Indie +Size Designers Talk About Their Businesses

by Alysse Dalessandro

I have run a size inclusive indie clothing brand for more than four years now. Being a fashion writer certainly informs my perspective, and has allowed me to deduce that indie plus size brands are indisputably responsible for helping major strides towards inclusivity happen in the fashion industry. From catering to more people through size-friendly ranges, designing more fashion-forward options, and actively involving themselves in efforts in body positivity, many of these brands serve plus size consumers very well. But while I don't think our influence goes entirely unnoticed, I can't help but feel like there are struggles we face that aren't being talked about.

When Beth Ditto released her first full clothing collection in Feb. 2016, she discussed the way she went about making this line, and her focus on leaving ideals of "flattering" behind with Vogue. Much of the plus size community quickly aligned her efforts with indie plus size/size inclusive brands in terms of quality, construction, production, and price. But the collection's higher price points didn't sit well with some folks. As an indie designer, the argument that indie designer price points can be exclusionary was one I was all too familiar with.

Whether that be in terms of price points, size ranges, or gender neutrality, I understand that the community I serve is already underserved and frustrated with the mainstream industry's lack of understanding for their needs. I also know that there are other designers concerned about these issues as well, and I wanted to talk with them about some of the challenges of being an indie plus designer. I interviewed six fellow designers whose size ranges encompass everything from XXS through 5X, and with design experience up to 13 years. These are some of the realities of being an independent designer that can make our effort to serve everyone harder to achieve.

1. Initial Funding Was A Universal Issue

While the reason for starting out was a little different for every designer I spoke with, the lack of funds with which to start their business was not uncommon. Rachel Kacenjar, owner of Re/Dress, has been working in the industry for eight years and serves a size range of 14 to 30. Kacenjar tells me via email that she funded her first vintage plus size clothing business by working various office jobs and when she purchased Re/Dress three years ago, she did so with her own personal savings and crowd-sourcing for a total of $27,000. Having to rely on self-funding and support from friends and family was something I heard about a few times.

Lizz Denneau of CandyStrike actually says her first line was completed with zero capital.

"There just wasn’t any help out there and I did not grow up with those sorts of resources," she says. "I wanted something, I just did it. That’s what you learn as a poor kid, how to be resourceful without money. When CandyStrike started, it was a brick and mortar shop before it went online. I had a couple hundred dollars and a lot of help from friends and family. Someone bought me my first serger, my first dress forms were actually mannequins donated to me by a friend whose store was changing out fixtures."

2. Quitting Day Jobs Isn't An Immediate Option

I personally started my business, Ready to Stare, by working a corporate day job and putting every extra cent I had into materials and other expenses. I relied a lot on collaboration from other creatives such as stylists, photographers, and hair and makeup artists in the beginning — and I still do. Rachel Hill of the Canadian-based custom swimwear and lingerie brand Origami Customs says she also traded product for modeling, photography, and web work to first get her business going on Etsy. She also worked in social media marketing for two years before quitting to focus solely on her business.

But the reality of quitting your day job is still a dream for some indie designers, including myself. I quit a corporate day job twice before eventually supporting myself completely through freelance writing. There have only been a few months in the four years I've been in business during which I didn't work at least one other job.

3. Sales Aren't Consistent

Another indie designer who's worked a second job the entire seven years her brand has been in existence is A'Shontay Hubbard of Christian Omeshun. She tells me that her sales are inconsistent, which makes focusing on her brand full-time or hiring someone on part-time to help a huge risk. One month, she could sell two of her handmade dresses. Another month, she could sell 20. Even with that extra financial support, the life of her brand doesn't always feel like a guarantee.

"I have never closed, but I've had a few stagnant moments where I thought maybe this isn't what I should be doing," Hubbard tells me via email. "This is basically why I release a collection once a year. It's hard when you actually sew every order placed singlehandedly, along with photoshoots, daily promotions, events, and having a full time job."

For a lot of indie designers, the challenges aren't limited to initial funding alone, but the energy and additional funds needed in order to keep going. Investment in a single failed collection can make or break a business. Shawna Farmer of the plus brand Chubby Cartwheels has been working for four and a half years, and she still worries about how every new collection will be received.

"It's not a steady income," Farmer says in an email interview. "My biggest struggle is my worry or doubt about not knowing how well a collection I've invested money and time into will do and that possibly I could be at a loss if people aren't feeling it. I worry about that constantly."

4. Support Staff Is Small

I personally do almost everything myself, with three people assisting me in production on an as-needed basis. Size inclusive designer Courtney Smith of Courtney Noelle tells me that she is the only full-time employee and has two part-time assistants. Although there is little information available regarding where bigger plus brands outsource their products, Torrid's LinkedIn reveals that the company has more than 3,000 associates in 280 stores. While Lane Bryant doesn't list an exact employee number, its LinkedIn houses 10,000 across more than 800 stores. Its nine-person executive team circa 2012 contained eight more full-time employees than my entire company.

Designing as an indie often feels highly personal, because it is. I know that some people often assume I have a large team of employees working for me. But most indie designers I know of are either the only employee, or still highly involved the day to day processes of running their business.

5. Spreading The Word Is Hard Work

Smith says that growth is her biggest struggle. She estimates that she spends 50 percent of her budget on marketing and advertising. But even with this focus, it's still difficult to compete with bigger brands that can afford more costly models and advertising space.

"A lookbook for me can range between $2,000 to $10,000: Photographer, location, models, set design, assistants, makeup, stylists, graphic designers, etc.," says Smith. "I once got a $25,000 quote from an agent for a particular model. I'd love to be able to hire whomever I want and have billboards all over the country."

When you think of the top plus size models on billboards and television commercials, Lane Bryant's #ImNoAngel and #PlusIsEqual campaigns may come to mind. It was hard to escape their reach. Each of those campaigns was reportedly worth about $5 million.

Kacenjar echoes Smith's sentiment on the biggest challenges of growth, saying one is "having capital to produce the next big thing" and the second is "never having advertising money and relying solely on word of mouth."

6. Setting Prices Is Complex

The plus community has been ignored for so long that I hate the idea of further excluding anyone with high price points. Yet because indie designers are usually producing their own pieces rather than using large scale or overseas manufacturing, the cost of production is inevitably higher.

"I constantly debate with myself whether it's more important to keep pieces affordable, or to raise the prices (just enough so I make a profit!) so that I can spend more time developing new pieces or working with my community to get more items out to the people who need them via subsidized orders," says Hill.

And like any brand, knowing your audience and what they are able and willing to spend is crucial. I, along with many of the other designers I spoke with, often find myself adjusting designs to lower the cost.

"I really try to make sure my pieces are affordable and work for all sizes and shapes," Farmer tells me. "I know a lot of my clothing has a more youthful audience and that demographic isn't always able to or wanting to spend a ton of money on a single piece of clothing. So while trying to stay true to what I want to create, I always try to make sure there are pieces for everyone."

7. Indie Designers Can't Compete With Fast Fashion

Meanwhile, Denneau adds that pricing for both her designs and her fine art pieces is something that causes her major anxiety.

"I think each indie brand has its own market," she says. "Each indie brand has its own production, sourcing, and distribution. If any or all of those is run on a smaller scale or with limited resources the price will be higher, and it should be. It has to be or the brand won’t survive. I can’t afford every badass plus size brand out there, and it sucks, trust that I know. But I feel like the inaccessibility to some is what spurs creativity in design. Sometimes I just have to tuck those $5 bills aside until I got enough for that dress. Also, accessibility is subjective right? People have complained to me that a fully handmade swimsuit, drafted, cut, and designed is way too expensive at $80 when I’m losing money at that price. We’re so used to fast fashion, [so] we expect it from everything."

Kacenjar says that it's rare for her to carry something that will cost customers more than $150, but she adds, "I think folks get to charge whatever they want to charge for their art. If that means they're being exclusionary, so be it. I mean, accessibility is important to me, but it's certainly not important to everyone."

I'm certainly not saying that plus size fashion at lower price points isn't absolutely necessary, because it obviously is. But indie designers can't usually be the ones to fill that need, and that's a tough reality to face.

8. It's Not Often "The Good Life"

"Owning your own business doesn't mean you get to sleep in or take days off whenever you want," says Farmer. "I know a lot of people who think because I run my own shop I can just drop what I'm doing and go out for the day. I compare [running an indie business] to planning a wedding in that until you plan [one] you don't really realize just how much goes into it, how much is needed, and mostly how much everything actually costs."

Smith shares a similar perspective.

"As an indie designer, I am literally creating things I think of in my head; there’s no huge design team choosing the 'colors of the season' and making the collection, it's me and my girl Roxxane (my dress form)," says Smith. "I am able to take risks and try new things that larger brands are too big to do. Some work, some don't, nevertheless, I relish in the exclusivity. You can only get a Courtney Noelle piece in one place, one studio, one store (virtual)."

9. Their Customers Are The Best Reward

I also asked every designer about what motivates them and what they find to be the most rewarding part of running an indie business. The answers were all similar: their customers.

"By far, I get the strongest sense of accomplishment when I feel like I'm meeting the needs of my community," says Hill. "Putting time into developing a transgender-specific line was hugely rewarding for me, and the feedback that I got from customers (and press!) really let me know that people were in desperate need of custom-made pieces for their most intimate clothing. Seeing feedback from transgender customers, as well as many more who have truly appreciated the customized nature of my pieces, is what keeps me going."

Kacenjar says she believes the work she does with Re/Dress really changes lives, and I couldn't agree more. You have to be passionate to run an indie business. There's no group of suits sitting around a boardroom analyzing financial figures in an indie. Rather, the narrative is often that of an overworked, sleep-deprived woman packaging orders alone at 11 PM.

Pleasing everyone is something that I think a lot about as a designer. Although logic tells me that it's an impossibility, I am still a part of the plus size fashion community myself, so I see feedback about the lack of options and accessibility all the time. I'm even participating in that conversation often. I see the issues. I know the solutions. But I lack the resources to fully tackle them head on.

Despite a lack of resources and manpower in comparison to some of the larger plus size retailers, the investment in becoming a plus size or size inclusive designer often stems from dealing with the struggles facing the community ourselves. For most of us, there's a personal element — often in the form of thousands of our own dollars and a limitless amount of sweat — that comes with trying to facilitate the changes plus size consumers want to see. We usually sacrifice having a 401K and a steady and reliable income in the name of our businesses. Health insurance is another uncertainty. Since starting my business, I've had six different insurance carriers.

These sacrifices along with the personal investments of money and time make the risk factors pretty high. But when I think about why I have invested so much into my business, it's because I believe that I can make a difference in plus size fashion. People can be empowered through fashion, challenging beauty standards and fighting fat-phobia. When you're shopping with indie businesses, you're investing in helping those changes happen, too.

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Image: CourtneyNoelleInc/Instagram