Q: How did you start?
A: This is always a hard question for me to answer because there wasn’t a clear, defining moment. I sewed in college and started selling what I was making (altered vintage, embellished things - not Elizabeth Suzann at all) in a little boutique there. I loved making things and wanted to earn some extra cash, but I really just kind of wanted to see if it would work. I wanted the challenge of trying to sell my work to someone that didn’t know me.
That was probably the biggest leap - walking into a store and asking someone point blank to buy something I had made. I thought about it for weeks, read all about how to approach a store professionally, and, finally, I just mustered up the balls to do it. Once you get that first win, you start to believe other things you can do might work, too.
When I moved to Nashville and started making my own patterns and original clothing, it was natural for me to look for an outlet to sell on. I started on Etsy - I had already made some money selling vintage there, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. I think I have always had entrepreneurial tendencies, or maybe I’ve just had unwarranted confidence?! Ha! The first time someone purchased an original garment of mine online was a pretty big moment, though, and I was terrified for weeks afterward that I would get an email that they hated it, or that I was a fraud, or that it fell apart in their hands. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, so I just kept on going!
Q: How and when did you learn to sew?
A: I taught myself to sew over the period of several years - I got a sewing machine as a Christmas gift in high school, and I just puttered around on it until I got the hang of it. I just kept experimenting, altering things, and taking apart old clothes until I started to understand the concepts of garment construction. I read several beginners sewing books and watched a lot of YouTube videos to figure out the technical stuff, but, really, sewing is pretty easy once you know how to operate the machine!
Q: Did you have a mentor when you started? And what helped you to develop your business to the level that it is now?
A: I was a complete novice to the fashion industry and to starting a business, but working through things on my own was an essential part of building a strong company. I read every book about business and clothing manufacturing I could get my hands on, listened to podcasts on startups, and tried to soak in as much knowledge from others with experience as I could. I recommend everything by Seth Godin to start with! As far as mentors, I've had a handful of experienced people approach me with advice or suggestions, but I often didn't listen. Our business model is very different than most fashion brands (we don't do wholesale, we sew every product to order, we use all natural fabrics, we don't sew assembly line style, and we don't outsource our pattern or sample making) so the advice we received was often to do things more traditionally. I think choosing not to conform is in large part responsible for our success - it allowed us to stand out in a crowded market, and our costs are kept lower, as well.
Once we started growing, making sure we paid close attention to how we handled that growth was key - taking good care of our employees, always making sure we improved our systems and techniques, and never letting the way we do something go unreviewed. We are always striving to become more efficient and to find ways to offer better quality work, and that keeps us moving forward rather than stagnating.
I have also always had incredible support from family and find that talking through big decisions with someone that is smart and trustworthy is powerful. You often know the right decisions deep down; you just need to get there. Their input may not be the advice you need, but the conversation usually has value.
Q: When creating your designs, do you feel compelled to consider how they will look on different body types?
A: Yes! Absolutely. I started making clothing to solve frustrations I felt with my own wardrobe. I am a size 8/10, so I don't have a vested interest in the typical fashion habit of designing products that only look good on sample sizes. If I don't think something will look good on most body types, I can't go through with it. I am sometimes tempted to make something more conceptual that veers into that territory, but, when it comes down to the wire, I know the pieces we put in the collection need to be flattering and comfortable for our customers that are all different shapes and sizes. Every customer might not be interested in each piece we offer, but it has to at least be an option for most bodies. :)
Q: Are there plans to develop a menswear line?
A: I will never say never! We don't currently have plans to develop a strictly men's collection, but we are encouraging a more unisex view of our signature pieces. Lots of men wear the Clyde Pant, and we have sold several Cocoon Coats to male customers!
Q: How have you managed to grow selling directly to customers and avoiding the wholesale market?
A: This is my favorite topic. :) It is definitely a popular and often successful marketing strategy to gain exposure and a following by wholesaling to stores that already have a customer base. When I first started out, I sold on Etsy and traveled to local craft fairs and vendor markets. Customers that I met at events would continue to buy from me online, and I quickly knew that I wanted to improve their experience by building a standalone site outside of Etsy.
Around the same time, I started to get approached by stores. It seemed like a good way to make a nice chunk of change, but I couldn't keep up with both. We hadn't spent any money on marketing or advertising at this point; we had only done a handful of markets and had a few hundred followers on social media. It became clear that customers were talking about our products and growing our audience by word of mouth.
That realization illustrated how important it was to focus on improving our brand identity and to give those customers an even better experience and product so that they would keep talking and sharing. If we had taken the wholesale route, that connection with our customers would have been lost, and we would have just been another brand on a rack of many, without a story or a face to talk about.
So - how to grow? Make an exceptional product and go way above and beyond for your customers (beautiful packaging, personal notes, generous with gifts and extras - especially while you are still able to give that attention), and they will do the growing for you. Be generous with information, and show them how you do what you do and why you do it so they have something to talk about.
Q: Are there any plans for a lingerie line?
A: Yes! There is an intimates collection currently in the works. I’ve always struggled with what to wear underneath my clothing, so we are working on a line of ultra comfortable but beautiful foundational pieces. We haven’t talked much about it because there’s not a firm release date yet, but it’s coming. :)
Q: Where and how did you begin to acquire the knowledge to draft and create your own patterns? Was that a long struggle, or did you pick it up fairly naturally? Do you still perform that duty in your company, or have you hired a more skilled pattern cutter?
A: I learned pattern drafting entirely from textbooks - I looked up the FIT and Parsons courses, hunted down the syllabi online, and ordered the books they were using. I enjoy visual math and am a very spatial thinker, so flat pattern-making came pretty naturally to me. Draping is much harder and more confusing to me! I'm also a fan of taking apart thrifted garments to see how they were patterned. My favorite pattern drafting books are the ones by Ernestine Kopp - "How to Draft Basic Patterns" and "Drafting Apparel Through the Flat Pattern."
As for the last of your question - I still do all of the pattern drafting for the company. I am not a big illustrator, so most of my actual "designing" happens while pattern-making. I don't foresee outsourcing that in our future!
Q: Have you considered a line of Elizabeth Suzann sewing patterns?
A: That was actually one of our plans for growth when I first launched the business. It's not totally out of the realm of possibility, but the reason we didn't move forward with it was to preserve the integrity of the vision we have for each garment and the experience our customers have with our clothing.
Since we would have no involvement in the quality or aesthetic of the final product, we wouldn't be able to ensure the longevity or timelessness that is such an important part of what we do. I definitely agree that there is a gap in the market there, but I’m not confident that we are the ones to fill it… at least not now.
Q: What was your first garment you ever sewed?
A: The first garment I ever technically sewed would be a tank top I made from a long sleeved shirt. I cut the sleeves off, hemmed the raw edges, and added a bunch of hideous lace and trim to the neckline. I proceeded to wear it proudly for like a week straight.
I don’t remember the first garment I sewed from start to finish - probably a cheesy Butterick pattern from a thrift store; but, the first original garment I designed and sewed was the Anais dress. It was a sleeveless v-neck dress that tied around the waist. I stopped selling it when big, origami-style, waist ties got popular on the runways and in designer collections. I’m thinking of bringing it back though - I’m not as reactionary now as I used to be. ;)
Q: How did you go about learning garment construction and when did you realize you wanted to start your own company?
A: Trial and error, lots and lots of books, and YouTube videos! Learning construction was all through experimentation. I sewed for myself throughout college in my free time and worked through the learning curve. By the time I graduated, I was fairly competent and skilled at basic construction, and I learned new techniques as I needed them.
I decided to start my own business when we moved to Nashville for my husband to attend law school. I had always dreamed of launching a local, made-to-order production model clothing line, but I didn't know where to begin and it felt like a pipe dream. I was going to pursue a graduate degree in Art History, but, during our first year in Nashville, I had started selling the clothing I'd sewn as a hobby here and there - and the snowball was off and rolling. I fine tuned and polished my philosophy about building an intentional wardrobe after I had started selling at craft fairs and on Etsy and then developed a real business model and set goals about eight months into it.
Q: How do you source fabric ethically?
A: Our first priority is to source natural fibers because they’re easier on the environment and are much more likely to have long lifetimes. We also purchase domestically when possible, and, if we need to go overseas, we source from Japan over China because their standards for safety and environmental impact are much more stringent.
We are working hard to transition to producing our fabrics domestically. It’s a very long, and incredibly expensive journey, so most of our products will need to increase significantly in price to handle ethically manufactured fabric.
I don’t have a ton of answers here. All I can say is - it’s not an easy road! A lot of digging, a lot of unreturned phone calls, and a lot of dead ends.
Q: What do you wish you knew when you were six months in about starting a fashion business? Were there any tricks that helped you make your business such a success?
A: I wish I had been more prepared to be treated like a complete idiot by industry veterans and to just toughen up and not let it slow me down. Vendors that have the supplies and information you need aren't keen to waste their time with a new designer who's likely to fizzle out and never give them significant revenue (they hear from hundreds of aspiring designers a day and need to devote their time and attention to their large paying clients). If I had known to expect this, I would have prepared myself for the worst and asked for what I wanted without getting my feelings hurt by gruff sales reps.
My only trick is to work, work, work. My designs and business model are simple and clean; we just work very hard to keep our growth moving forward quickly. We don't go home at 5pm, we don't get weekends off, we work on Christmas Eve, and we spend half of our vacations answering emails and working remotely. But, we've experienced exponential growth, and the work is worth it.
Q: Did you initially use an industrial sewing machine, and how did you source your wonderful seamstresses when you needed help?
A: I started on a home sewing machine and used that for the first few months of launching Elizabeth Suzann. When I had enough orders to afford it, I bought an industrial straight stitch and continued to use home sergers. I eventually upgraded to all industrial equipment as we could afford it, and now our warehouse is full of exciting machinery. :)
As far as finding seamstresses, most of our hires have been serendipitous. I met my first seamstress at a craft fair - she approached me and offered to sew if I needed part-time help. The others have been found through hiring ads posted in Craigslist or social media or recruited by folks who were already working here. We've had quite a few friends of employees cajoled into joining the team, and it's worked out really well to grow organically.
We typically start a new hire at part time, and develop into full-time positions so that assimilation into the group is smooth. We do a significant amount of training. However, none of our seamstresses were ever production sewers before. They had home sewing or sample sewing skills, and we taught them how to work with our products and equipment. Our methods have evolved as our team has grown, and they've adapted like pros. If you can find the right person, training them to do the job is a piece of cake.
Q: What was the first step to selling ES after you had sewn your first collection?
A: When I started ES, I didn’t make a full collection. I started with one dress design, the Anais (which we don’t sell anymore), put that on Etsy by itself, and then added pieces one at a time as I made them. The first step to selling that garment was figuring out the sizing, and then photographing it for the product listing. (I used my brothers girlfriend at the time. She is now his wife.)
Q: How did you decide what kinds of fabrics to use, and did you always buy them wholesale, or did you just start buying from your local fabric shop? How did you learn about fabrics?
A: I started designing because I was unhappy with my wardrobe. It was full of polyester and acrylic, and everything was itchy, sweaty, and looked cheap. Nothing really felt like me. After looking really hard at the garments I loved and wore repeatedly vs. the ones that didn’t make me feel good, I realized the common denominators were neutral colors and natural fiber fabrics. A few basic white cotton button downs, a pair of 100% cotton jeans, a couple cotton sundresses, linen tops, and one thrifted washed silk tank - those were the pieces I truly loved. I started looking into fabrics and paying attention to fiber content and immediately realized that the No. 1 visible indicator of quality in a garment is the fabric it’s made from. That explained why so much of my wardrobe looked and felt cheap, why I held onto those few basic pieces, and why felt put together when I wore them.
I hunted for good linens, silks, and cottons to experiment with. When I was designing for fun, I bought from fabric stores, but I knew to sell clothing profitably I needed to buy wholesale, and I couldn’t really find what I wanted retail anyway. I researched for a while to figure out how to source fabric wholesale and bought a ticket to NY to attend a sourcing show that advertised suppliers with low minimums. I registered for my business license and resale certificate so I’d be able to place wholesale orders then jumped in.
Fabric sold at the commercial level isn’t much different than retail - a lot of it is garbage, and there is a lot of crazy to dig through before finding what you want. There were only a few vendors that sold natural fibers without poly blends or solid colors. But, I found a handful of fabrics I liked (one solid linen supplier and a silk supplier), and those fabrics made up my first collection and are now the core of the Signature Collection today. I still use those same vendors I met at that show; I just order over the phone with my reps there.
I learned about the fabrics I love through trial and error and lots of research. When I have a question or a problem to solve, I try to consume as much information as I possibly can before moving forward. A lot of googling and trips to the bookstore! I also spent many full days at the thrift store, feeling the clothing on the racks and taking notes based on the fiber tag found inside.
Q: How did you find the courage to start? How did you have the confidence to continue building your business?
A: I am never quite sure how to answer the question about summoning the courage to start. Our growth was very organic, and I didn’t set out with the intention of having the business I have today. I was really just putting one foot in front of the other, taking things one step at a time, and making the most informed decisions I could with the information I had at hand. I don’t think the “starting” was necessarily courageous; it was just how I lived my life. Now, there were certainly crossroads and pivotal moments where I had the opportunity to take a risk or play things safe, and I almost always chose to take the risk.
I think that’s just in my nature - I have big goals and unrealistically high expectations, and those aren’t often achieved by taking things easy. It was certainly scary to sign a lease on a studio space without knowing if I’d be able to pay the rent next month, and it was scary to hire our first employee without knowing if I’d always have enough orders for her to sew, but making those gambles gives you very tangible motivation to succeed. The fear and consequences of failure are fuel to keep going, and it’s always worked.
Q: Are there any particular podcasts or books about fashion manufacturing that you would recommend for small scale?
A: For Manufacturing: "Entrepreneurs Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing" by Kathleen Fasanella
For Business: anything and everything by Seth Godin
For Pattern Making: "How to Draft Basic Patterns" and "Drafting Apparel Through the Flat Pattern" by Ernestine Kopp
For Design: that's all gotta come from the heart. :)
Q: What was the very first step you took in starting your business?
A: I suppose the very first step I took was deciding that I had a point of view - a concept - that could potentially provide an income for myself.
I had studied a lot about visual culture and the history of clothing and, from that research and personal experience, I knew I was unhappy with my wardrobe, but I wasn’t able to find the things that I thought would make me happy. I couldn’t find the pieces I thought were simple enough and comfortable enough - without being frumpy - to truly let my identity speak for itself. I felt like others out there might feel the same way, and so I made the decision to attempt to sell the products I imagined rather than just making them for myself.
I think that’s an important distinction - there are lots of ideas out there that are great, but they may be ideas best for you and not for the world. Deciding if a project is a personal one or commercial one is not easy, but it's necessary.
The first practical step in the process after that was choosing a business name. Once this thing had a name, I could move forward with all the rest (starting the website, ordering tags and business cards, registering as a business, etc).
Q: When are you going to expand your sizing?
A: Soon! It’s a project we plan to dig into for 2017. I want to make sure that I get the pattern adjustments right for expanded sizing and that we really understand the fit first.
Q: Do you ship to Australia?
A: Yes! We ship worldwide - for free - on all orders. :)
Q: What software do you use for your patterns?
A: We use Optitex. We considered Gerber, but Optitex seemed a little more current and the interface was more appealing to me! I still make new patterns by hand (it’s hard to break old habits), but I am trying to get used to drafting digitally! We use the software primarily for creating shrinkage patterns and printing markers.
Q: Are there any sewing books you'd recommend?
For learning how to sew in general, I like "The Sewing Book" and "Sewing 101." For pattern drafting and designing, I like Ernestine Kopp's "How to Draft Basic Patterns." For specific techniques, like putting in a zipper or under-stitching or machine troubleshooting, YouTube all the way!
Q: How do you stay motivated - especially when you have a ton of things on your to-do list?
A: Staying motivated is usually easy for me. I’m usually very excited about what’s coming next, even if it involves a long to-do list. Plus, if I don’t keep going, we will run out of money, and all of our employees and I will be out of a job. Fear is a powerful motivator! Ha. But I definitely have days when it’s hard to focus and nearly impossible to muster the energy to face a seemingly endless pile of work. When that happens, I usually need a change of scenery. A ride in the car, running an errand, going to a restaurant - most of the time that little break is enough to get me back in the groove. For deeper ruts, cleaning is my go-to. Rearranging the furniture, cleaning out drawers - organizing anything and everything.
Q: In a very demanding industry, such as fashion, how do you keep yourself from buckling down under the pressure of producing so many trendy things to accommodate a lot of different people? How do you keep yourself and your brand grounded?
A: Hmm. I think the answer to this is complex and also simple. The most accurate answer is probably that I don’t pay attention to those things, so I don’t necessarily have to fight or avoid them. I don’t follow the runway shows anymore, and I don’t look at many magazines, so I’m not inundated with the constant stream of content from the fashion industry.
This is largely by choice - I don’t believe in trends, and I don’t believe trends make for good, functional wardrobe staples. I also don’t usually like the looks of them - 95% of things I see, I dislike. But another factor is that I don’t really have the time. Most of the time, I am keeping my head down and trying to stay on top of my own workload, so I’m not tempted to stray from what we are already doing, what we believe in, and what’s working for us. I think staying grounded is easy if you have a clear vision. Don’t let yourself window shop when you should be focusing on your own content.
Q: How do you keep your well of inspiration so stocked? I have no idea how you can listen to an album and be like, "I'm gonna design a dress about this.”
A: Ha! I don’t think it’s something that happens intentionally - I definitely don’t put on an album and then think, “OK - what can this inspire in me?” I don’t always feel inspired. There are plenty of times when nothing is really speaking to me, and I don’t have any fresh ideas. But then something always hits. I try to make sure I’m triggering thought by looking at art when I can and changing up what I’m listening to, but really inspiration strikes at random.
As far as interpreting something into design - I think there are a lot of opinions there. On one hand, I believe inspiration can absolutely inform design. On the other hand, I think humans love to see pattern and symbolism, so it may be entirely possible that I was going to design the same thing regardless of the music I was listening to, but my brain just found a way to attribute and correlate the music to the concept. Either way, it feels like magic to me!
Q: How do you suggest someone who has a business background gets started in the industry?
A: I’m not sure I have a good answer to your question - I started ES with no industry experience, and I have never worked in the field outside of my own brand. We also do things pretty differently than the rest of the fashion world. But, I’ll give it a shot!
I think my general advice to anyone looking to break into a new industry is to research, research, research. Learn as much as you can from as many different sources as you can about what you want to do, and learn everything you can about what someone who might be able to hire you does. A company like ours doesn’t have a design or sourcing team - I do both of those jobs myself - but I imagine most larger companies do. I would make yourself as informed and invaluable as possible, and I would start doing the work you are hoping to get hired to do. Start developing contacts and building a network, as if you already have the job you want. As an oversimplified example, if I’m looking to hire someone to take photos, I am much more likely to hire someone that is a photographer over someone who says they want to learn how to be a photographer.
Q: Was it challenging transitioning from a team of just you and your husband (where you did everything yourselves) to hiring staff to take on certain roles and duties?
A: Oh yes! It was (and still is) one of the hardest parts of growing a business. I can’t really say that it has gotten any easier - it’s still painful to delegate and pass off responsibilities. But, it almost always pays off. Once you realize the huge investments you’re able to make in your business with that freed up time, it’s so worth it.
I think the most important thing to remember is to stay in touch with every element of your operation, regardless of whether you’re still the the one doing the legwork. Spot-checking in on production, shipping, and customer support will always be a part of my job, and if I go too long without touching base, I start to get super stressed.
Delegating is good, but good delegating means making sure the work is getting done just as good as or better than you would do it yourself. Sometimes we try delegating things, and it becomes clear that it was too soon or passed off to the wrong person. We take that job back on and find something else to pass off. I’m still working on that skill a lot myself, but I encourage you to jump in! Your goal should be to do the work that *only* you can do and nothing else. That is when you’ll be able to truly give your all to the business and realize your full potential.
Q: How did you find someone to draft patterns of your designs? Did you start out doing this on your own?
A: I taught myself to draft using textbooks (I researched the curriculums at FIT and Parsons) and have made my own patterns since the beginning. This was partly out of stubbornness and also out of necessity. It is very hard to find service providers like pattern-makers and even harder to hire one when you are new to the industry. Most of them are old-school and don’t like working with designers who are still learning. I didn’t have patience for the runaround and wanted to understand the concepts of good fit and pattern design myself anyway, so I chose to go that route.
Q: Why are you changing the Clydes from cotton twill back to cotton canvas?
A: The twill isn’t as durable as the canvas. We had high hopes for the twill, but I’m not happy with seeing high-friction areas after intense wear. It works for most garments and most people, but I don’t love it long term. We have found a new canvas that holds dye better than our original canvas that the Clydes started in (we originally switched to twill because the canvas was fading and losing its color), so I want to get back to the original level of durability, with hopefully much improved, long-lasting color.
Q: What is your most successful marketing tool?
A: Honest and genuine communication about our business and our product. This happens primarily through Instagram!
Q: What are your challenges of made-to-order pieces, and how do you manage during down time?
A: The biggest challenge of made-to-order production is handling periods of increased volume. We have a full-time production staff, and we firmly believe in building an intentional, principle-oriented team, and that doesn't mesh well with temporary or seasonal employees. That means that, while our demand can fluctuate with collection launches, holidays, or slow periods, our capacity remains the same because our staff remains the same. We do our best to plan for and manage the volume fluctuation, but it gets tough during those peak times.
Our team is ever-growing to keep up with volume, and, at this point, we haven't really had much down time! If we were to find ourselves with too many team members and a slower order volume, our strategy would be to find a way to increase orders. In the meantime, we would make pieces for our showroom, make sure we had all photoshoot samples complete, and get ahead for the next surge.
Q: What ended up feeling like an insurmountable issue for your business, and how did you get through or solve the problem?
A: This might seem like a very specific or strange answer, but I would have to say getting our shrinkage right. I much prefer the feel of laundered fabrics and also want all of our garments to be machine washable.
In the beginning, we achieved this by pre-washing our fabric before cutting it - which was simple but not efficient. We moved to a garment-washing system, where we account for the shrinkage of fabric in our patterns and then wash the finished garments after they're sewn so they will shrink up to the correct size. That requires testing the shrinkage of each individual fabric, so that we can adjust the patterns by the correct amount. It also means testing individual patterns for every single garment in every single size in every single fabric and color as opposed to one master set of patterns that can be used to cut any pre-washed fabric.
The process of testing the fabric for shrinkage accurately and getting all of the patterns created was probably the hardest thing we’ve ever done. There were so many variables, and the fabric seemed to just totally have a mind of its own, shrinking inconsistently, or all of a sudden changing from what we thought we knew. Ultimately, we ended up doing six or seven rounds of complete testing and made just as many different sets of patterns, and were dealing with hundreds of customers saying their garments weren’t fitting correctly in the meantime. Managing the transition, while also having to keep shipping orders, taking returns and keeping track of what garments were sewn with which shrinkage patterns, was enough to drive me crazy. But, we just kept pushing through, and always kept our eye on the goal of getting things right (no matter how big a pain), and now it’s done.
Q: How did you get noticed, and what marketing channels did you find were the most beneficial in your business? What inspires you?
A: I don’t know that I would say we ever “got noticed"; our growth was definitely a kind of snowball effect. I started out selling at craft fairs and on Etsy and did a lot of instinctual grassroots marketing to grow my audience. For example, in my booth, I would ask customers to sign up for our newsletter or follow me on Instagram on the spot for 10% off. I would include cards in each package for a discount on the next purchase and encouraged customers to share it with their friends. Those first few hundred customers that I met in person at those shows kept coming back online, and that’s really how it got rolling.
I also always behaved like I had an audience - I would post on social media to my 150 followers as if I were speaking to a whole crowd. Eventually, it became a crowd. I always focused directly on the customer and finding out how to reach the people who wanted to buy what I was selling. I didn’t focus on press or fashion shows or anything other than selling my product.
The closest experience I have to getting noticed, I think, would be my introduction to several key bloggers, like Elise of Pennyweight, Diana of Miss Moss, and Jen of Honey Kennedy. It was early on and I was pretty naive, and I just kind of cold-emailed them to see if they had any interest in learning more about what I was doing. I did my research and was very confident that their audiences were also my audiences and that I wasn’t going to be wasting their time with my email. I just spoke honestly and from the heart about what I did and why I was reaching out. All three responded positively, and I still have wonderful relationships with each. Their support did a lot to grow awareness of our brand early on, and it worked so well because it was so highly targeted. I didn’t email a million bloggers - I picked the three that I really believed in and thought were a natural fit for ES.
I also think the biggest factor here is the quality of the product - no marketing tactic on its own will work if the product isn’t good. And even the worst marketing tactics will probably still bring success to a really excellent product.
Q: Was there an event or a point upon which you realized that this is going to be your full time business?
A: There was! It was the fourth or fifth craft show/vendor event that I did. We totally sold out, and I was completely blown away. I was doing the math that night and realized that, if I could sell that volume of product in a weekend, then there was some real potential there for this to be a career. The next day, I bought a domain name and started working on a website outside of Etsy (where I had been selling in addition to the craft shows), and now we're here!
Q: What do you feel was your biggest failure or experience of rejection when first starting out or along the way?
A: Hmm. I think it’s hard for me to think of good examples of this because I find most experiences have value in the end - no matter how difficult - so I don’t consider them failures. There is one moment that stands out though. It was in the very beginning, and I wasn't quite sure what my direction was. I had been seeking out suppliers, vendors and service-providers to help make my first collection of finished garments. One person I was working with ended up questioning my business plan pretty thoroughly. It was embarrassing and eye-opening, and revealed a lot about how much I had to learn and how little I knew. I cried a lot, and then made it my mission to succeed.
Q: How did you learn to tackle size grading? Do you use software or do this by hand?
A: In the beginning, I did all of the grading myself. This is a big reason that I stuck with simple, one-size designs for a while. I did it by hand in the beginning but now use our pattern software, Optitex, to grade. It’s not a fast or super easy process, but it is definitely learnable! There is one grading book I recommend above all others, and it’s out of print and very hard to get your hands on. It’s “Professional Pattern Grading for Women’s, Men’s, and Children’s Apparel” by Jack Handford. He walks you step-by-step through the grading of any kind of garment, and, through practice, you’ll learn the concept and start to have instincts about how to grade.
If you don’t have the interest or time to learn, though, it is not difficult to find a service provider to simply grade your patterns. Having patterns graded is much, much easier than having them drafted for you from scratch (it requires much less vetting, and they are much more likely to work with an unknown client on grading vs. drafting). Just Google "pattern grading service", and you shouldn’t have a problem finding someone!
Q: How do you make time to learn new skills and techniques, and what is your go-to resource for that?
A: I don’t think I intentionally make time; it’s just something that kind of happens! I will want to make a product that I don’t know how to make, so I have to figure it out. Or I need to find a new way to finish a garment or a different way to draft a pattern and learn out of necessity. I love, love, love to research, so learning just kind of happens all the time! I don’t have a specific resource - I just start Googling, buy a bunch of books, and get really deep in forums.
Q: Did you start with technical skills or design ideas (or both)?
A: I started with design ideas! I didn’t study fashion design or pattern-making, so all the technical knowledge I have is self-taught. I just learned what I needed to in the moment to make whatever I wanted to make at the time. I didn’t learn how to put in zippers until I wanted to make a skirt with a zipper in it. It’s still that way today. Although, I’ve covered most things by this point. :)
Q: Any advice for someone new to e-commerce? How did you establish an online presence?
A: My biggest piece of advice would be to take your current customers with you. You know who your audience is from operating your brick and mortar store, so try to find ways to get that same audience to your website. Don’t go after a new demographic just because you’re online. I established a following online by bringing customers from craft fairs and Etsy with me - simple methods like collecting email addresses, encouraging them to follow us on social media - I got that core group to stay connected, and things just kind of snowballed. Word of mouth was our biggest marketing tool - we didn’t invest in any advertising, SEO, or any of that. Reaching out to key influencers in your market isn’t a bad idea either - just make sure they are a perfect fit for your audience. The more targeted, the more likely they will be interested, and the more likely it will work for your brand.