Kristen Lee Cole: Meet the Shopkeeper Behind Some of the Country’s Coolest Boutiques

Kristen Lee Cole: Meet the Shopkeeper Behind Some of the Country’s Coolest Boutiques
Photo: Sarah Hinton, courtesy of ByGeorge

It’s easy to get the idea that if you want to work in fashion, you have to live in New York City—maybe Los Angeles if you want to dress celebrities. But try telling that to Kristen Lee Cole, creative director of not one, but three of the country’s most ahead-of-the-curve boutiques: Tenoversix in LA and Dallas, and By George in Austin, the city she now calls home.

While she did get her start on the East Coast, studying first at NYU and then at Parsons School of Design and working in New York through her 20s, she says moving west—first to LA and then to Austin—provided a welcome change of pace, particularly after becoming a mom. “I left New York because I was a little burnt out on the city and was really curious about LA,” she explains. “LA was wonderful and such a great experience, and Austin was kind of the same thing. It was a little bit of a life curiosity, what would it be like to live in smaller city, especially now that I have a son.”

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Laid-back environment aside, Cole herself has hardly had the chance to slow down. In her role, she oversees buying, marketing, and e-commerce for all three stores, hand-selecting pieces that fit the unique aesthetic of each—not an easy task when you consider how different the customers are, something Cole is clearly finely attuned to. In LA, Tenoversix caters to a creative crowd and stocks emerging, offbeat designers—think wide-leg jumpsuits by Breelayne and hand-painted leather jackets by Veda. “Our main kind of clientele, they generally have very individual style,” says Cole. “They’re not afraid to take chances, but they also like to be cool and relaxed. We understand that aesthetic pretty well as this point.”

At the Dallas store, which opened in 2013 inside The Joule hotel, shoppers tend to be more interested in capital-F fashion. As Cole describes it, “Makeup is always done, hair looks nice—head to toe they are always put together—much more so than with LA women. LA women are more causal, relaxed, and eclectic. In Dallas they like to dress.” Both stores also stock arty housewares and lifestyle goods, a reflection of Cole’s own interests in interiors and design.

By George is the most recent addition to her resume; while the store was founded in 1979, she took the reins as creative director in 2015. There, established brands like Marni and Chloé share the racks with rising stars like Sies Marjan and Jacquemus. Austin, she says, “is a very unpretentious city, a very low-key city—so different from New York, Paris, or London.” That said, “The women here are pretty refined … We sell beautiful pieces and here, women are a little more prone to invest in a really high-quality piece more so than a trend.”

So, how does one person balance such distinct aesthetics? Well, as you might imagine, it takes some serious organization. Working out of either her home office or her office at the boutique, she says, “I basically just wear my By George creative director hat for half the day and then my Tenoversix hat the other half of the day, so I literally split my schedule between the two businesses. I really compartmentalize my days with that work, except for the creative stuff, which falls into both categories.” On a typical workday, she negotiates orders with designers and showrooms, makes buying appointments, approves marketing collateral for stores, advertisements, and events, and produces and oversees e-commerce photography—all the elements that go in to giving a boutique its unique voice.

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This, of course, is on top of raising a family, and Cole is currently pregnant with her second son. “Once I started being a working parent, my time became a lot more precious and I worked a lot harder to fit in everything I wanted to fit in in a day,” she says. “I do have to be pretty meticulous … there’s no downtime, with is a bummer.” She credits her success to schedules, discipline, and a whole lot of lists, and adds that in the time she does get to spend with her family, she does her best to fully disconnect—no iPhone, no email, no distractions.

Sometimes this means cooking at home, and sometimes it means passing along some of her other interests. “I’ve always dragged my sweet little son around to galleries and museums with me. That’s something been really fun for me because I love art and my husband loves art and we both collect, so we bring him along,” she says. Austin’s famous swimming holes also provide a favorite weekend activity.

Usually, Cole would be in the midst of the fashion-week circuit this time of year—a schedule that typically involves jumping between different market appointments, meetings, shows, and presentations every hour—but with her second child due this spring, she’s letting her teams handle the running around while she holds down the fort back home. With another boy on the way, she won’t be going too crazy with the kids’ clothes shopping—her son mostly wears American Apparel and J.Crew, she says—but she does have a few insider tips for cool childrenswear brands: Sweet Williams, Nico Nico, Boy+Girl, and Bobo Choses—plus, of course, the stuff for the little ones they stock at Tenoversix.