By Katie TerBeest  

Using elements that don’t normally coincide, Viroqua artist Jessica Whitecloud Hooper aims to construct a new aesthetic or flavor in everything she produces. “What can I add to tweak the story that already exists for each element I’m using? Whether it’s creating a new cocktail or making a jacket, it’s about telling that new story.”

Jessica Whitecloud Hooper

Hooper’s creative beginnings stem from her childhood growing up in the Los Angeles, California, area. “I grew up quite poor. I remember I would go into the bushes, creating and building little homes and environments. It started as early as I can remember,” she says. “I was making another world, just a little better than the one I lived in. One that matched my aesthetic.”

Hooper studied art and worked for costumers and designers before working on a small T-shirt line that boasted musician Michael Franti as a fan. From there, she began creating unique handbags and fur hats that were sold primarily by word-of-mouth. 

In 2006, seeking a change of pace and new surroundings, Hooper, along with her partner, Paul, and two kids, made the move from Southern California to Viroqua, Wisconsin. As they adjusted to the small town, Hooper fell in love with the quality and quantity of embroidery and handwork she discovered in the Midwest. “It was flooding the thrift stores! I have such an appreciation for time-consuming works—these pieces took hours to make but were being sold for cheap.” Hooper purchased many of the handmade items she discovered to repurpose. “It’s about ‘Frankensteining’ it into a new life so there’s no waste,” she describes. 

Hooper sought out a workspace, and in the end of 2016 came across a pop-up shop program in Viroqua sponsored by the Viroqua Chamber Main Street Program. The program offered entrepreneurs the opportunity to run a business during the holiday season without committing to a lease. While she admits she never really dreamed of having a store, she says “it was an easy adventure with zero risk.” Hooper opened her pop-up shop, which later became a permanent store called The Bon Ton Millinery Apartments. The boutique, which sells hats, scarves, jackets, jewelry and handbags handmade by Hooper, also doubles as her studio. Randy Skinner, who later joined Hooper as her business partner at The Bon Ton, explained that all four of the pop-up shops from last year decided to continue their businesses in Viroqua. 

Hooper credits much of the shop’s success to support from the community in Viroqua and the partnership with Skinner. “We’re able to feed off each other. The more fun we have, the more people enjoy it.” 

For Hooper, creating is always going to be a process, not a production. Whether it’s making a hat out of a vintage fur coat, concocting a new cocktail at Rooted Spoon, or creating an environment (like when she was a part of the design team for the new Kickapoo Coffee café in Viroqua), she develops a personal relationship to it. If it’s a garment, she’ll put it on and look in the mirror. If it’s an environment, she’ll look at how and why the people in it work and move. 

“Every bit of the process is about coming back and understanding the purpose and the story you want to tell,” Hooper says. “Every project grows into itself.”

The Bon Ton Millinery Apartments shop is located at 112 South Main Street in Viroqua, Wisconsin. In addition to handmade items by Hooper, the shop offers both vintage and new clothing along with housewares. For more information, look for The Bon Ton Millinery Apartments on Facebook.