We are delighted to share with you features and essays written by super women with inspiring careers and businesses that are reshaping our economy and the way we consume. They share their journey, the process it took them to get to where they are now and what they’ve learnt along the way. Welcome to Modern Mentors.
For close to a decade, I’ve run a bridal gown business, focusing on high-end custom gowns and accessories. It’s an industry I’ve learned entirely “on the ground,” starting with nothing more than a basic knowledge of home sewing and a deep fascination with design. I started making my own wardrobe when I was in high school. Years later, while pursuing an acting career in NY, I was throwing together last minute looks for wild nights out. I received so many compliments on the clothing I designed for myself and I knew I had good ideas. I would make and sell pieces to friends on a very small scale, but without any understanding of production or business, there wasn’t much else to do.
After moving to Chicago, I was fortunate to find more reliable work as an actor, and I was understudying at the famed Steppen wolf Theatre when a friend asked if I’d start a womenswear line with her. I’ll never understand how she convinced me to shift my energy away from the acting career just starting to blossom toward an industry I knew nothing about. She also had no experience or training in apparel manufacturing, and anyone with half a brain knew we were doomed for failure. Somehow, with her help and encouragement, we turned a $300 investment into amazing press and decent wholesale orders. The seamstress she found sent us to a little factory where they took me under their wing and taught me the basics. Their patience was infinite. They called me “baby designer” and were understanding and kind when I made inevitable mistakes.
While clumsily making my way through production, and trying to learn as much and as quickly as I could, another friend asked me to make her wedding dress. I thought I was doing her a favor, nothing more, but I never expected to fall in love. I still remember the overwhelming joy and pride in slowing down a little, making each detail perfect. It felt like my destiny to make special pieces with so much sentiment attached to them. I couldn’t wait to do another.
Surprisingly enough, I didn’t have to wait. Shortly after, I was approached by a customer who saw one of our ads in a magazine and wanted me to make her wedding dress as well, and more opportunities continued to roll in. Almost immediately, women were flying to Chicago from around the country for custom gowns, and I quickly pivoted and became a bridal gown designer.
Looking back, I should have stayed focused on custom orders, but I was young and inexperienced, and I thought it was necessary to create seasonal collections to sell to retailers. I didn’t have the financial resources to produce the quality of gowns I wanted, and I knew even less about the bridal industry than I had womenswear, but I worked my body to the breaking point. I made each piece as perfect as possible, and when I debuted at the New York Bridal Market, I knew I had shown something special.
Timing is important, too
In so many ways, I was so fortunate. I launched at a time when blogs were new – especially wedding blogs – and my own humble DIY blog reached thousands of readers every day. They watched me launch and build and stumble and recover, and many of them still follow and write me words of encouragement today. It was scary to offer up my life in that way, expose how small my brand really was (just me!), and open myself up to criticism, but I’m so glad I did. Those people have given me so much in return.
Meanwhile, I had a baby and my husband and I bought a home! Suddenly, I had a wholesale business to run, custom gowns to design, a blog to write, press obligations, and a new studio to maintain. My life was quickly unraveling at the seams. Eventually, something had to give, and I let go of the wholesale line and the blog in order to maintain the others. And yet, even still, it was too much. I was stretched thin.
The sweat behind the smile
To the outside world I’m pretty sure I presented a beautiful façade. After refocusing on custom, my business did start to grow. I was able to bring in help, and move to a larger, more impressive showroom. With that growth came longer hours at work, and my marriage started to suffer. We were both deeply unhappy, so I closed the showroom. I took fewer clients and my marriage still fell apart.
I was desperate to feel better. In an effort to love myself a little more, I gave away almost all of my clothes and started designing and sewing a new wardrobe – thoughtful, beautiful pieces that made me feel special and proud, using the same details I had learned over the years doing bridal and people loved them! It was like those early days in NY again – somehow what I made for myself was just as fun for the people around me, and they wanted a bit of that for themselves. I developed my signature Poet Blouse and sold small batches in flash sales on Instagram, and the response was overwhelming. I desperately wanted to do it on a larger scale, but I needed help.
I’m sure it sounds ridiculous, but I knew I would be on “Project Runway” this year. When the opportunity presented itself, there was never any question – I could see it so clearly. In the most transitional year of my life – becoming a single mother, moving apartments (twice!), AND turning 40 – it seemed like the most natural (albeit terrifying) thing to do. Here was the very thing I needed to help me launch my ready-to-wear line, and it could not have come at a better time.
Please don’t underestimate just how scary that is. Laying myself bare on a blog is nothing compared to a possible stumble at this level of exposure. Just like all the times before, the payoff could be so great, and I’m willing to take the risk – both for me, but more importantly, for the brand.