Chicago-based pin shop owner adds a little ‘FLAIR’ to life
“Pins are a great way to express yourself, and kind of put out into the world who you are as a person…I called the shop FLAIR because they add a little flair to your life. Even someone who wears all black can buy pins and express themselves. People who don’t dress fancy, it’s a whatever whatever way to spice up your wardrobe, but also show people who you are and the things you love.”
Melisser Elliott is a pin shopkeeper by day and a drag queen by night.
When the Chicago-based 37-year-old isn’t operating her business FLAIR Chicago, a storefront that also sells patches and vintage clothing in the Logan Square neighborhood, she’s often performing as “Fay Ludes.”
Fay Ludes, a play on the word Quaaludes, is a vintage and psychedelic-inspired glamour clown character that works between 10 and 15 shows per month. She hosts the show “Let’s Make a Diva” Thursday nights at Hamburger Mary’s and a queer punk party and drag show called Spit’n Glitter at the dive bar Slippery Slope.
“A lot of times I’m leaving FLAIR to go be at a nightclub until like 2 in the morning. So it’s a pretty exhausting existence that I live,” she said. “That’s actually why we recently reduced our hours. Because it just wasn’t sustainable for me.”
Elliott describes her drag persona as being retro, but also very high energy. Some people consider her to be some kind of “kooky aunt” character, she said.
“A lot of my clothing are 60s and 70s style, but I’m also a dancer. So I think people are surprised because most people don’t clock my age, but, ya know, they don’t always know what to expect,” she said.
“Especially when I come out in some vintage outfit. But then I do kicks and splits and all kinds of things like that that they don’t typically see coming.”
While she’s always had an affinity for drag queens—20 years ago she had pictures of them on her wall—she never thought that she would go on to become one herself. Even a year ago, when she first started dabbling with the idea of doing drag, she never would have guessed that it would become such a big part of her life.
It began when she was looking for people to go to drag shows with. A friend of hers, who also happened to be a drag queen, suggested that she give it a try.
“When I started I thought ‘how much space in the queer community, in the drag community, is there for a 36-year-old AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) performer? I’m going to get booked like twice a month—and that’s cool. That’s enough for me.’ But then it kind of just took off.”
A “Flair” for business
Elliott opened FLAIR Chicago a year and a half ago after a unique opportunity fell into her lap.
Someone had approached her and asked if she had ever considered a storefront for her pin line, Sabretooth Dream, which includes designs inspired by food, animals and drag queens. The stranger had a spot available in Logan Square that he said was quite affordable.
Elliott was broke, but felt that it couldn’t hurt to at least go look. After all, she had always wanted to open up her own boutique.
“So I went and looked at this spot and there was actually some room to live in the back. I was living with a bunch of roommates and hating it. So I asked ‘So, can I live here, too?’” she said. “They were like, not legally, but we don’t care. I ended up opening FLAIR on a shoestring budget because it was only $550 a month and I could live there.”
At that time, she was one of the founders of Girl Pin Gang, a collective of women and gender-queer pin and patch makers whose mission was empower and engage while promoting the members of the collective. The group has since disbanded, but at that time, Girl Pin Gang had nearly 80K followers on Instagram.
Elliott turned to all of the artists she already knew through the collective and they helped fill her shelves with stock.
Later, she had to come up with new ways to select her inventory, and discovered that it can often be an overwhelming experience. She receives a lot of requests from customers who have ideas of what they would like to see in the store. Sometimes, artists reach out to her directly. Elliott also just orders things when she spots something interesting online and suspects will do well.
“I find it very hard to curate the store now, just because everyone is a pin maker now,” she said. “You know, when I opened the store a year and a half ago, there were like 50 people making pins. The popular pin makers, the dominant narrative, there were only a handful of people who were at the top of the game. Where, now, the market is very saturated.”
Flair shoppers won’t find any “big name” artists in the store. Well-known, more mainstream pin-makers often have order quantity minimums—and this doesn’t work with Elliott’s budget. So she sticks with the little guys, artists and tiny companies who are flexible when she informs them she has just $100 to place an order.
“A lot of it comes down to smaller makers who understand our vision and can work with us,” she said.
“It’s a pin shop. We make our rents $5 at a time– that’s the profit on a pin. So the cash flow isn’t always super great in a small community-based shop like this.”
FLAIR Chicago usually has between 150 and 200 enamel pins on its shelves at any given time and one display in the store, that Elliot calls “the pin wall,” can hold about 140 pins on its own. The store places an emphasis on queer and feminist pins, as clientele “tends to be on the young, queer side,” she explained. But she also carries pop culture and nostalgia themed pins that are quite popular.
What people want tends to change, she said, but, she does her best to ensure that anyone can walk through the doors of her business and find something that they identify with. When pin collectors come into the store, they tend to acknowledge that there’s a good selection—and for the most part, buy at least one pin.
“I try to make sure there’s something for everyone,” she said. “I still give first priority on the shelves to marginalized people, whether that’s people of color or women or queer individuals.”
Strummer, the Shop Dog
Throughout my interview with Elliott, she kept using the word “we” when referring to her business and its practices. I hadn’t heard mention of a business partner, so I asked for clarification.
“No, it’s me and my dog,” she laughed. “I wouldn’t own this store without her so it’s just as much her store as it is mine.”
Strummer, a two-pound, 10-year-old Chihuahua is often seen seated on Elliott’s lap while she works, much to the delight of customers.
When her dog became ill nearly three years ago, Elliott came up with a creative way to raise funds for her vet bills: She made her very first enamel pin, one that looked like Strummer.
The pin is still available and is sold at FLAIR and online through Elliott’s brand Sabretooth Dream. Though it has since been reduced from being about an inch long, to ¾ of an inch long—so it’s tiny, just like Strummer. It remains the shop owner and artist’s all-time favorite pin.
“It will probably be in the line forever. When people come into FLAIR and they fall in love with her, they see that she has a pin,” she said.
“I’m like ‘oh, wow, my little dog made enough of an impact on you that you want to buy a little pin of her so that you can think about her?’ It’s very cute to me.”