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Local Artist Highlight: An Introduction to The August Connection at 325 Division Avenue South

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

Exploring Fashion as an Art Form: Avenue for the Arts visits with an owner of The August Connection on the inspiration and creation of new vintage shop in the Heartside District on Division Avenue South. Interview by Pamela MacDougal.

/Pamela MacDougal

The August Connection Events

Heart Prize: Hosting a pop-up collaboration with local vendor, Downtown Upcycle, offering "new" articles of clothing with material sourced from dismantled "old" clothing. Each piece is designed to be easily altered ... a closet staple able to change as you do. September 16-17, 12 pm - 6 pm.

Heart Prize Specials: Take advantage of store specials with 15% off all Kids Vintage Collection clothing and a "Trunk Sale" with $2 kids' vintage pieces. September 16-17, 12 pm - 6 pm.

ArtPrize Venue:  Honored to present the work of Jennifer Wisniewski, watercolor artist from Muskegon. Join The August Connection for the reveal and opening celebration, tentatively scheduled for September 15, 4 pm - 8 pm.

/Pamela MacDougal

/Pamela MacDougal

Shop owners of South Division are finding new purpose for those grand buildings of another era – too monumental to let go, too cool not to embrace with new (ad)venture. Gleaming and smooth, dark wood beams arc overhead. Substantial moldings and high paneled walls elegantly endure, gracious hosts to the stories unfolding within the barbershop of the former Herkimer Hotel. “Being in this space feels like I’m discovering the hidden secrets of an old city,” says Randi Mikesell, co-owner of The August Connection, with a bit of a sparkle. I feel the magic myself as I sit down in lime velvet chairs to chat about shop life on SoDiv.

How did The August Connection come to be?

Randi and her business partner Matthew Lehman were raised in Michigan, Randi in the Greenville area, and Matthew in Ionia. Randi has been in Grand Rapids since 2006. Matthew now lives in the Creston neighborhood. She and Matthew met 11 years ago while working at Founders Brewing Company. Starting with vintage booths at Michigan fairs, they were quickly hooked. At their first outdoor fair, Randi says “We had no idea what to expect, but the energy there was so incredible, so much fun. It helps to be excited about what you’re doing, and then it gets other people excited!” With success at Vintage in the Zoo, Downtown Market and Fulton Street Market, a permanent location began to make sense.

Though stunning in its woodwork, stained glass details, and large barbershop mirrors, the vast open interior at 325 South Division needed creative talent to suit the needs of a vintage shop. According to Randi, the fitting room was Matthew’s vision, and it suits the space well. He collected beautiful antique doors and custom built a spacious fitting room into a corner of the store. I particularly love the vibrantly colored ceramic parrot hanging at its entrance. Randi says, “A lot of our aesthetic is his creative mind. That’s how he works. He definitely has an eye for designing and creating. And everything is very accessible. So, if you needed to bring a wheelchair into the dressing room, you could do it.” Randi’s vision most definitely includes the encouragement and accommodation of anyone and everyone who might enjoy a fashion moment.

Other shop owners on the block also have been very encouraging, and close friendships are forming. When Randi asked them about whether to open a new shop, they said “Just do it! Just open!” There were so many excuses why the timing might not be right, but she says, “There’s never a ‘right time.’ We took a big chance, and we’ve had a fantastic response. Lots of returning customers we’ve gotten to know well. They come in and bring their friends.”

What’s different about The August Connection?

These clothes have been curated. Rack after rack of clothes, already winnowed by expert selection to the most striking designs and quality vetted, make for a fun afternoon. Though they have unique styles, Randi and Matthew share the same love for vintage fashion and décor. They collaborate by managing branded lines within the store. Randi assembles the “Stargazer Collection” while Matthew puts together “North Avenue Vintage.”

With a background in theater and acting, Randi has a natural sense of costume. Her dream was to turn her love of vintage clothes and fashion “into a real thing.” She says, “you have to follow your passion … otherwise, you just don’t know if it could have worked out!” She and Matthew have dedicated their artistic abilities to leverage your time in finding a stunning piece. This is no average consignment shop. In fact, this is not a consignment shop at all. Items in this store have been acquired for resale – they have to be a cut above.

What does Randi love about fashion? “Being able to express yourself through fashion,” she says. “I love people to try stuff on just to experience it, even if they don’t buy anything.” The clothes often trigger fond memories for people; they reminisce about other times in their lives.  Randi and Matthew attempt to stock all sizes, and their goal is to have sizes for everyone. A lot of vintage fashion runs very small, and they don’t want anyone to feel excluded from shopping in the store. They make an effort to have offerings for anyone who might find vintage fashion fun.

Randi points to a multi-tiered rack, “Kids’ vintage clothing is like my baby. I have been curating my collection for quite some time. I have young kids. I loved picking out clothes. I have had fun since they were itty-bitty, buying high quality vintage for them.” Though the store appears well-stocked with adult fashion, this interest in children’s clothing distinguishes The August Connection from other vintage shops. Randi explains, “We have newborn to teen sizes which is quite unique, and I’m really proud of it. It has been so cool to see children come in and try things on – you can see that excitement and empowerment of being able to express themselves through fashion … finding that t-shirt that allows them to express themselves.”

For anyone who loves design, a walk through The August Connection is a real pleasure. Imagine you can select a piece from any time period, unrestricted by current fads, every item already screened good style and construction. Unlimited color choices and favorites of every era suddenly offer up that exact shade of carnelian. You probably didn’t even know that’s what you’ve been missing. Roller skates with wooden wheels. An adorable Peanuts t-shirt and denim flares for your fashion conscious five-year old. A batman lunch box. While you contemplate your choices, feel free to stop for a quick game of Ms. Pacman on the vintage arcade game.

What’s happening during ArtPrize?

The August Connection is excited to host the work of Jennifer Wisniewski, a watercolor artist from Muskegon. The shop will have extended hours into the evening on more nights of the week. The opening reception is tentatively scheduled for Friday, September 15, from 4 pm – 8 pm.

What does the future hold?

The owners of August Connection are planning lots of exciting events.  Because they just opened in June of this year, they are still putting ideas in motion and feeling very new.  The shop will offer special deals and participate in Heart Prize, September 16-17, in collaboration with Downtown Upcycle. The Heartside District will have a trolley, art activities and a tour of city history – all free.

Randi and Matthew are getting more involved with the Heartside Business Association, generally. There are thoughts about a “vintage passport” for shopping all vintage shops all over the city. Randi says, “I am excited to participate more with the other business to increase the momentum of people coming to this area – bringing people down here to see what we are doing. We have a critical mass of vintage shopping to offer on South Division. No matter age, size or financial situation, people can come in and find something they love. We have prices points from $2 to $180.” She notes that given what this area has to offer, adding another vintage store is like adding another special topping to a fabulous cake. 

What are your best moments?

As they put the shop together, Randi felt amazed by all the help they had, “I remember carrying that arcade game in here with our closest friends helping us, and I thought, ‘This is work, we are working right now! And we’re doing something we love to do.’ When we were bringing that countertop in – it’s 13 feet long – that was the last piece. I thought, ‘It’s coming together.’”  Randi recalls, “When we opened, we hosted a friends and family gathering here, and it was an incredible feeling to see so many people – some we hadn’t seen in quite some time – come and support us. We were finally sharing it with all these people who loved and supported us.”

And perhaps the best moment of all was the review by her most important critics … “Having my kids come in here and say ‘this is so cool!’ It has been a lot of work, so time consuming. But they can see what I’ve done, and they are so proud of me.”

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