It doesn’t take a second look to see Joanne Sunnarborg knows fashion. At first glance you see a slim blonde dressed to the nines wearing an outstanding pair of custom cowboy boots. Sunnarborg says with a smile, “I started to pay attention to fashion in the first grade, but the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is making sure a person is comfortable in what they are wearing.”
It’s that later philosophy she gives credit to her business success. As the owner and proprietor of Desperado in the Old Mill District, Sunnarborg is about to celebrate the boutique’s 17th anniversary.
In today’s economy that’s no small feat. “I don’t pretend this has been an easy journey,” Sunnarborg shrugs. “Boutiques don’t sell products people have to have so I appreciate every customer who walks through my door. Any little thing I can do to help that customer have a good experience is what keeps them coming back.”
Sunnarborg is proud of her loyal customer following. Desperado spent its first 11 years in two locations in Portland’s historic upscale Pearl District. It started as a high-end western lifestyle boutique. Sunnarborg says, “I fell in love with western art you can wear. It’s uniquely American. It’s part of our country’s history.”
A week after opening in the Pearl she sold her first pair of $1,500 custom made cowboy boots. In the decade that followed her customers included stars like Academy-Award winner William Hurt and Country Pop-star Taylor Swift.
“I have customers from my time in Portland who still shop at Desperado every year while vacationing in Bend,” says Sunnarborg. “We’re known for our great outdoors, our excellent crafted beer and more and more I hear visitors tell me we have the best boutiques around.”
Bend was once Sunnarborg’s vacation destination too. So when her youngest child went off to college Sunnarborg decided it was time to make Central Oregon her permanent home.
“I signed my lease in the Old Mill District in 2005. I went into construction to customize the store and opened my doors in ’07,” recalls Sunnarborg. Then the economy tanked. Over the next several years Sunnarborg watched two neighboring major retail chains and a small shoe store close in the Old Mill’s north end. Sunnarborg says, “It was brutal, there were days when no one came in.”
But fortunately that’s changing. Sunnarborg pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and began looking for ways to expand her customer base. “It’s not all western anymore. We offer clothes, boots, jewelry and gifts that fit the Central Oregon lifestyle. I would describe the new Desperado as a mix of bohemian charm with the latest on trend fashion for women and men,” says Sunnarborg. “I’ve expanded our price point too. We still carry many of our high end lines, but if it’s a $39 shirt at Desperado, it’s going to look great and be well made. I’m going to stand behind it.”
Later this fall she plans an exciting transformation for the store with new paint and interior changes that will capture the fresh attention to the latest trend in fashion. And starting on Friday, October 11 through Sunday, October 13, Desperado will celebrate the store’s 17th year of business. Desperado will have a weekend of festivities including trunk shows with Old Gringo Boots, Oregon silver and pewter jewelry maker Toby & Max and Central Oregon artist Barbara Slater.
There will also be a kickoff party and wine tasting Friday night from 5-8pm with Desperado’s new neighbor in the Old Mill District – Naked Winery.
Sunnarborg says, “We hope to have a crowd. We look forward to seeing our loyal customers. We also would love to see people who’ve never shopped with us before. And to our customers who haven’t been by in a while, come see what’s new. Desperado is like a family and our customers are part of it.”
And that Sunnarborg says is reason to celebrate.