The Boutique ladies – A secret society of high-profile women found friendship and fun in an unlikely location

In the fall of 1985, a new sorority was launched in Baton Rouge. This special group of sisters had no Greek letters, no university connection. Instead, the invited members found their affiliation at a local discount department store.

The kinship of these “Boutique ladies” of Stein Mart has continued for 27 years, culminating in a reunion held in August to coincide with the anniversary of the Baton Rouge store’s opening.

The Boutique ladies program concept was simple but surprisingly successful. As he began to open new locations of his family’s Mississippi-based store, Stein Mart Chairman Jay Stein sought out socialites and well-known women from each community to take on a special role in the designer “Boutique” department. The Boutique ladies—or “Bou ladies,” for short—worked one day each week and offered personal service to shoppers, while tipping off their friends to the latest arrivals and getting first crack at the new looks themselves.

In the mid-1980s, the timing was ideal for such a store to enter the Baton Rouge apparel market, which was dominated by a handful of department stores and lacked the bevy of boutiques that exists today. Pat Crabtree served as the Baton Rouge Stein Mart’s first Boutique leader after discovering the retailer in Memphis, where her husband served on the board of directors at Rhodes College.

“I would spend most of my days in Memphis at Stein Mart,” Crabtree recalls. “One day, a Boutique lady told me that there were plans to open a location in Baton Rouge and that if I was interested in being the Boutique leader, she would call Jay Stein and recommend me. I was thrilled to have the opportunity.”

Kathy Screen was one of the first women Crabtree recruited for her team. Having been a frequent visitor to the store’s Kenner location, Screen was quick to accept the invitation. “When she called me, she did not have to sell the store,” Screen says. “Actually, I was a little upset because everyone would now be in on my secret.”

Screen looked forward to her Wednesday workdays, during which she spent most of her paycheck on pretty things, armed with a generous discount just for the ladies. It was much more than a typical job for Screen and the rest of this atypical workforce. “On several different occasions, I was asked, ‘Is this your Junior League placement?’ ” she recalls. “The Boutique was a hit—we opened boxes with dresses that were selling at Neiman Marcus, Goudchaux’s and Carriages, [but] at very discounted prices.”

Fellow Boutique lady Ruthie Ann Bullock says the secret society had great perks—no evenings or weekends, no working cash registers—and an air of exclusivity. “Everyone wanted to work there,” says Bullock, who eventually became part of Stein’s “A team,” traveling around the country to introduce the Boutique lady concept to new stores.

The program was so popular with society mavens that turnover was nearly nonexistent. “I had several pages of people on the waiting list who wanted to become Boutique ladies,” Crabtree says, “and Stein Mart Baton Rouge became the No. 1 store for sales in the company.”

In 1992, the selling strategy was recognized in a Wall Street Journal article in which Stein called the Boutique ladies his store’s “secret weapon.” Today, Stein Mart’s Boutique ladies program has evolved, but its early members still share a bond they refuse to relinquish. When the group gathered for its recent reunion at the Baton Rouge Country Club, old friends reconnected with ease. At the end of the meal, Bullock announced to the group that—fittingly—Jay Stein was surprising the ladies by picking up their tab.

“He is one of the finest people I know,” says Crabtree, “and I will always be grateful to him for the wonderful friendships I have because of Stein Mart and the Boutique.”