Compton business owner sets up a shop with style

When you think about all the possible places to find fun fashion around Los Angeles, the city of Compton may not be the first place that comes to mind. But one young entrepreneur is trying to change that.

Jai Hawkins, 24, is the owner of Zazz Boutique, a women’s clothing store on Compton Boulevard. Hawkins got her business license and officially opened last April, but her store really picked up momentum over the summer. She prides herself on offering something she always felt was lacking in Compton: a place to find unique, stylish clothes at affordable prices.

Jai Hawkins

Jai Hawkins shows off her wares at Zazz Boutique. She makes it a goal to have new items in every week.

Hawkins went to school at LA Trade Tech for fashion design and then worked as a buyer at Nordstrom. When it comes to clothes, she knows her stuff. But she was sick of having to drive far away from Compton to work in the fashion industry or to buy exciting outfits.

While she always thought she might own her own business one day, Hawkins never imagined it happening so soon. But she felt like the opportunity to be the first one on the fashion scene in Compton was too good to pass up.

“I think it’s going to work,” Hawkins said. “Because there’s not too many places like Zazz Boutique in this area, so I feel like it stands out, it’s unique, and the people around here need something like this.”

And Hawkins’ store does her store stand out. She set up elaborate displays with manikins wearing bright colors and tons of accessories in her front window. She got the word out about her grand opening through friends and family and handing out flyers on the street.

Hawkins describes her items as “eccentric.” And she’s got quite the variety too. “Very cute rings, chandelier earrings, really cute shoes, handbags, scarves, accessories, you name it, I’m gonna have it,” she said.

Since her store has opened, Hawkins has seen a lot of support from the surrounding community, including from her landlord, Luz Herrera. Herrera owns the building where Zazz Boutique is located, and she’s also a lawyer and big advocate for the city of Compton.

“[Compton’s] not perfect and there are things in terms of infrastructure that need to be, I think, worked on,” Herrera said. “But there’s also a lot happening. If you go up and down the streets, this place looks very different than when I came here in 2002.”

Hawkins and Herrera do not have the typical strictly business landlord-tenant relationship. In the process of Hawkins opening her store next to Herrera’s nonprofit, the two women have become friends. When she first advertised the empty space, Herrera was approached by a lot of churches and AA groups. But she decided Compton already had enough of those. She wanted to find someone offering something the city hadn’t seen in years.

“There are a lot of new stores and shops and some of it has been brought in by city council because of these big developments, but then you also have the mom and the pops that are fixing their own facades and providing services that community members need here instead of going outside to other parts,” Herrera said.

In Herrera, Hawkins has found a kind of mentor. Herrera helped Hawkins get her store started, but said it’s been Hawkins hard work that has kept it going.

Six months since her store’s official opening, Hawkins has found her rhythm. Her store is still open, but she noticed business slowing down this fall. In October of this year, the national Consumer Confidence Index fell back to levels last seen during the 2008 recession. But she doesn’t let the national trends get her down.

“I can’t worry about what the big companies are doing,” Hawkins said. “I just have to worry about Zazz Boutique. That’s my main focus.”

Jai Hawkins

Hawkins never thought she’d be running a business at age 24, but now that her store is up and running, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

Her plan? Get on the phone and start calling up customers. In an age where much shopping is driven by huge holiday sales or online coupons like LivingSocial or Groupon, Hawkins offers something different: a store where the people running it actually know your name.

Hawkins grew up listening to people like her mother, Vanessa Scott, tell stories about a different kind of Compton, and their stories have served as an inspiration as she’s worked to distinguish her store in the community.

Scott remembers making weekend outings to go shopping with her entire family. “There was a downtown Compton during the time I was growing up, so we got a chance to just walk out of our homes and walk downtown to all the little local stores,” she said.

And while Scott gets just as excited about fashion as her daughter, she thinks Zazz Boutique can be part of a bigger movement. “We would like to see more people out, walking the streets, rather than people on the outside saying they’re afraid to be in the city of Compton,” Scott said.

Hawkins agrees. And she’s hoping her store can become the gathering place she never had growing up.

“I want Zazz Boutique to be the go-to store for all ladies, teenagers, all the young girls,” Hawkins said. “I want it to be that store.”

All over the city, there are signs that say “Birthing a new Compton!” And in a way, Hawkins could be considered a part of this movement. But she doesn’t see herself as doing something novel. She views it as a way to take Compton back to its roots.

Zazz Boutique is located at 1214 East Compton Boulevard, Compton, CA 90221. (310) 608-5767

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Jai Hawkins brings style to Compton by Kaitlin Parker