We have to get dressed every day. Why not have a good time doing it?
That is the guiding philosophy behind Downtown Seattle’s eclectic women’s clothing boutique sandylew.
The creative force behind the 1st Avenue shop is lifelong artist Sandy Lew-Hailer. She opened her boutique in 2008 nestled by the Seattle Art Museum — a fitting location since the clothes and accessories at sandylew could easily be displayed in an art exhibit. Mesh summer dresses that look like a Jackson Pollock painting come to life, Parisian-style raincoats covered in vintage postage stamps, and simple but elegant Shakespearean statement necklaces are the tip of the fashion iceberg of the unique and stylish finds at sandylew.
sandylew is an extension of Sandy’s life as an artist and passion for self-expression.
“I think everyone is creative,” Sandy said. “Some people more easily embrace it and enjoy it, and for me, it was easy to embrace and enjoy. I think that the store is also a very creative space for me.”
Sandy’s boutique currently houses dozens national and international designers, most of whom are women. Her ultimate goal at sandylew is to have all the women who come into her store — no matter what size, age, or desired price point — find something that makes them look good and feel good.
Pre-pandemic, Sandy traveled to fashion shows in New York and Los Angeles to scope out items for her store from designers. Some of her current favorites are a Croation designer named Xenia, Brooklyn-based label New York 77, and London-based jewelry designer Jianhui.
“The people who come into my store, they are relying on me to find them things,” Sandy said. “So, I really just choose what I like and bring them with me.”
The idea for Sandy’s clothing boutique may have come to her later in life, but she has always loved fashion and standing out from the crowd. Growing up, Sandy’s mom could sew anything, so she’d tell her mom what she wanted to wear, and her mom would make it all herself.
“I loved not being dressed exactly the same as everyone else,” Sandy said. “It never made me feel odd. I liked it — I liked it a lot, and I still like it. It’s a way we kind of distinguish ourselves and a way you express yourself.”
Before opening sandylew, Sandy studied ceramics and design at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She then went on to become an artist making jewelry and mixed-media metal sculptures at her studio, Grrdog Metalworks. You can even find a steel dress sculpture and steel jewelry displays Sandy made inside her shop.
Sandy grew up in the Santa Clara Valley before it became the tech hub it is today — when the valley was covered in acres of blooming apricot and cherry orchards. As a kid, she stole cherries from the cherry trees, rode her bike down her long driveway to avoid taking Chinese lessons, and her skin turned the creamy color of coffee in the summer. She always remembered being artistic, but shied away from the arts because it wasn’t seen as a traditional career path to her family.
“I grew up in a quite traditional family,” Sandy said. “So, those things were not necessarily the most revered.”
But over time, she said her family became more understanding and open minded to the creative career path she forged herself.
Sandy moved to Seattle in 1979 with her high-school-sweetheart turned husband. She loved being an artist because it allowed her to work flexible hours while raising her children and still be involved in their school.
In the early 2000s, Sandy started working for a friend’s clothing store in U Village to help pay for a new studio space. She went on buying trips and helped expand the store quite a bit, but her friend was sometimes difficult to work with.
At one point, Sandy’s husband turned to her and said, “This is stupid, you should do this for yourself.”
Up until that moment, it had never occurred to Sandy to open her own store or run her own business. But after her husband said that, Sandy couldn’t get the idea out of owning her own clothing business out of her head.
She waited for the perfect location on 1st Avenue in Downtown Seattle to open up because she’s always loved the rock n’ roll feeling of the area. The core of Downtown felt too corporate to her, and Sandy said she could never follow the rules of being in a store inside a mall.
Despite never having owned a business before and being self-funded, the local couple at the time who owned the building where Sandylew is now located took a chance on Sandy, and she’s grateful they did.
“All up and down 1st Avenue, it’s small and local. It’s really remarkable,” Sandy said. “I just feel really happy to be in the company of these other small businesses.”
Sandy has seen her block change and develop significantly over the years, and the pandemic has posed new challenges for her and her shop.
“It’s really been very challenging,” Sandy said. “I have had to learn a lot of new tricks. I do the social media and I do a lot of stuff online. We’re forced to take our own pictures, and we’re trying to get better at it.”
Making a plan to reopen has been equally as challenging. The bottom line for Sandy is if she’s being careful and safe, then her customers and community will feel comfortable and safe.
“Keeping sandylew alive helps to keep Downtown Seattle alive, and that’s very important to me,” Sandy said. “I love my town.”
But the pandemic hasn’t stopped Sandy from dressing her best.
“Statement dressing right now is not where people are at, and I understand that completely. I think it’s important to have things that you’re comfortable in,” Sandy said. “I also believe that even when you’re at home alone, when you walk by a mirror yourself, it’s important to make yourself feel good. Even if there’s no one else there, if you make yourself smile, that’s a good thing.”
Sandy’s fashion advice is simple — wear what makes you feel good.
“I think personal style is the most important thing and comfort,” Sandy said. “When someone comes in my store and they want me to dress them, what I do is try to bring them things I think will look good on them. And you can tell right away when a woman comes out of the dressing room how that thing makes her feel. And that is what we’re after — when it makes you feel good.”
When developing your own personal style, Sandy suggests first finding a fit that works for your body type and then finding the colors, patterns, and textures you like and resonate with you. Even finding things you don’t like is a step toward finding your signature style.
“It’s just a matter of recognizing those things about yourself,” Sandy said. “And that’s how you come to learn what your own style is. Just listening to yourself in many ways.”
Our clothes are more than pieces of fabric we wear — they’re a canvas for self expression, they can change our mood, and most importantly, they can make us feel good.
“We can wear anything, anytime we like that makes us feel good,” Sandy said. “And it has the effect of making others around us feel good too.”
We have to get dressed every day. Why not have fun doing it at sandylew?