Kristen Allen contacted me a few months ago about a potential Pop Up Shop at the store for her bust-friendly clothing designs, and I was immediately intrigued by what she hoped to offer customers. Bust-friendly fashion is obviously a subject about which I feel passionately because I have spent the better part of my life struggling to fit into clothing designed for a different body shape than my own. My first properly fitting button-front shirts came from Poland and then Campbell & Kate, and they opened my eyes to not only how sharp a tailored shirt looks but also how confident I felt wearing them. To see another entrepreneur bringing her own perspective to the industry, especially an approach which focuses on Made in the USA products, was fabulous, and I knew immediately I wanted to help however I could. As a result, we’re starting off with an interview where Kristen dishes on her motivations, her mistakes, and how fabulous it is to live in NYC, and then later, I will have a review of one of her shirts! Oh, and did I mention that if there is enough interest we’re going to host a Pop Up shop here? If you want to see her visit NC, please comment, email, or message me because this is an opportunity I would love to take advantage of for our customers.
P.S. Kristen writes a superb blog associated with her store where she discusses product reviews, her Pop Up shops, shopping expeditions, and more!
Chic Fashions for Larger Bosoms
Find them now at: http://www.exclusivelykristen.com/
Check them out in person at Pop Up Shops: http://www.exclusivelykristen.com/pages/pop-up-shops
Bust-friendly clothing holds a special place in my shopping-for-my-boobs-discourages-me heart. What made you decide to start this business?
I had this idea to start a clothing line for busty women for a while. I distinctly remember going into a Guess store as a high school student and seeing this shirt that I really liked. I tried on a few sizes and none of them fit right because of my boobs. Since then making clothes for bustier women has always been in the back of my mind. I moved to New York City in 2012 and was inspired by the entrepreneurial nature/side hustles of most New Yorkers and, of course, Shark Tank. Also, New York is the fashion capital so manufacturers, industry insiders, and fabric and trim suppliers are just a convenient subway ride away. So I decided to that this was the perfect time to start my dream business.
Having access to all those resources must be amazing! Do you hope to change the way people feel about the clothing shopping experience?
I recently had a pop up shop in Chicago and a petite young lady with H cups stopped by in order to see for herself these button down shirts that claimed to fit up to an H cup. When she tried it on and saw that, for the first time, she could wear a well-fitted button down shirt, she literally jumped for joy. That is what I want to accomplish. I want to give busty women chic and well-fitted options that will put smiles on their faces. Joan Rivers once said, “Diets, like clothes, should be tailored to you” and I’m passionate about being part of the body inclusive movement in fashion.
Are you making progress toward your goals? Entrepreneurship is fraught with obstacles . . . kind of like diets!
I am definitely making progress. Sales and organic interest in my company through social media and my website are increasing. Also, I’m getting requests from customers to hold pop up shops in their neck of the woods. I believe that word of mouth is the best advertisement. If a company has a good product that solves a problem (in this case, the lack of well-fitted apparel for D+ cup women) then people will tell their friends and be ambassadors to the company. This kind of passionate support cannot be bought.
Thinking about the future, where do you see yourself going? How do you hope to get there?
My plan is to be THE apparel brand for big busted women. Kind of like what Kleenex is to tissue. When a D+ cup woman wants to buy clothes I want her to immediately think: “Exclusively Kristen.” In order to achieve this, I will need distribution and national/international media coverage. I need to get my apparel into stores and into the hands of journalists and bloggers, so that women know that they have big bust-friendly clothing options. I think that once busty women can see the fit and feel the quality of my garments, my garments will speak for themselves. My ultimate goal is to open brick and mortar stores, but that will require a large financial investment.
You seem like a woman ready to take on the world! Have you made any mistakes in your quest for clothing domination? I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to make your own products. Sometimes being a retailer selling other people’s designs is more than enough for me!
The biggest mistake that I made was not thoroughly vetting companies that I hired to perform services. I was in such a hurry to get Exclusively Kristen off of the ground that I didn’t dive into references as much as I should have. As a result, I wasted money on an end result that was garbage and I had to spend even more money to fix it. I currently receive quite a few sales calls and emails, but since I’m a small business most of the services I don’t need yet. If I am interested, I make sure to check the company extensively: ask for references, check google for reviews, check the state where they are incorporated to make sure that they are a registered business, get everything in writing, get documents reviewed by an attorney, etc. Honestly, nowadays I rarely work with a company unless they are recommended by a trusted colleague.
Very few US-based companies are keeping their manufacturing operations here in the US. I’ve always found Made in the USA clothing to be higher quality, and I love supporting businesses who are treating their employees ethically. However, these decisions also drive up the overall costs of goods. How have you handled the added expenses of being a Made in the USA small business?
I’m originally from Cleveland, so I saw firsthand the negative effects of jobs being relocated overseas. The suburb where I grew up had so many foreclosures that it was featured in a New York Times article. So Made in the USA is not just a branding ploy, it is personal. There are many benefits to manufacturing domestically. For example, it is easier to identify reputable manufacturers, the turnaround and shipping times are faster, I have more oversight, and there are higher manufacturing and labor standards.
Higher labor standards also mean higher costs to the buyer. I know that I can trim at least $35 off of the cost of each of my button downs if I off-shored production, but investing in American jobs benefits all Americans. Henry Ford once said, “No one loses anything by raising wages as soon as he is able. It has always paid us. Low wages are the most costly any employer can pay. It is like using low-grade material–the waste makes it very expensive in the end. There is no economy in cheap labor or cheap material.” When people aren’t making decent wages they buy less, when people make good wages they buy more, it’s that simple. Getting more people gainfully employed in the USA benefits all Americans, especially small businesses. I’m glad to be doing my part to bring jobs back to the USA by manufacturing domestically.
You make an excellent point here. If people have more money, they can afford more purchases and/or higher quality items, which improves multiple sectors of the retail industry from bust-friendly clothing to automobiles to the dining experience and so on. Of course, I also think people have been conditioned to “buy cheap” or believe that paying retail is either a scam or some kind of failure on their part. Have you found it challenging to raise awareness for why products cost more in an industry dominated by overseas manufacturing?
I try to convey the benefits of spending a little more for American made products, especially when a customer looks at the price tag and makes a face (note that Exclusively Kristen’s price range is $24.99 to $99.99, which is very reasonable for a Made in the USA brand). Not only do my garments last longer because I use high grade fabric and high quality production techniques, but buying my shirts will create and maintain skilled jobs for Americans. Here’s an example: a woman buys a foreign made shirt for $30. Most likely the fabric has a low thread count and pills easily. The dye and dying process of the fabric are low quality, so there’s fading and bleeding. The manufacturer probably cut corners in the production of the garment to keep their costs low. So after a dozen or so (or less) washes she will have to replace that $30 shirt. After, a few years that $30 shirts actually turns into a $150 shirt since she has to replace it frequently because of easy wear and tear due to substandard dyes, stitching/construction, and fabric. Exclusively Kristen shirts, on the other hand, use high density fabrics and high quality manufacturing so it will last much longer and be a one time investment.
My cost to make each garment is high because I manufacture in the USA, but even if I off shored it, my costs would still be high. Most (good) foreign manufacturers require 1,000 or more garments per order per style. American manufactures require much less. So given my small budget, I usually put in small orders and reorder as inventory gets low. The overall cost is cheaper in the USA because I don’t have to manufacturer as much; however, the cost per item is much higher.
That’s an interesting point about the potential for overseas manufacturing to actually cost more due to minimums and potential lack of oversight. Now returning to your example of the $30 shirt for a moment: Your approach to making clothes mirrors mine for shopping. I hate having to replace items constantly and prefer to think of items in terms of Cost-Per-Wear. Of course, I think it’s easier to spend more money on something less trendy and/or easier to mix-and-match. With your shirts, you have these lovely, classic, and even timeless elements. Was this intentional to help ease customer concerns about price?
Not necessarily. I think that classic designs look better on a larger bust. Back in our grandmothers era, bras were more cone shaped so clothes actually had more room in the bust than they do now. The 50’s and 60’s were all about minimalism, which is the optimal design for a bustier bodice. Busty women don’t need more attention to their chest through lots of ruffles and complicated patterns. However, not everyone likes vintage so the next shirt that I’m making for the fall will incorporate a more modern design.
The other reason why I tend to go for a more classic look is that most of my customers are in their 30’s and 40’s, so most are looking to buy something that’s appropriate for work and what they deem as appropriate for their age. Also trends go out of style fast so once I get through the development and manufacturing stages, I don’t have the financial wiggle room to risk not moving the inventory because I can’t get it to market before the trend ends.
Speaking as a newly minted 30 year old, I agree that something work appropriate is always at the forefront of my mind, and I do think many of the 50s inspired designs play well with fuller-busts. I’m a sucker for a menswear-inspired classic white shirt though. Where do you get your inspiration for everything?
I live in NYC, so the street is like a runway. I recently traveled to Bangkok, Myanmar, Taiwan, Colombia, and Tokyo and have definitely taken photos of their street and boutique fashions. I also watch a lot of Korean dramas and I LOVE the modern chicness of their fashion. I follow major brands as well as cool startups on social media in order to get style inspiration. Since I’m the fit model (I’m a 30 GG/H), I know first hand the necessary details that make a garment big bust-friendly, but I also rely heavily on customer feedback. A few months ago, I sent out a survey to everyone on my newsletter list in order to ask what styles they want to see next. Dresses were the most common request, so I’m in the process of developing Exclusively Kristen’s first dress.
So exciting! How do you choose the right fabrics for your design?
I found my wholesale fabric suppliers through word of mouth from people who have been in the fashion industry for many years. There’s also my go to places in the garment district that have a wide array of high quality fabrics for sampling that I don’t have to buy in bulk.
Switching gears a little, criticism is a big part of business ownership (and life in general). Have you received any negative comments from customers about the products? Did you feel it was a legitimate issue?
I’ve definitely received constructive criticism from potential and current customers. Surprisingly, cost hasn’t been the biggest issue. I think that most people understand that you get what you pay for. Fit and style are generally the feedback that I receive. Fit is difficult because women come in all beautiful shapes and sizes, and it’s impossible to have an off-the-rack brand that will fit everyone like a glove. I take a utilitarian approach to my designs and try to make styles and cuts that look good on the most people. Style is subjective and, like fit, what works for one won’t work for someone else. This is why I try to offer different styles and price points in order to increase the chance that someone likes and can afford at least one of my garments. That’s why I have a baby doll shirt, button ups in solid colors and patterns, a shirt with a vintage Peter Pan collar and another shirt with a standard collar, and some tank tops. The good thing about manufacturing small batches is that I can quickly incorporate small changes into the patterns based on customer feedback. As a result, I’m not stuck with 1,000 shirts that don’t fit right.
I think that all of the feedback I’ve received is legitimate. People have their own personal needs and wants, and as a business owner I have to listen and try to incorporate feedback into future designs. When the market speaks you must listen.
Managing customer demands and needs is always challenging, but what do you think is the hardest part of running your business? How do you relax after a hard day of entrepreneurship?
At this stage, running my business with limited resources is the biggest challenge. I don’t have a large budget so I have to think of creative low cost ways to market and create high quality garments. I have found that pop up shops are a cost effective way to expand regionally and connect with stores that are interested in selling my products. Also, I have sent shirts to a few big bust bloggers for reviews. It is a conflict of interest to pay for a review, so the only “cost” to me is providing a free Exclusively Kristen shirt and the shipping. I usually relax by curling up with my cats and watching TV. When I have some energy and am in the mood to go out, I like to explore different restaurants.
I ask this for all my small business spotlights—because I think it’s something not discussed nearly enough with entrepreneurship and success, but have you ever had any moments when you wanted to quit and throw in the towel? What kept you going forward?
Absolutely! This business has been a financial strain. I miss having a guaranteed paycheck every month, but I keep going because I’m solving a problem and I want to change the lives of women for the better. There’s nothing like a well-fitted stylish garment to give a woman a little more pep in her step. For years, I was relegated to dowdy shirts and I never felt like my clothes represented me. Now I have the opportunity to bring about change in the fashion industry and be part of the body inclusive movement, so busty women don’t have to wear dowdy, ill-fitting garments anymore. Last but not least, I’ve kept going because of the support of my friends and family. They believe in me and in the success of Exclusively Kristen. Start ups do struggle but the end reward is so worth it.
Yes, it sure can be! Now, were there any people who helped pave the way for you to succeed in this industry?
When I first told a friend that I was thinking of starting a fashion company, he gave me the contact information of his friend who had worked in the fashion industry for 30 years. That friend mentored me during the first stages of the company. Through my college’s alumni network, I met with the CEO of a private equity firm in order to get advice on pitching to investors and making a business plan. A Brooklyn-based boutique owner is my designated sample reviewer. She gives me me advice on what styles to make and is brutally honest when she looks at my samples. Finally, a fashion podcast host/photographer reviewed my website and gave me some great advice on its optimization. So as you can see, I’ve gotten a lot of free helpful advice from people who had no vested interest in me and for that I’m very grateful.
What advice would you offer someone considering entering the same industry?
VET YOUR SERVICE PROVIDERS! Leave no stone (or review) unturned. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and to ask for references. If you are going to make men’s suits ONLY use a manufacturer that has EXTENSIVE experience making men’s suits. Don’t let a women’s apparel manufacturer convince you that they can make your men’s suits. Also, use a lot of professional photos on your website. Remember, you are selling a product, so keep text to a minimum and make the buying process no more than two steps. The website needs to be clean and to the point. As the fashion podcast host who reviewed my website said, “Show me the clothes!”
Business owners always seem to have a never-ending wish of what they’d like to do (I know mine just goes on and on . . .), so what’s something you’d want to change about your business?
I wish that I had the resources to produce more styles. I have a lot of ideas, but not enough financial resources to bring them to fruition. Hopefully, in the near future, I can release at least 12 styles per season…a little something for everyone.
Sounds like a solid plan! What has had the biggest impact on your business so far?
I think that living in NYC has had a positive impact on my business. U.S.-based manufacturers require that fashion brands supply them with EVERYTHING, not just the fabric and pattern. So if I miscount some buttons or labels, get the wrong size elastic, or need extra poly bags, I can immediately run to the garment district, get what I need, and hand deliver them to my NYC-based manufacturer. I’ve even had garments Uber’d to me the night before a pop up shop.
Thank you so much, Kristen, for sitting down with us here and sharing all this wonderful information! And readers, be sure to go to her website and support another small business trying to make your life a little bit better.