Three’s the Charm

BY TORI COSCAS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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First things first: It’s Trés Carmen, with the first word pronounced “trace,” as in the Spanish word for three, not “tray” as in the French word très, meaning “very.” This is an allusion to the three stylish Carmens in the family—owner Michelle Tarleton and Tarleton’s mother and daughter. It’s also a play on words, which manages to work her son’s name—Trace—and her mother’s Spanish heritage into the mix. That’s a lot of personal history, a winking nod to the French boutique concept and a homophone worked into one little store name.

If anything, it’s a metaphor for both the store’s contents and petite owner Tarleton herself, who’s stylish, concise and clever. It’s not surprising that Tarleton, a pretty and fashionable 30-something from Cheraw, South Carolina, was voted Best Dressed in high school. “Clothes were a hobby for a long time!” Tarleton says proudly.

But it’s a bit surprising that she was a high school science teacher (she taught chemistry, biology and physics) for 13 years. Out of the classroom, however, fashion captivated her. She thought more about the transmutation of style, the life cycle of a trend and the elements of a great outfit.

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Tarleton’s husband, Kelly, recognized where her true interests were, and gave her all the push she needed when he said, “Why don’t you open a clothing store of your own?”

Why not, indeed? Being an analytical thinker, Tarleton tested the market with trunk shows throughout James Island, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms and Daniel Island. (She also fielded her husband’s astonished questions: “What’s a trunk show? Are you literally going to sell clothes out of the trunk of your car?!”)

The response was incredible. In just six months, she opened a retail space on James Island. The clothing, shoes and accessories shop, tucked away in a leafy strip off of Folly Road, echoes Tarleton’s personal aesthetic: functional, stylish and surprising.

The compact store is colorful, inviting and stocked with perfectly on-trend items, unexpected finds and wonderfully wearable pieces. The store telegraphs “accessible” in the best way. It’s simultaneously impressive and approachable.

“The word that comes to mind for me is ready-to-wear,” explains Tarleton. “People come in and sometimes get ready in the dressing room. From an oyster roast to a cocktail party, I can get you ready for it.”

The well-curated mix includes pieces by Julie Brown, Tracy Negoshian, BCBG, DL1961, Citizens of Humanity, BB Dakota, Missy Robertson, Dolce Vita footwear and many more, including local brands Escapada, AnnaBelle LaRoque (Columbia, S.C.) and Beija Flor jeans (Greenville, S.C.).

On a recent visit, standouts included bold Hoopla earrings, bright geo print Jude Connally pieces in easy-care fabric, and pendant necklaces by Charlene K. I also saw a certain pair of shoes, of which my friend owns three pairs. Seems my friend has been trying to keep her source to herself by saying the shoes were from ‘a little boutique’—then wandering off before she remembers the name.

Accessories from the likes of Bourbon and Boweties, La Vie Parisienne, GiGi New York and Lilly Pulitzer; foundations from Hanky Panky and Spanx; and a Clemson–USC Game Day corner featuring handmade (by Tarleton) black-eyed pea and corn kernel belt buckles round out the shop. “All ages shop here,” says Tarleton.

Tarleton travels to shows—Atlanta, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles—about every other month to acquire new items for her shop. Her guiding principle is wearability with an eye toward style.

“I don’t painstakingly go through everything. I browse, I respond. If it’s high-high price-wise, I think twice. If it’s a little less expensive, I look at quality. If it’s of good quality, I get it,” explains Tarleton.

She seems to be in the right ballpark. Items run from $25 to $285. Some items are so well priced that a digit seems to be missing. “A lot of people come in and are shocked at our pricing. A consistent compliment we get is that our price points are awesome,” says Tarleton.

The response to her retail space was over the top. Within a year of opening, she was invited to Charleston Fashion Week 2014. “The CFW representative came in and asked for me, and I thought she was just going to ask us to be a vendor,” Tarleton says.

Instead, Trés Carmen was invited to participate in the runway shows, the highlight of Fashion Week. “We did a runway show of 20 looks. It was amazing. It was truly the most exciting thing that happened all year,” she says. After her fashions rocked the runway opening night, Tarleton spent the next night as a judge for the Emerging Designers.

The store also received quite a few nods in this year’s City Paper’s “Best Of” edition, where the boutique showed up on the ballot in Best Boutique, Best Women’s Clothing and Best Accessories Store categories. “We were honored to be in the top four in three categories after only a year of being open,” says Tarleton.

The storefront is only part of the picture. Tarleton works Facebook and Instagram to great effect. “I post two to three times a day,” she says, about sales, new merchandise or special store events. If she gets an item she knows is right for a customer, she will take it upon herself to send a personal text.

Non-locals find her online all the time. “I ship every day. Every day,” she says, sounding both proud and perhaps a little tired of hauling boxes. “All across the United States and recently to Italy.”

Tarleton has also debuted trescarmen.com. The site features merchandise that’s different from what’s in-store and has Tarleton attending even more trade shows, but she couldn’t be happier: “It’s a passion that became a reality.”

Tori Coscas is a Charleston-based writer.