The Notorious Betty True

The city of Chattanooga has gone under quite a renaissance in the past two decades. Many credit the revitalization of the riverfront, others tech – after all we are home of the world’s fastest internet, but the true reason Chattanooga is shining bright are the many colorful personalities that make up the Scenic City. Betty True is one of those personalities. True is the owner and proprietor of Backstreet Betty’s Boutique, a ladies clothing and accessories store that celebrates 15 years in business this month. Many know True for her avid support of the arts, especially music along being one of the city’s first true fashionistas. Originally opening in the heart of Jack’s Alley downtown in 2004 until relocating a few years back to the Northshore, many a young lady and young adult has crossed her threshold looking for the right dress for a formal, party or casual evening out with friends. Always with a welcoming smile and a hands on approach, Betty True is one of the reasons Chattanooga is a great place.

15 years? Has it really been 15 years that Backstreet Betty’s opened?

It can’t be. It can’t possibly be because I don’t think I’m that old. (both laugh)

It seems like I’ve known you forever. Back when we first met you were in the music business. You were always the best-dressed person at the studio and stuff like that, so you’ve always had a sense for fashion.

Aw, thanks. I’ve always loved fashion for sure and I’ve always loved music, so it’s the best of both worlds. Who could ask for anything better, really?

Have you always combined music and fashion? Both play a very important role in your life.

Well, I think they play an important role in general – to me they have always. For me in particular fashion and music go hand-in-hand. It always has. As a young kid watching American Bandstand and checking out the new styles and the dance moves and hearing the music – it was all one big world for me. When I was living in Hollywood, California as a young child with my aunt and uncle after my mother passed, and my dad being in the military, we drove around one Christmas Eve looking for Santa. We stopped at a red light and I heard music and looked out the window and saw beautiful people, a beautiful woman in a long white coat and heard music I never heard before. I fell in love immediately. It was no turning back after that.

You were working for a promotional agency and then all of a sudden you open up a shop. How did this come about? Was it an overnight kind of thing or something you had been planning? I know you opened a boutique close to The University of the South a little earlier called B. True before Backstreet Betty’s.

Yes, I did. That was the first shop. I ended up opening Backstreet Betty’s a year-and-a-half later. How I evolved through the years with different things before music and then to fashion and boutiques was a timeframe of change. I sold real estate, sold custom-built log homes for seven years. While in Monteagle, the college up there – University of the South – Sewanee there were lots of cute girls with nowhere to shop. I started a little side business doing that and it was taken so well that I decided, “Hey, I don’t know if I want to get outside in rainy days with real estate or build homes any more. Let’s see what happens with this indoor stuff and cute clothes.” So I started the first shop in Monteagle and branched out in 2004 to here. I’ve been here 15 years this year and I can’t believe it.

I’ve been in your shop many times and people come in all the time asking your advice on fashion. How did you develop your fashion sense?

You know, it’s different things with that. I did attend a small college here back in the ‘80s for fashion merchandising and I worked at the mall and did different things like that and I wanted to get more involved with that. I always had that under the belt when I worked at the mall. I don’t know, my fashion sense is not your typical catalog fashion sense because of my love of music. I guess I have a rocker side and I have a daytime hippie vibe, too. To me, my mix of fashion is a little bit ‘70s, a little bit ‘80s – I’m telling my age here: to me that’s the best of both worlds because you have daytime – light, easy-breezy. Boho feel good vibe and then at night if you’re going to go out and about town I think you’ve got to dress it up and be a little funky and cool and sparkle and shine a little bit. That’s what I like. That’s just my taste in general. It may not fit everybody, but that’s what I like.

How do you balance fashion and living in general? A lot of people can be too fashion conscious, while others admit they need serious help with their fashion. What’s a happy medium to you?

That’s so funny you say that because I really a laid back person when it comes to fashion. I’m kind of lazy. On the average day at the shop you’ll catch me in a flannel shirt, t-shirt, leggings, some boots and that’s about it. And at nighttime if I’m going to go somewhere and want to plan for a good party night, I go straight to the side of my closet that has sparkle and shine, sequins and snakeskin and all these things I like for myself that I think is always fashionable as trends come and go. I stay true to myself with the things I like, but that might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s definitely me.

How has fashion trends mirrored your own taste in clothes? Being a boutique owner you attend shows to see what’s going on and trending. Do you agree with a lot of the fashion trends you’ve seen over the years?

I like fashion in general, so there’s never been a time where I didn’t see anything I totally disagreed with because there’s always that type of person that that’s going to be their sense of style and I think that’s what makes it so interesting. Trends come and go – and I like trends. I think it’s interesting to see how they come back and what particular people like those trends. But you always have to have your own your basics and your staples in a retail store to have customers come in on a regular basis. So therefore you try to have a little bit of everything and chase some of those trends yearly, but you can’t in Chattanooga go fully trend on because when you go on buying trips out of town – and I’ve been to New York, Vegas, Los Angeles and now these days I mostly go to Atlanta. During the bigger shows a lot of L.A. reps come in and they definitely refer to girls in this region of the United States as “the girls with the pearls”. And it’s pretty much true. It’s the girls that like the pretty sundresses and light easy-breezy fashion – and that’s always a staple in our area. But then again with trends with the Kardashians these days and everything else you’re always going to have a lot of things on YouTube channels, you’re going to see on reality TV and they’re going to be really fast trends that are very now. And it’s harder than ever these days to stay on top of that because a lot of times if you see it on TV and all of a sudden girls in Chattanooga want that and by the time you find it and get it in – even three weeks later it’s already faded fast. It’s hard to stay with trends these days, so you have to do your basics and your staples – always.

With the Kardashians and other reality shows based around fashion and style does that make your job harder as a retailer?

Oh, it definitely does. You know what really been kind of weird lately and different? Like I said, you’ll see me on a random day in a t-shirt with a flannel shirt, boots and leggings is the new active sportswear look that all these girls are wearing if they need to or not – and I say that tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being mean, but it’s a lot of sports bras, loose fitting tops, off the shoulder looks, tight leggings – showing everything and I think that looks wonderful. I love it myself and it’s so comfortable, but it’s kind of dominated the fashion part of I need a new top to go with these jeans to go out because day into night you can put that look together and pretty much go anywhere in this laid back society of dress that we have in Chattanooga in particular and be okay. So for me I can definitely say it’s definitely shifted the buying end of casual wear.

With guys you always hear they should have certain staples in their wardrobe like a blue blazer, a pair of khakis and a nice white dress shirt. What should every female have as a staple in their wardrobe?

Everybody is different. It depends on their sense of style I think, but I think it just makes sense these days to have a really good black blazer. My friends tease me and say, “Betty was born in a black blazer” – and it’s probably true because I’ll put a black blazer over a t-shirt and jeans. I’ll wear it over a pretty dress with heels. I’ll wear it pretty much over anything, so I think a black blazer is a good staple to have. Along with that, gold is a bigger look these days with jewelry whether it be smaller jewelry or larger pieces with fringe or beads or medallions. To me mainstream fashion has gotten so basic in a lot of ways that accessories are definitely what you need to update on a regular basis and you’ll be okay with what your staple in your closet is – as long as you update your accessories.

You’ve been around for 15 years now and a lot of your clothes are very trendsetting – some may say youth-oriented. Have you been able to keep a customer base or do you have a lot of turnover because of the fashions you sell?

I’ll say yes and no to that. I’ve been in Chattanooga for 15 years now. Girls will come in the shop that say I bought my dress to go to my senior dance from you. And then they’ll shop with me through college and now they’re young moms with kids. Their tastes have definitely changed, but overall there are always looks everybody wants and so you’ve got to go mainstream with those things. It’s not trendy things. Trends may be a little more edgy this year and a little more played down next year, but as long as you have a lot of those looks that will fit different body types and are age friendly I’d like to say we have kept most of our customer base. I even have moms bringing their daughters in to shop – and that brings me the most joy than anything.

Is it harder to get new customers in? The reason I ask that is because we’re talking the online generation where kids don’t traditionally go into brick and mortar stores as much any more, because it seems if they would come into a store – depending on the customer service you could theoretically win over a customer for life.

That’s true and we have great customer service in my store and I don’t think any of my customers would say differently or any of my newcomers would say differently. I’m very big on customer service and any girl that’s ever helped me at the store or works with me now will tell you that. I like my customers. I appreciate their business. I wouldn’t be here for 15 years if I wasn’t doing something right. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m probably not doing everything right with these changing days because so many girls order online. It’s that easy and it’s an on demand society. But we will keep doing as much as we can to keep our customers happy and satisfied and bring in the things we need to bring in – some of this, some of that and try to have something to please everybody. Another thing in Chattanooga, we have a lot of tourist business in Chattanooga, so those people come from all over. So that makes me happy knowing that. If it’s something that’s not going to go with our city well with what everybody wants to wear to school or what their friends are wearing in our area you can throw that out a little more in the summertime because you’re going to have people coming from all different states and cities that will like it for them or where they’re from if it’s not someone’s cup of tea here in Chattanooga.

Online shopping has affected your business to a degree. How are you able to compete with online shopping?

It’s hard. It’s super hard. You have these companies online that will say, “Buy this and I’ll send it to you for free. If you don’t love it in a month send it back for free.” And it gives that girl the timeframe of a month to love it or hate it or maybe even wear it – I don’t know. I’m not saying that happens, but a month is a long time. It’s definitely got to hurt brick and mortar stores like myself, but it’s the way of the world. What we rely on is our good customer service, having what the customers want and maybe a little extra that they’ll appreciate to keep coming in.

A lot of people don’t realize there’s more to owning a boutique than unlocking the doors and having inventory. How much homework do you have to do on fashion and the retail business as a whole?

Oh, every night after work. I work the dayshift and my daughter Shana helps out so much at the shop. She’s there every day. It’s freed up my time a lot, but every day I’m checking with vendors, looking over my orders, seeing what’s trending on TMZ and whatnot and all these crazy things to see if maybe I’m missing something. I’m looking at magazines online, checking with my vendors to see if there’s something new if they’ll alert me and say this is a new trend we didn’t have in here and maybe something you want to think about, so it’s a day to day thing for sure. But if you love it it’s never work because I would be looking at things like that or buying a magazine every day.

Backstreet Betty’s is celebrating 15 years. When you talk to musicians they’ll talk about how they’ve grown or evolved from the time they started to where they are now. How do you feel Backstreet Betty’s or Betty True has evolved or changed since you first opened the shop?

After 15 years I’m sure I’ve changed a lot in a lot of ways that I don’t realize, but I’m sure it’s for the better and going forward like everyone else. But I will always love my colorful easy breezy tops with jeans for the day and my snazzy jazzy leather pants or sparkly mini skirts, leather jacket or something fun for nighttime wear. And I’ll always have one of my snakeskin clutches from my collection of 22 bags through the years with me wherever I go – and that’s what I’d do.

You’ve got to be ready for that next concert.

I’ve got to be ready for that next concert! Riverbend’s coming up this year and it’s only four days, but I’m ready for it. Working as artist’s relations is always fun. I’m excited for the four days and I’m excited for the lineup. I know a lot of feedback says on social media or whatnot people aren’t so stoked. But you know, all in all the timeframe’s great. You’re not running parallel to the CMAs or Bonnaroo and here in your hometown we spend $70 or so for a ticket for four nights of really good music and you can even Uber there and not drive and even if you drive to park it’s still less than in any major U.S. city. I’m stoked for that. It’s going to be a fun season.

It’s your 15th anniversary – a big birthday and all that, what plans do you have for Backstreet Betty’s moving forward?

These challenging days with all the online buying and quick trends and everything that we were talking about I’m just going to keep going forward. I’m just going to keep doing what I like, what I feel my customers like – try to bring more of that – some of this and that and just try to change with the times and stay true to ourselves, too so our moms of today who were my customers 15 years ago in junior high school or high school still love us enough to come in and see us and say “hi” and let us help them find something really cute for their lifestyle of today.

– Dave Weinthal