Inside Track: Kutt is the confidence maven
Owner of Mod Bettie Portraits/Naughty Bettie provides ‘safe and supportive’ space for female self-expression.
Elise Kutt moved to Grand Rapids in 2013 knowing the photography market was saturated and she would have to offer something more than camera skills.
Kutt, a Howell native, had just wrapped up a four-year stint in Chicago, where she earned a BFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and worked a fast-paced job as a scout for advertising photo and film shoots for Kate Levinson, owner of Levinson Locations.
“Say Chevy wants to shoot their car at sunrise with the perfect skyline behind it. That’s what I’d do, is set out on foot and take every shot from every angle possible to show that crew from across the country what that would look like so that when they fly everybody in, they would know what they’re getting into,” Kutt said.
She had recently reconnected with a friend she’d known since seventh grade, Tyler Kutt, and they began dating. When the pair started talking marriage, she stipulated she needed two more years in Chicago working for Levinson to gain additional experience before moving back to Michigan.
As the clock ticked, Kutt researched the market in West Michigan trying to find out how to carve out a niche for herself. She noticed there were a lot of boudoir photography/vintage photography businesses in larger cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, but nothing in Grand Rapids.
In 2013, Kutt got engaged to her now-husband, moved to Grand Rapids and started working for a local photographer who was renting studio space in a warehouse on the city’s southwest side. The photographer soon decided to transition to a home-based business, and in 2014, Kutt took over the studio at 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW and opened Mod Bettie Portraits.
During Kutt’s years studying and practicing photography, she had picked up special knowledge of poses for the female form as opposed to the male form. During college, she did a lot of self-portraits experimenting with vintage ensembles. Looking back, she realized those portraits captured her feeling “the best I’d ever felt, that I was confident, and I liked myself,” she said.
Her goal with Mod Bettie is to offer an all-in-one service — from outfits to poses, lighting, furniture, hair, makeup and ambiance — that makes women feel confident and beautiful.
Kutt said she is able to create that experience because of a skill she didn’t know she had until she started the business.
“I had no idea that I had the magical superpower of making people feel so comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” she said. “I just knew I liked to shoot in all these special scenarios. It wasn’t until people started telling me how I make them feel … (that I learned) that.”
Kutt builds rapport with her clients over several meetings. Her most popular package, the four-hour shoot, isn’t just a half-day deal.
“It includes two in-person consultations, a four-hour shoot and an in-person ordering appointment. So, it starts with your first appointment, where you come in and you tour the studio, we talk about how you dream about being photographed and whether we’re going to be a good fit for each other,” Kutt said.
“Then, the next appointment is usually a week or two before their shoot, and they come in and ... bring everything they might want to wear. I pull everything out of the crazy closet across the hall and we just play dress up. We find exactly what five outfits they will wear to their shoot so that they can leave anything behind that they want to wear and show up on shoot day with a cup of coffee, rolled out of the shower, clean, dry hair and ready to rock and roll.
“It’s supposed to be super non-stressful. … It’s meant to be whatever that looks like for you.”
Kutt also does “personal branding sessions,” which can be used for professional headshots and a social media kit, as well as modern style sessions, generation and family shoots, maternity sessions, high school senior photos and commercial work.
A while back, Kutt did a photo session for Latesha Lipscomb, owner of I Got Face Cosmetic Concierge, and it led to a new opportunity.
“(Latesha said) what you do makes me feel amazing. It’s just incredible. Let’s do an event,” said Kutt, who immediately agreed. In June 2017, the two partnered on a body positivity event called Let Them Eat Cake, where women came together at the Mod Bettie studio, dressed up, shared stories and posed for photos.
The partners followed up with more events, such as Eat More Cake, Cake for Breakfast and Hotcakes.
In June 2018, Kutt and her team of three contractors started a private Facebook group, #SquadBettie, that “exploded beyond my wildest imagination,” she said.
“We wanted a place online where we could communicate together, support each other, just cheer each other on because we’re having body positivity and female empowerment events pretty regularly, and I thought it was (something we could continue doing) online and keep up with more regularly than actually increasing the number of events we have,” she said.
Kutt had noticed a lot of brands create social media groups that claim to be about empowering women but use them only as platforms to drive sales.
“That makes it feel a little bit icky, and I have always been very aware that I didn't want to be icky,” she said. “To me, that meant that if I am just using female empowerment to drive a product that helps one woman, I’m not sure that is helping the greater good. So I needed to build a community where I felt what I was doing for women, it was more than that.”
She believes she has achieved that with #SquadBettie because its members “are just so kind to each other, and they share a lot of things going on in their lives. They just want someone supportive to associate with.”
Kutt realized through the group and through talking to clients and event attendees that women of all sizes feel there isn’t a place they can go locally to shop for lingerie that fits right and makes them feel good.
So, in October 2018, after months of planning and gathering inventory from European vendors at trade shows, Kutt opened Naughty Bettie, a lingerie retail store inside her fourth-floor studio.
The store sells sizes XS to 4X and up to 44 band sizes and I cup sizes. Customers can pick out pieces they want to buy and wear them in their boudoir shoots.
“Curvy girls have so few options,” Kutt said. “I was shocked, to be honest, how hard it was to find a vendor that did those sizes that I felt were up to my standards, which are pretty high. I’m not going to put that taupe thing next to all these pretty lacy things.”
Kutt said she still is working on the right inventory mix given the store’s limited square footage and the range of sizes her clientele wear.
The store holds open hours on holidays and for events but otherwise is by appointment only.
Kutt said she is done opening businesses for the foreseeable future. She also isn’t sure if she will ever move Naughty Bettie to a ground-floor storefront.
“I love the idea of my clients coming into this safe, anonymous space where they don’t feel a sense of judgment walking from car to store,” she said. “I like the idea of being Grand Rapids’ best-kept secret. And we’ve done a good job of building our brand and our following, so that if you come shopping, you’ll tell your friends, and they will tell their friends.”
Mod Bettie and Naughty Bettie’s mission isn’t just about photography and lingerie, Kutt said.
“Our mission is ‘to empower women by creating a safe and supportive environment for people’s self-expression.’
“It’s about creating that space where you can try something new, something scary, meet someone new — and there’s just something magical about what happens here.”