This post was originally published on the Factory45 blog here.
The Factory45 2014 program has officially ended, and it’s been hard to find the words to describe the past six months.
Rollercoaster? Oh, yeah.
Personally fulfilling and potentially life-changing? No doubt about it.
When I started brainstorming the concept of the program at the beginning of 2014 I threw myself in without a backup plan. I outlined what the program would look like on paper, made a billion to-do lists, and mapped out a timeline of when and how I could launch what was only sitting in my brain.
Following a track record of unpredictable situations I get myself into (silent meditation retreat in Thailand, anyone?), I put my head down, focused on the goal at hand and didn’t give much thought to all of the reasons why it wouldn’t work out.
It seemed that with each step — outline a program, build a website, open applications, tell the media about the program, review applications, accept 10 applicants, launch the program — I found myself reaching the next step not really knowing how I got there. It was kinda like, “Well I guess that worked. I should probably keep going.”
And while this thought process may sound a bit flippant and borderline irresponsible, it’s the only way I would have been able to move forward with something as colossal as what I was about to take on.
So come June, I found myself with 10 companies under my guidance, a 26-week program in the works, and the promise that my plan would work for everyone. Six months later, here I am (thankfully), having done what I said I would do.
The best part is that 11 entrepreneurs have also successfully made it through the program. Because honestly, they are the ones who did the heavy lifting. And throughout it all, they have been the ones responsible for moving their companies forward.
Teach a (wo)man to fish, if you will…
While some of the entrepreneurs in the program have made giant leaps, others have made smaller bounds. Many were going through the program with full-time jobs or taking grad school classes or in the case of one, planning a destination wedding.
Originally, I had envisioned everyone launching crowdfunding campaigns now, but I’ve since learned that you can’t rush the process. People work at different paces, certain tasks take longer than others and if you’re not enjoying the journey, then what’s the point?
Regardless of where each company is in comparison to one another, every single one of them now has the tools, structure, resources and community to successfully launch a company. And that’s not something most people can say.
For those of you who are interested in the tangible results of the past six months, here are a few examples of some of the progress that has been made:
Where she started: Jesse had been working on her women’s apparel company, Eenvoud, since she graduated from Parsons School of Design two years ago. She had created sketches of her first collection, done some draping, and had started looking for sustainable fabrics but was unable to make much traction.
Where she is now: All of the patterns and samples for Eenvoud’s first collection have been completed and are production ready. Jesse has sourced the perfect fabric that fits her sustainability guidelines. She has created a defined and targeted brand vision and is launching her new website in the next few days. She has written and created a strategy for a Kickstarter campaign and will be launching it early spring.
Where she started: Mikaela joined Factory45 in June with no fashion background, very little tech experience, and zero knowledge of manufacturing. She came to me with an idea for organic cotton children’s clothing and wanted to print her own photographs onto each piece in a “non-toxic” way. I was hesitantly optimistic, knowing how difficult it would be to find the printing option she wanted at the minimums she was looking for, but I encouraged her to keep after it.
Where she is now: After being told “no” by supplier after supplier, printer after printer and factory after factory, Mikaela has set up a supply chain within the U.S. that has never before existed. She also found a textile printer to work with on a special process that doesn’t require PVC plastic or plastisol. Mikaela also set up her own Shopify website, has production-ready patterns and samples, sourced 100% U.S.-grown organic cotton and has already been contacted by bloggers wanting to write about her. Ruth & Ragnar will officially debut February 2015.
Where she started: When Heidi was crowned “Miss Wheelchair Kentucky” in 2012 she had the opportunity to speak to physically disabled youth all over the country. Time after time, she empathized with her peers about the lack of fashionable clothing that was also functional and comfortable for people in wheelchairs. She knew she wanted to create what she and her friends couldn’t find on the market, but she had no idea where to start.
Where she is now: With the help of a talented designer within my network, Heidi has created two prototypes of blue jeans for both men and women in wheelchairs. She has sourced American-made denim and her entire supply chain will be set up within a 100-mile radius in North Carolina, reducing the carbon footprint of her company to a fraction of most companies. She has written and created a crowdfunding campaign that will launch early spring 2015.
Where she started: Angela and her husband, Mike, started working on their product, the Mamachic, three years ago. They trademarked and registered their company name and logo, created a projected production budget, and worked with consultants to source materials and design a prototype. And then, as can often happen, they hit a standstill.
Where she is now: Angela has four samples of a newly designed prototype that is more functional, sustainable and durable than the original. She can’t leave the house wearing one of the samples without someone stopping her and asking about it. She has sourced all of her materials, launched a brand new website, is working with a production partner in Colorado and will launch a Kickstarter campaign in early 2015.
Where she started: Tina has also been working on her product, The Spark Board, for the past two years. She says she did all of the “fun” stuff first (like branding) and when she reached her launch deadline this time last year, she realized there were some holes in her supply chain so she hit the brakes.
Where she is now: Tina was the only furniture maker in Factory45 but through sustainable fashion connections, I was able to connect her with a reclaimed wood supplier. From there, she put all of the other pieces into place for her supply chain, set up her manufacturing and fulfillment center, and relaunched her blog and social media presence. She will launch a Kickstarter campaign for The Spark Board in February 2015 in addition to her brand new Shopify site.
Where she started: Lara was the only person in Factory45 who already had an established business. She came into the program wanting to grow her existing sales and also launch a new piece that better fit the long-term vision of her company.
Where she is now: Lara has redesigned and relaunched two beautiful websites (one for her company Forest and Fin and one for her artwork). She has a completed design and prototype of her “bicycle wrap skirt” that she’ll launch with a Kickstarter campaign in spring 2015. The sales for her Forest and Fin tees have gone up, she’s writing regularly on her blog and she is steadily growing her social media presence. She has also grown her community of entrepreneurs in Savannah and is one of the featured makers in a month-long holiday pop-up shop this year.
I could go on and on about everyone (and I will in blog posts to come) but for now, that’s a quick recap featuring a selection of Factory45’ers whose finish was much different than their start. Jenn, Emily, Sharon, Jon & Alexander, I am just as impressed with the progress you have all made and will make sure everyone knows about it, too. : )
A personal note: to everyone in Factory45, I am blown away by your dedication, hard work and persistence throughout the past six months. It amazes me that you were all so willing to put your faith in me, knowing that I had never done this before, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Whatever Factory45 becomes in the future, I will always owe it to the 11 of you for helping me get started and for making the inaugural year so memorable.
With deepest gratitude,
This post was originally published on the Factory45 blog here.
This weekend I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to visit designers, sewers, project managers, and other industry professionals I’ve only before had a chance to speak with by phone or email.
It never fails to amaze me how much goes into making our clothes, and I’m always grateful to get an inside look at the process. After a weekend exploring downtown Asheville, I started Monday morning bright and early in Burnsville, NC to meet designer Kristin Alexandra Tidwell of Be Well Designed.
Three Factory45’ers are working with Kristin on samples and patterns, so it was a long overdue treat to meet in her studio. Kristin has an extensive background in design, patterning and samplemaking, and it was awesome to see where all of the magic happens. Read more →
It’s strange to say, but when Factory45 started in June I couldn’t envision getting to early October. It seemed so far away, to be two-thirds of the way through the program, and I had no idea what to expect from the months leading up to it. The worst-case-scenario questions going through my mind were silenced just enough to not paralyze me into inaction, but they were there all the same:
“What if all 10 companies drop out before the program is done?”
“What if I realize it was a terrible idea?”
“What if this doesn’t work?”
With both Modules 1 and 2 now complete, I can (gratefully) say the past four months have exceeded all expectations. Four months in, all 10 companies are still pushing through and making measurable progress with their products.
Looking at some of the numbers: 8 out of 10 are currently in the pattern-and-sample-making phase, 7 out of 10 have finalized their fabric sourcing, and 9 out of 10 have or are close to having finished websites.
In their own words (from the mid-program feedback survey I sent out):
“I have made more progress since I started F45, than I have in 2 years trying to do this on my own.”
“I’ve accomplished so much more than I would have on my own and feel very accountable to the program, which has caused me to pull the trigger on decisions that I would have otherwise dilly dallied on. The biggest benefit for me is the weekly structure; it keeps me super focused and organized. Although I do often feel overwhelmed working on all of the different aspects of my business simultaneously, F45 has made the process so much clearer and more manageable.”
“I remain so impressed. Your organization and presentation are that of someone who has been doing this for years. I have loved this and am a bit afraid of it ending.”
That’s not to say everything has been rainbows and butterflies or that I wouldn’t change anything. The group has collectively had to overcome a lot of “imposter syndrome,” fear, and self doubt. For many of them, it has taken time to trust themselves and to navigate their way through the high’s and low’s of the entrepreneurial rollercoaster.
There have been tears on 1-on-1 calls, “freak out moments” via email, and high-pressure moments of angst. Very little is happening on the timeline I had planned for, which has simply meant I’ve had to adapt and adjust my expectations of how things “should” be progressing.
When I think back on the past four months, though, I am incredibly proud of what has been accomplished. It’s those moments that are celebrated together, whether it’s on a Wednesday night group call or when I get a text at 8:30 on a Friday night asking for a “quick chat,” that I hold in my memory with immense gratitude. To have a small part in creating 10 new businesses, that could effectively make real, marked change, is not something I’ve taken for granted.
As we enter into Module 3 next week, I’ll prepare my Factory45’ers for launch and for the next phase of their journey without me. To have an accelerated start, the support of peer mentorship and the tools and resources to keep forging ahead is something that I wish everyone could have when they’re first starting out.
The challenge in the next two months will be preparing everyone to leave the proverbial “nest” that has become as much a routine as it has a safe haven. The challenge will be in ensuring 10 new entrepreneurs that they have what it takes to finish what most people only dream of starting.
Photo credit: Jesse Syswerda and Angela Tsai
It was at least 60 seconds before Taylor Johnston and I realized we were both in the same coffee shop to meet but had sat down at different tables.
“Are you Shannon?” she asked from the table across from mine. Sipping on our morning caffeine fix (her’s hot, mine iced), we talked shop and connected over the (very limited) sustainable fashion scene in Boston.
Taylor is the designer and founder of Gamine, a line of women’s workwear made entirely in the USA (the word ‘gamine’ means ‘a girl with mischievous or boyish charm’). Launching with the perfect pair of raw denim, durable dungarees, Taylor almost immediately sold out of her first production-run.
We began the conversation with Taylor telling me about the time a photographer from The New York Times came to photograph the Isabella Gardner Museum where Taylor works in the gardens. She said she was wearing a grubby, oversized sweatshirt and felt completely out of sorts while having her photo taken. From that experience, she realized there was a need for functional women’s workwear that was both presentable and flattering while still being able to withstand manual labor.
Throughout the conversation, we bonded over our similar starts in the fashion industry without backgrounds in fashion, our love/hate relationships with social media, and Taylor’s recent purchase of a new house in the small hometown where I grew up.
Today, Taylor is sharing her unique story and offering her best entrepreneurial advice.
1.) Tell us about the inspiration behind Gamine. What sparked you to take the plunge and get over any uncertainty about the idea?
The inspiration for Gamine grew out of my work as a horticulturist. Over the last decade, I’ve tried everything: menswear, big box store clothes, mountaineering gear, high-end knockoffs (looks like workwear, but the quality can’t stand up to the abuse in the field), and of course, anything falling in the brown duck cloth category. I couldn’t find anything that was both functional and polished when you’re digging around in dirt all day. So I decided to fix the problem.
My only feeling of uncertainty was right before I launched — I wanted to make sure my jeans stood up to the “denim snobs” or “workwear nerds” out there. My hope was to create something that was both wearable in the field and totally lived up to the standard set for domestic denim brands. It’s important to do American workwear, especially denim, justice.
2.) What was the initial market response to your launch? Is it what you were expecting?
It’s been unreal. I never thought we would hear from so many women from around the world. We sold out almost immediately and are almost sold out of our pre-orders for our next production run. I am really grateful for the positive response and hope to continue to connect in a positive way with such an inspiring community of hardworking, creative women.
3.) What do you attribute to your early success? How do you think it can be translated to other early-stage companies?
I’m not even sure I would call what’s happening a success yet, but thanks! My hope is that the momentum we are generating is due to solving a real world problem and doing so in a thoughtful way. It’s easy to cut corners or find ways around sustainable/domestic production, but you have to take the long view and think about how your decisions play out over the lifetime of the company. It’s important to think about how you can positively affect micro-economies and hopefully improve the quality of life of someone who either produces or purchases your product.
I also think it’s really important to connect a product or brand with a story. My good friend Chet of Big Scary Monsters created an unbelievable website for us. It’s the most effective way to show that we are a “for us, by us” type of brand. (And yeah, that was totally a FUBU reference.) But in all seriousness, a clear story and a great website are the best way for people to understand your unique perspective and worldview.
4.) What advice do you have for designers who are trying to set up a supply chain in the U.S.?
Research every aspect of your supply chain and get to know the people making your products. It’s important to form relationships with everyone contributing to your product so that there is a real life and soul to every item. I think we lucked out in working with such great folks, from our patternmaker to manufacturer, and it is the frosting on the cake to know that with each sale we’re supporting someone we care about.
5.) What mistakes did you make that yielded high-value lessons?
Where to begin! I should say I don’t really believe in mistakes — it’s all about learning to do things better. I suppose our biggest “mistake” to date has been being super conservative with getting ourselves out there.
As a gardener I’m a bit quiet and not super used to talking to so many people, so I never anticipated how many like-minded, eager, and amazing women there were out there that felt the same way I did about workwear. Even after the initial response (which was marvelous), we were still a little reluctant to fully engage. Three months in, we are starting to break down the wall and get more comfortable with outreach.
But to be real, I’m pretty sure Twitter will always be super awkward for me — it feels like I’m having a conversation with myself. In public.
I love Taylor’s candid perspective on entrepreneurship and going past her comfort zone — to get in touch with her or to check out her growing inventory of made in the USA and organic apparel, visit Gamine here.
Unbelievably, the Factory45 2014 program is already halfway over. In the past three months, the 10 entrepreneurs going through this journey with me have evolved in ways that I don’t think they’ve even fully realized yet.
As an entrepreneur myself, it’s been fascinating to watch the highs and lows that come when you’re trying to turn an idea into a reality. It’s cliche to say, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Digging into some of those observations, I want to share the ones that I think could benefit any aspiring entrepreneur who is considering starting a company:
1.) No one ever really feels “ready.”
Just ask Angela who has two toddlers and travels around the country full time. As with most big decisions, timing is rarely perfect. But unless you have the confidence of Beyonce, it’s unlikely you’ll ever feel fully prepared to start a business. You can come up with a million excuses to talk yourself out of it, and yes it is scary, but doesn’t it help to know that no one else feels ready either?
2.) Networking is one of the most powerful resources you can leverage.
I can’t count the number of times we’ve been on a Wednesday group call when someone says they’re looking for X and someone else says they know someone who has X. Whether it’s a garment factory in Brooklyn or a natural dyeing contact or a suggestion for a rare type of “seaweed” fabric, the Factory45 crew has done an incredible job of leveraging the network.
Going even further, the power of a referral has been palpable, too. Doors have opened for fabric options and production partners, simply by saying “so-and-so” referred me. The response rate is tenfold.
3.) You’ll know when to keep pushing for “better.”
Mikaela wasn’t sure it could be done. Multiple fabric suppliers told her that the fabric she wanted was impossible to get and “didn’t exist.” Refusing to take no for an answer, she continued to contact every person in the supplier database she received through Factory45, while also calling and “harassing” (as she says) anyone else who would listen.
And as a result? She found affordable U.S.-grown organic cotton that fit her sustainability guidelines. There is a time to push and there is a time to concede. You’ll know when you should keep pushing.
4.) Let go of perfectionism.
The current Factory45 crew has a heavy presence of self-prescribed perfectionists. Coming from all different career backgrounds, there’s been a steep learning curve to adjust to the idea that “good enough” is really “good enough.”
In the case of entrepreneurship, perfectionism can hold you back. It keeps you from clicking “publish” on a blog post. It inhibits you from ordering the sample yardage. It tempts you to throw in the towel over a minor technical glitch.
The most effective entrepreneurs know that it’s more important to get your message / brand / product out into the world than it is to wait until everything is perfect.
5.) The fashion industry is changing.
This has never been clearer to me than it is now. The revival of “Made in the USA” is real. And I’m so excited for these 10 companies who are going to be part of it.
My story begins on a frozen night in 2009. I was a senior in college, pre-med and creatively starving. In the wee hours one Michigan night, I started a fashion blog (at that time, fashion blogs were just coming into their prime). I named it ‘The Modern Muse’, photographed and wrote for it almost every day and put all of myself into it. Fast forward nine months, and in lieu of taking the MCATS, I found myself working at a fashion startup in New York City. It was a ballsy move, but one that I felt I didn’t really have a choice in. Starting that blog that one night was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I spent the next four years trying to find my place in the creative fashion space in New York. I worked as an intern at a fashion startup called StyleCaster, as an assistant stylist on editorial photo shoots, as a freelance writer for sites like Fashionista and Yahoo! and as an account manager at a creative agency. While each position taught me much, those four years left me feeling unsatisfied; in my mind I was just moving around content that others had already created. I wanted to be at the start of it all. I wanted to be a designer.
Risk is something that I’ve healthily practiced in my short lifespan (I’m 27), so in 2012 I took another leap far away from my stable job and into the Associates Program in Fashion Design at Parsons. My ex-boss thought I was nuts. I told him I wanted to start my own design company. He thought I was even more nuts. So I went for it.
Parsons was a blur of fabric, pattern paper, all-nighters, steep learning curves, major highs, some sticky situations, great new friends and figuring out who I wanted to be as a designer. I’ve always been a minimalist, a bit of tomboy and knew that I wanted to create the elevated basics that I struggled so hard to find; the clothing that you don’t think about while wearing because it’s so you. The pieces in people’s wardrobes that have become an extension of themselves. The garments that you keep fixing so you can wear them over and over.
I felt that the industry was comprised of too much of everything – too many designs, too many seasons, too much turn-over, all made too quickly. During this phase, two other things happened: I took a few sustainability classes and I started working as a fit model, which exposed me to the behind-the-scenes of the design world. I started to learn how poorly and cheaply most garments were made, how quickly things were shipped back and forth to Asia, how low the ethical standards were for many workers, how harmful the materials and dyes many designers were using for both the environment and for the people who were wearing them. When I left Parsons, I knew what I had to do. I had to create the sustainably-made, elevated basics that I couldn’t find on the market.
Since graduating, I’ve been working on EENVOUD, which means ‘simplicity’ in Dutch. The plus side of my design and fit modeling background is that I’m doing the pattern-making myself in my studio and fitting on myself (which is a funny sight). My first round of garments will be mainly made in a fabric called cupro, which is a bi-product of the cotton industry. It feels like a beautiful washed silk, but is actually made from a silky strand that is wrapped around the cotton seed and is normally discarded during cotton production. The major plus side of cupro is that unlike silk, it’s machine washable. We’ll move into production in New York this fall.
My mission is to create beautiful, consciously-made basics that will live with you for years. To keep garments in production for years past their season so that you can come back to a loved garment or fit. To focus on aesthetics and updates in the sustainability world as it evolves. Essentially, to create the essence of a cherished menswear brand — for women.
To continue following Jesse’s story you can keep in touch on Instagram here.
I’m a conscious consumer. I shop second-hand, I limit my consumption of “stuff,” and I try to keep my purchases local. I believe in voting with my dollars, and I’ve gone so far as to dedicate my career to figuring out what that means.
On occasion, though, when I’m hankering for a new piece of jewelry or a unique gift I can’t find in my local thrift shop, I’ll look to Etsy. If I’m going to dish out the cash on a new item, I know that my purchase has more impact if it goes to the local makers who are working on their craft.
As someone who is directly involved in the maker movement, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I didn’t pay much attention when Etsy changed its policies last fall. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, CEO Chad Dickerson announced that Etsy sellers could use outside manufacturers to produce their designs. In other words, items sold on Etsy no longer had to be handmade. Read more →
The fashion industry gets a lot of flack these days. The excess, the overtly sexual advertising, the humanitarian issues, the waste, the lawsuits, the list goes on.
The industry giants have dedicated millions of dollars to massive PR campaigns, going so far as to launch “conscious collections” and donate proceeds to worthy causes. Yet despite these efforts, the truth remains — fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world. Here’s what they don’t want you to know:
1.) The fashion industry is designed to make you feel “out of trend” after one week.
Once upon a time, there were two fashion seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Fast forward to 2014 and the fashion industry is churning out 52 “micro-seasons” per year. With new trends coming out every week, the goal of fast fashion is for consumers to buy as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible.
According to Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than the competition, operating on a business model of low quality / high volume.
Cline points to the Spanish retailer Zara for pioneering the fast-fashion concept with new deliveries to its stores coming in twice per week. At the time of writing, she says H&M and Forever21 both get daily shipments of new styles, while Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website.
With designers creating new looks on a weekly basis, the fashion calendar for these companies is set up to deliberately make the customer feel off-trend after the first wear. Read more →
This post was originally published on the Factory45 blog.
The Open Arms Shop started as a sustainable apparel brand empowering refugee women through living wage employment. Currently, its founders and employees are transitioning into a full-development sew shop based in Austin, TX, adding another Made in the USA production facility to the growing comeback.
Unique to Open Arms Shop is its “triple threat” of providing a living wage to refugee women, being based in the USA, and using repurposed and recycled materials. Having already taken on production of established brands such as Raven + Lily and Blue Avocado, I spoke to founder Leslie Beasley about Open Arms’ new business model and her advice for new designers looking to manufacture in the USA. Read more →