Meet An ALIVE Stockist: Finefolk Designer Boutique In Kansas City
On Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District stands Finefolk, a contemporary women’s designer boutique started by Leslie Fraley. On the morning I spoke with her, she had taken her dog in for surgery, as a veterinarian ophthalmologist discovered a tumor in her eye that she’d need to have removed. “Dogs become our babies. My daughter and I adore her,” says Fraley. Her daughter suggested the idea of procuring a stylish eyepatch for her, and after rummaging around on the internet they found a company that makes eye patches for dogs in hundreds of different colors and patterns.
It’s been almost four and half years since Fraley, a Kansas City native, opened Finefolk. From the time she was born here until now, she has done quite a bit of vagabonding. Her father took a job as an air traffic controller, which led the family to Guam, Miami, Puerto Rico, and then back to Kansas City. When she was a teenager, she’d save up money to buy international fashion magazines and pour over the pictures—in particular she loved avant-garde Japanese designers—using them as inspiration for her own clothes, which she’d often sew herself.
Upon moving back to her hometown and rediscovering it, she noticed it had changed from when she had last lived there. “The support for the arts here is truly astonishing. And as I was reacquainting myself with my hometown, I felt there was a gap that needed to be filled in terms of what was available for women in clothing, fashion and shopping. Really, for me, I’ve always been more attracted to artisanal design, for lack of a better word. Things that are handmade—like when you go to an estate sale and you find a treasure that someone’s hands touched over and over again, and it has this history in it. I’ve always gravitated towards things like that, whether clothing or a utilitarian object, a cup or a dish. That handmade, thoughtful feeling is very exciting and alluring to me.” Finefolk is the culmination of these things that Fraley loves in the world: a creative avenue for beautifully designed clothing, objects and a space for things she still waiting to dream of.
Before opening Finefolk, where did your professional journey take you?
I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Far Eastern Asian Languages and Cultures/Japanese Studies (Fraley is bilingual in English and Japanese), but my first job out of college was as a domestic violence victims assistant advocate. I worked with the City Hall of Kansas City. There were three of us who worked with a domestic violence prosecutor in the early 1990s, when progress in that area of our society was happening at a snail’s pace. We weren’t quite shoving it under the rug, but we weren’t facing it either.
I then worked at Mitsubishi Corporation for a short time, about a year and a half. I wanted to dip my hands in as many pots as possible. Some people have a direct path, but for me I have many interests, and I felt that my 20s were about exploring. I wanted to do what I did with my heart. I didn’t want a job for a job’s sake. I worked with Japanese commodity traders, which was a lot of fun, and taught me a lot about communication skills. Then, I got married and we moved to the east coast, then Denver, and then back to the east coast.
What did your interest in creativity look like during that time?
I’d go see independent boutiques, galleries, museums and things like that. We were never in one place long enough for me to do something long term. To keep myself busy, I’d make jewelry, bags and scarves. I’d sell them at home shows and boutiques wherever we were.
I ended up back here in Kansas City about eight years ago, and the year I opened the store was really challenging. I’d never been in retail before, and it was all new to me. I dove in headfirst. I knew I’d get through it and figure it out, and I love it. I love working with my customers. We also do a lot of collaborations with photographers, chefs, artists, and now an illustrator. We’re working on illustrating some pieces from our Spring/Summer collections in the store.
What led you to open Finefolk?
When I moved back to Kansas City, my daughter was starting kindergarten so I decided to get a
small studio outside of the house. I thought I’d just start making things to see where that led. I rented a jewelry studio near the Crossroads Arts District and was there for a couple of years. I always believe in working through the questions to get to the answers.
I began kicking around the idea of opening a shop with collections that I couldn’t find in Kansas City. With the help of some people with a similar aesthetic, that idea evolved into Finefolk. The neighborhood where the shop is located now is actually just a few blocks from where I was. The Crossroads Arts District is full of galleries, restaurants and creative people. It’s a culturally rich neighborhood.
This area of downtown Kansas City has been revived tremendously in the last couple of decades, due to the efforts of a few key people. I’m next door to galleries and across the street from amazing restaurants. Really top-notch places.
How do you decide what to stock in your store?
I gravitate towards pieces that are very thoughtful. Those are also the kinds of designers I gravitate towards—people who are very committed to their vision and the philosophy behind what they create. And luxury. We all want luxury in our lives, and by that I don’t mean expensive. I think luxury is more about feeling comfortable and confident, and at ease. Meditation and moments of quiet—those are extravagant moments. The world we live in is so fast, and there’s such a constant stream of information. I can’t listen to the news. I listen to NPR for a hot minute in the morning, long enough to feel informed, but much of what I hear is very negative and stress-inducing. A free afternoon is an extravagance.
However, that doesn’t mean everything I pick succeeds. There are absolutely misses. But ultimately, I like to support nice people who really are passionate about what they do. And I like to share that with people in our community, our customers. It’s exciting. I like to stock the store with pieces from designers who inspire me. It’s so fun—it never loses its energy for me.
What have you fallen in love with in the process of owning your own store?
One of the lovely things about being in the Midwest is this accessible, inclusive, neighborly vibe. The general personality of cities in the Midwest is that they’re very open. I noticed that one of the ways that my relationships with customers has evolved is with the customer service piece of the business. Many of my customers have become friends. I’ll take things to them to try out. I hate to use the term “personal shopping,” but I do work with loyal customers on a very personal level like that. It’s a real relationship and requires a level of trust.
My mother works at the shop, too. She’s a trained tailor, and our in-house alterationist. We don’t charge for tailoring because I don’t believe in everything fitting people right off the rack. You have to tweak things to make it work. Without our customers, Finefolk wouldn’t exist. It’s a relationship, and a closeness that’s incredibly inspiring to me. It’s what I love, and what I crave.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere. There’s this incredible diptych billboard across the street, and right now it says, “What would you do if you were you?” Just in the neighborhood—I’m surrounded by inspiration all the time. The Blue Gallery, owned by my friend Kelly Kuhn is just heavenly to me. I love being surrounded by art work. My daughter inspires me. She’s 13 years old and teaches me every day. Music is inspiring to me. I’m a huge music fan. I grew up playing classical piano, and my father was an avid jazz piano player. I’m a knitter. Anything hand-crafted is inspiring to me.
I was just talking to this young couple in the store from this tiny town south of Springfield. One of them grew upon a four-generation homestead, and his parents make baskets out of bark from oak trees that grow on their land. The Midwest is such a rich part of the country—this is where people still live like that. People still do that in upstate New York, and places like that, but these places are all around us, just outside of Midwestern cities. Literature inspires me. Getting lost in your daydreams is incredible. That’s what I do. I’ll walk next door to my friends’ gallery if I’m having a grey day and just get lost.
I remember being in high school and college, and all my friends were like, “I can’t wait to get out of here,” and how being landlocked felt like claustrophobia. A lot of them went to school in the Northeast and California. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go there, too, but I have so many interests, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I’ve had a passport since I was two, and we still travel. My daughter and I just went to visit family in Japan. It’s important to get out of your nest regularly to come back to it refreshed with new eyes. It’s like taking a nap and dreaming a little bit and coming back. But I was filled with a lot of pride when I came back to Kansas City—not only in living here and raising my daughter here with an incredible community of friends, but also really embracing where we are. So many people are doing interesting things here. They may just do it a little more quietly.