A boutique, from the French word for "shop," is a small shopping outlet, especially one that specialises in elite and fashionable items such as clothing and jewellery.
The term entered into everyday English use in the late 1960's when, for a brief period, London, UK was the centre of the fashion trade. Carnaby Street and the Kings Road were the focus of much media attention as home to the most fashionable boutiques of the era.
It can also refer to a specialised firm such as a boutique investment bank or boutique law firm. The word is often used to describe a property in the independent section of the hotel market (such as The Rockwell in London) in order to distinguish themselves from larger chains (such as Hilton Hotels). In such cases the idea is that the operation is elite and highly specialized.
In the strictest sense of the word, boutiques would be one-of-a-kind but more generally speaking, some chains can be referred to as boutiques if they specialise in particularly stylish offerings. In the United States, Sharper Image might be described as a boutique chain or selling boutique items. In Japan, chains such as Three Minutes Happiness, MUJI, and ranKing ranQueen are well-known boutiques. A mix of a boutique and a department store is called Concept store.
Recently, the term "boutique" has started being applied to normally-mass-market items that are either niche or produced in intentionally small numbers at very high prices. For example, before the release of the Wii, a Time Magazine article suggested that Nintendo could become a "boutique video-game company", producing games for niche audiences, rather than trying to compete directly with Microsoft and Sony.
Although some boutiques specialise in hand-made items and other truly one-of-a-kind items, others such as The King of Games and SlamJam simply produce t-shirts, stickers, and other fashion accessories in artificially small runs and sell them at unusually high prices.