A sexy lingerie boutique in Georgia probably couldn't ask for better real estate than a spot inside one of Atlanta's hottest strip clubs.
That's just what Wendy Thornton got in 2004 when she scored a deal to open her store inside The Cheetah, which boasts it's "the best gentlemen's club" in the capital. At just 250-square-feet, Wendy-O's is but a pinpoint behind The Cheetah's growling golden doors, but Thornton insists it's the only store in the city that gives dancers the dresses, costumes, shoes and accessories they really want.
"Literally, the girls voted me in," Thornton said. "[The Cheetah] asked who they wanted in there and they said me. And as long as I keep my girls happy, that's what my business is about."
The dancers, after all, are the ones who got her into this business in the first place. Thornton says she knew she wanted to sew since she was eight, but didn't start making apparel until she was 35, after she was laid off from GE Capital after 13 years. With her severance money, she had the "opportunity to do something I wanted to do," she said.
She fiddled with jeans that were too costly to make and purses that were "ahead of their time" until a dancer friend told Thornton her coworkers could use some costumes.
"I knew I could do better than what they were wearing- they were basically wearing underwear," Thornton said.
Thornton started out making elaborate sequined outfits -dresses and multi-pieced suits-and selling them to the dancers in their dressing rooms. But after sequins passed their hey-day, production got too expensive and club dress codes tightened, she decided her best bet was to capitalize on her knowledge of the dancers' tastes and opened a retail store in 1992, filled with the brands and products dancers had requested over the years.
The store even had a tanning bed, which attracted both dancewear customers and people who just wanted to stop in for some sun, she said.
Thornton's first store closed in 2005 due to problems holding down employees. But the city's dancers still come to Wendy-O's new spot to get rompers by Hot Sauce (her best-selling item), J. Valentine fur pieces that "fly off the shelves in the winter," retro gear by Lolita Girl and pieces from her newest addition, Forplay, which she says is popular because "they're different from other people's costumes. If you look at Halloween, everybody does the same thing, but nobody's been able to copy Forplay."
The Wendy-O boutique is open the same hours as the club-from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.-so dancers are in and out throughout the night, Thornton said. She keeps out catalogs so customers can riffle through and place special orders, which helps keep open space in her small store.
Wendy-O's main business, though, is her shoes. She says almost all of The Cheetah's nearly 300 dancers come just to her to get dance shoes from brands like Ellie, Pleaser and Tony/Anthony. She sells more than 30 pairs a week, but says she has hardly any returns - neither on shoes nor clothes.
"Customers don't come back because I don't buy junk, she said. "And since I sew myself, I have to buy good quality. I don't want to do alterations."
But while working in a strip club guarantees one customer base, it sometimes scares away another. Thornton says her location turns off many non-dancing customers. She tackles that with weekly sales promotions, free advertising in a local paper and her new "get sexy for 5 bucks" sales rack, stocked with sexy little things for $5.
Catering to a small group of dancers is a rose-and-thorn, as well, as "no dancers want the same outfit," and Thornton must constantly reinvent her inventory. And club rules restrict the girls from wearing glitter or anything with words, "like the Playboy or Hustler line." While these might be called limits, Thornton calls them challenges - welcome ones.
"I'm at 250 square feet, but we've crammed a lot of stuff in there," she said. "I can't buy 10 of one thing. I can hardly get away with two of the same, so there's always something new and different."