Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from Elizabeth Pape, the designer behind the fashion line Elizabeth Suzann. Although she had learned to sew as a hobby in college, Elizabeth never intentionally set out to create a business based on her handmade items. Only when the reality of graduation set in did she realize she only wanted to pursue a career that allowed her to make and use her hands. Today she has expanded her line into retail stores and online markets and continues to pursue her creative passions with her handmade business. Thank you so much for sharing your career journey with us, Elizabeth! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
Photo by Elizabeth Pape
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I don’t know that there was one point where I “decided” – it just kind of morphed into something that eventually became a business. I taught myself to sew in college as a hobby, and eventually started selling some things I made at a local boutique. It was very exciting to me at the time, but I didn’t necessarily think it would be my future. As the impending reality of life after graduation approached, it became obvious that working with my hands – in the medium of clothing in particular, which is so expressive and creative – was what I wanted to do.
But I was nowhere near a place where I could call what I was doing a legitimate business. That moment was scary and disheartening, but it was that realization that made me say, “Ok, you have to make this into a successful business or you’ve got to do something else.” That “not wanting to do something else” was the primary reason I took the leap.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
Oh boy. I think when I first started out, my business was characterized by it’s lack of definition. I was selling to local boutiques, selling vintage clothing online, blogging, making jewelry and filling sketchbooks with original clothing design ideas I didn’t know how to make. At some point between trying to design sewing patterns and coordinate a photo shoot for the vintage inventory, I realized I had way too much going on. If I was going to be successful, I needed to focus on one thing. That’s a problem I still struggle with – getting excited about too many projects and not devoting enough time to any of them. At any rate, I dropped everything but design. I slogged through teaching myself pattern drafting, read books on apparel manufacturing and tried to apply as much as I could to my own, tiny operation.
I started out doing made-to-order pieces on Etsy, tried a few retail shows, and eventually moved to my own standalone site and am now in the process of switching over from made-to-order to in-stock merchandise and wholesale. Really, my business has kind of defined itself. I’ve had to make some tough decisions along the way about what to eliminate and hone in on, but through trial and error it becomes clear what’s working and what’s not. For example, moving away from made-to-order is a necessary step for efficiency (and my own sanity!). I’ve learned that custom orders, in my scenario, are often not worth the price to the customer or worth the price for my time spent. It’s better for me to spend my time designing, testing and producing a great product that I’m proud of, and letting customers decide whether it’s a piece they want to purchase or not.
At various intervals along the way, I found myself (and still do) defining my own business according to what others were doing, and that’s never helpful. I would try a new thing out, and when it fizzled and didn’t feel great, it was often because it wasn’t true to me. It’s necessary to try on different hats and pay attention to what’s going on in your industry, but don’t get so caught up in everyone else’s business that you neglect the originality of your own.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
There isn’t a particular piece of advice that comes to mind, because honestly I was just winging it, but the most helpful “thing” from that time was certainly the unwavering support from family and friends. It sounds so cheesy, but having parents that always encouraged me to just keep going was crucial in my decision to stick with it. They are seriously amazing, I don’t know how I lucked out with such a great family. So, if you don’t have anyone else telling you, take it from me – you CAN do it!
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part of starting my business in particular was finding resources. The apparel industry is so fickle and very dependent on who you know, and as a fresh college graduate from Florida, I knew absolutely no one. Launching a clothing line requires access to all sorts of things that are very difficult to find on the internet (which is all I had at my disposal). For example, wholesale fabric suppliers, industrial machine suppliers and sewing contractors don’t have websites (excluding a select few), and even if you manage to find a phone number many don’t take on clients without a direct reference. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, Googling the same things, until I eventually stumbled upon a forum that mentioned a textile trade show in New York specifically for small designers, meaning the fabric suppliers would have low minimums. For a clothing designer, or a maker of any physical products, being able to purchase your materials at wholesale prices is absolutely critical to your success. If you’re paying retail price for materials, you’re either going to be charging too much for your products, skimping on quality, or not making any money.
Anyway, I bought a ticket, went to the trade show, and my world was changed. Not really, but kind of. It was another reality check, meeting these suppliers and realizing that I needed to know a lot more about my products than I did. I needed to know exactly what I was looking for, how much of it I needed, how much I could afford to pay for it, how that was going to affect my COG. In the end, going to that show was one of the best things I ever did for my business. It threw me in the fire and I came out with a clearer idea of where I wanted to go, and many of my suppliers today are vendors from that first show.
That closed-doors, insider-outsider aspect is one of my least favorite things about this industry, and I try to avoid falling prey to it myself. When I find resources I love or have experiences that would help others, I think it’s so worth it to share. In the spirit of sharing, for any other apparel/sewn product designers out there – the trade show I attended was the DG Expo, and it’s still running. They hold it several times a year in various cities around the country, and I highly recommend it.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?<
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to trust your gut. Everybody says that, but it’s so true. It can be really scary starting out on your own, and for me the tendency is to look at what others are doing and oversaturate myself with research and observation. There are a lot of people that will give you advice, and a lot of it will be good, but some of it will be rubbish. In my case, there was a lot of “traditional” business advice that was very contrary to what I believed in and what I saw for my business’s future.
It was clear that my concept of bucking the traditional fashion calendar to discourage excess shopping, keeping production local, and placing my focus on craftsmanship rather than dollars didn’t fit into the mold of the classic successful fashion line.
But, I wasn’t willing to listen, and I sincerely believe that consumers and businesses are changing (take local favorite Imogene and Willie and the new online company, Everlane for example). I think you can never be faulted for making your business decisions based on what you feel is right and good, and if you stick to those values and your business doesn’t work out, you can move on knowing you didn’t compromise yourself in the process. And from what I’ve seen, those businesses that are based on goodness and truth have ended up being pretty dang successful. So, trust yourself and go with it.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Whew. There have been quite a few, but there is one moment that sticks out in my mind. I don’t know if it was a failure in the classic sense, but it was definitely a low point. I had released my first real collection, and it just didn’t feel right. I remember taking all of my samples and hanging them up in the doorway of the kitchen, all lined up, and telling my husband that I hated all of it. He looked at them with me, and I told him that they were just bad. They didn’t flow, they didn’t look like a collection, I like a single garment. I was disgusted with all of my own work. Naturally, as husbands are wont to do, he said that was nonsense.
Looking back, we were both a little right. There a strong piece or two in the collection, but it was not excellent work. That feeling of never being quite satisfied with yourself, however, is something that doesn’t go away when you’re working in a creative field. However, rather than it stopping me from being productive, I’m learning to let hat feeling push me to do my best and be ruthless with my editing.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
Hm, honestly I feel like every day I get to keep doing this is a success. There have been lots of exciting opportunities and events, but none in particular feels more like success to me than waking up, heading to the studio and knowing that this is what I do. Sometimes it feels like a real chore, and I’m usually tired, and it isn’t always fun, but it does feel like success.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Anything by Seth Godin – Linchpin and All Marketers Tell Stories are my favorites. He is an excellent motivator, and his books really helped me get out of my own head and start doing actual work. His podcast “Startup School” is great as well.
Photo by Anna Tucker
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1 – If you’re creative, how are you going to handle the sticky business side of things? This is something that still stresses me out. Spreadsheets, projections, bookkeeping – not how I want to spend my time. If you dream of making beautiful things, make sure you can also handle (or have someone else who can) the logistics and legalities of starting and running a business. This isn’t meant to intimidate because you can figure almost any of it out with some dedicated research and simple software. Just be ready to put in some work on that.
2 – Are you capable of holding yourself responsible? There is no boss, no secretary, and no one else to figure things out except you. When there are orders to fill, the dog is sick, the house is a mess, the site needs to be updated and new fabric needs to be ordered, there isn’t anyone else to take over. Eventually as your business grows and expands there will be employees to help out, but in the beginning, it’s just you. Make sure you’re going to be able to keep yourself to a deadline and be committed to following through, because the success of your business begins and ends with you.
3 – Can you stay excited? There are lots of tough things about starting and running a business, but there are also lots of incredibly fun and amazing things. I get to wear slippers to work and have business meetings at Mexican restaurants. If you can work hard through the long days, there are always really wonderful, surprising, unexpected rewards and opportunities that pop up, and getting excited about them is what keeps you going.