A Rebel Heart Beats in Downtown Montpelier

Courtesy of Rebel Heart

By Mike Dunphy

Jenny Sebold wears her heart on her sleeve—literally. The anatomically correct tattoo on her left shoulder and biceps isn’t just a decoration, but a symbol of inspiration born of a will to survive and push forward after a divorce and all the difficult life changes that come with it. This same rebel heart—and spirit—is now affixed to her new clothing and accessories store on State Street.

Rebel Heart Collective has been a long time coming, growing in Sebold’s mind in the many years she spent merchandising, buying, and managing for downtown shops such as The Trading Company, Zutano, and Salaam, where she served as opening manager. The fact that she’s in the same space as Salaam—which moved three doors down in August—is not lost on her. “That was one of the things that was kind of cool about my space now, is that I was there when they opened up Salaam.”

Fashion has always been a source of joy for Sebold, and she recalls many a trip down to vintage shops in Boston from her high school home in New Hampshire to buy overalls she’d convert into skirts—an extension of the sewing lessons she received from her family. “I started sewing when I was a kid. My great aunt Stella taught me how to make Barbie clothes, and my mom used to make a lot of my clothes, too.” Considering fashion as an actual career path took a little more time and acceptance. “I remember someone asking me at one point, ‘What is it that you are really good at doing? Do what you love.’  I felt kind of embarrassed to say  ‘shopping.’ I’m really good at shopping.”

Today, she’s turned that embarrassment into confidence, as she prepares for the grand opening of the store (yet to be announced). It started with gutting the Salaam space, with the help of the Underwood Brothers Building Company (discovering long-lost back windows along the way) to create a tuned-up version of a classic general store that draws heavily from Texas tradition. “I love Texas. There are a lot of good things, fashion wise, that have come out of Texas. So there is definitely a western infusion into what I am presenting now.”

Courtesy of Rebel Heart

If the distressed 48-star flag hanging from the wall doesn’t prove the point, look to the inventory that embraces a “modern prairie aesthetic,” with wool prairie dresses, vintage threads, horse hats, leather booties and belts, jewelry, body fragrances, and accessories galore. Many of the brands are by small-batch producers, such as Charlie 1 Horse, Amsha, Gentle Fawn, and Revivall, and often local, such as Champlain Leather and April Cornell. “When it’s all said and done, my vision for Rebel Heart is 60 percent clothing and 40 percent other. Pretty much everything in here, I can say, ‘That’s my favorite.’”

Men’s clothing is a large part of the mix, fluctuating between 30 and 40 percent of the inventory at any given time. “I am super excited to sell men’s clothing,” she explains, but acknowledges the challenge of it. “Guys are really hard to buy for, because it’s got to be really well made and really affordable. If you buy a shirt and love it, you wear it for 20 years and don’t get another one.”

Will Vermont’s famously relaxed fashion sense provide enough customers? Sebold does admit the pressure to dress in fine dudds is not nearly as strong as in major cities such as Boston, Montreal, and New York, but that doesn’t mean Vermont isn’t fashionable. “I think Vermont definitely has a sense of aesthetics, and in that regard, we have our own fashion, whether we want to admit it or not, that some other parts of the country are trying to emulate,” noting the trend of “lumbersexuals.”

As with any new store opening in Montpelier, there’s the question of downtown’s retail viability, which has long been suffering, as expressed by president of the Montpelier Business Association and owner of Bailey Road, Sarah DeFelice, who noted in a Facebook post before the election, “Many of us are one bad retail season away from closing our doors.” But Sebold, who has lived in Montpelier for 20 years, is optimistic about and encouraged by the changes coming to downtown. “I feel really excited about what’s going on in Montpelier. I feel like there’s energy picking up and revitalization happening.”

Much of that is tied to the new hotel and parking garage, which Sebold very much supports. She also bemoans with a heavy sigh the continued fight against it, and the resistance to nearly any change downtown. “Honestly, I think that’s one of the things that’s kept Montpelier back and made it so tough for businesses to succeed,” she explains. “The community talks about how they want to be vibrant, but when people try to do something, we’re going to hem and haw, because it’s different.”

The city needs more parking, she emphasizes, and that it’s been a major problem for a long time. “It’s a no-brainer,” she explains, “If someone asks, ‘Do you support the parking garage?’ I say, ‘Yes. I wish it were four stories taller, personally, so we can have more space for more people in this town. It’s the capital of Vermont.’”

And there is no option but success for Sebold. “My whole entire skin is in this game. My whole entire everything. I did the whole thing: quit my job, liquidate, and put everything into my dream. It is a big risk, but I came in thinking, ‘Yes, it’s all going to be great.’ I know it; I’m confident in it; I think if you have a dream you have to do that.”

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