’d love to have another store somewhere else, but, as I’ve gotten older and have tried that, I think I’ve brought myself back to my first ambition in life… just to have a really, really great location,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to have it on the Fayetteville square, and I’ve accomplished that. I don’t have any, like, big pictures of ‘Oh I’d love to franchise and be in all these other locations,’ because honestly I just want to keep it here in Northwest Arkansas. I know it’s crazy to say, but I just love what Riffraff has become already, and I don’t want to push it until it breaks.”