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A critique of ‘boutique’

The East Terrace apartments at 1530 N. Jackson St., Milwaukee, are billed as “14 boutique apartments.” (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Joe Yovino

Finding Wisconsin construction projects, companies or hotels billed as “boutique” is easy.

Figuring out exactly what people mean when they use that word is another story. It doesn’t seem to have a definition that applies to all of its uses in Wisconsin’s business world, but at least it sounds good, bringing to mind a quiet space to escape some bustling thoroughfare in Paris.

Maybe it’s that imagery that is behind “boutique” popping up on more and more construction sites and Internet ads for places to stay.

The seemingly random use of the word might have originated on the U.S. coasts and worked inland. Milwaukee now has a handful of “boutique hotels.” The Iron Horse Hotel near Milwaukee’s boutique-y Third Ward bills itself as “a NY or LA boutique hotel, delivered with our famous Midwestern friendliness.”

So, apparently boutiques can be delivered.

The Brewhouse Inn and Suites at the old Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee is described as everything a “premier boutique hotel in Milwaukee should be.”

If only there was an explanation of what it should be.

A call to The Brewhouse Inn, which opened in late May, yields this response from the front desk: “Boutique just means we have different styles of rooms in different sizes. They all have kitchenettes.”

Wait, so that’s it? But I have a small kitchen in my townhouse and also have different sizes and styles of rooms. I hope my landlord doesn’t realize I’m renting boutique space. Whatever it is, it sounds expensive.

Even the guys working on these projects don’t know what the term means. Catalyst Construction’s Larry Cook knows technique. Boutique? Not so much.

Cook is a site supervisor for the construction of 14 boutique apartments going up on Milwaukee’s east side. The development includes 12 two-bath, two-bedroom apartments and two one-bath, one-bedroom apartments. The sign atop the apartment building’s shell reads “East Terrace … 14 boutique apartments.”

“What are they calling it?” Cook asked. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is construction techniques are no different. They can call it anything they want to.”

If the construction guys don’t know what “boutique” means, surely it must be a marketing term.

Jen Bauer, director of marketing for Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. Inc., said a business development professional at Miron told her he has heard the phrase before but does not really understand why it’s used.

As for Bauer, she said she’s heard it used to describe some hotels and health care operations. She assumes, she said, it means smaller, upscale facilities.

Lindsay Schiller, marketing manager at Milwaukee-based C.G. Schmidt Inc., said she doesn’t use the term.

People should, but won’t, follow Schiller’s lead. If the word translates into sales, nobody cares what it means. And if one person is in a boutique then everyone else wants to be in one too.

But not me. I bid adieu to boutique.

Joe Yovino is the Web editor at The Daily Reporter. He’s going to Milwaukee’s Bastille Days this weekend to work on his French.

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