An Interview With Three Slow Fashion Entrepreneurs on the Challenges, Joys, and Lessons Learned From Building and Growing Their Own Conscious Fashion Brands.
A large part of the beauty and appeal of the slow fashion movement is the focus on the stories and of the makers. When you get down to the root of it, slow fashion is all about reconnecting to our clothes and the people that made them.
While the “About” pages on websites and posts on social media can help tell the story of a brand, I know there is so much more to dive into about the ups and downs of starting and running a fashion business—especially one where the entrepreneur is also the one designing and crafting the clothes they are selling!
To dig a little deeper into the stories behind their respective brands and learn more about what it’s like to create and build an ethical, slow fashion company, I interviewed three women entrepreneurs: Kim of Sunday West, Van of Van Hoang the Label, and Emily of Margu.
Let’s dive in!
Tell us a bit about yourselves and how you came to start your slow fashion businesses.
Kim, Owner & Designer of Sunday West:
Heya! I’m Kim, the lady-of-all-trades at Sunday West. While I love all creative expression, fashion is my lifelong obsession. Making clothes for my dolls evolved into refashioning vintage garments, which evolved into taking clothing apart to learn how it was made. I never took any formal fashion design classes. My beloved art school didn’t have any fashion courses, and that was okay with me. Sculpture is a language that translates. The tools and materials offer different outcomes, but in the end, I learned pattern-drafting by cutting shapes from clay slabs in my ceramic classes.
Van, Owner & Designer of Van Hoang:
Hi! My name is Van Hoang and I am the owner and designer of my namesake label. I’ve always loved creating things and I first became aware of fashion design in high school. I went on to get a BFA in Fashion Design and Merchandising as well as an MA in Design for Sustainability. I wanted to design and produce things in an ethical way and slow fashion is my method of doing that. It’s very important to me to not just care about the end product, but the whole process of making as well.
Emily, Owner & Designer of Margu
My name is Emily, and I’m the founder and designer of the womenswear label Margu. I learned how to sew as a teenager, but didn’t truly begin sewing in earnest until after college. What started as a fun hobby quickly became an obsession: I sewed so many dresses and I bought so much fabric. I read so many books about sewing, clothing design, and pattern-making. I moved from following commercial patterns to the letter, to adjusting those patterns, to abandoning commercial patterns altogether and making my own. Several years in, I took a step back and realized I was creating clothing with a combination of design, quality, and aesthetic that couldn’t be found anywhere else. I never dreamed I would have my own clothing line, but I realized I had just about everything in place to do so. So I took a big (scary) leap, and here I am!
Why was it important for you to make your brand’s pieces yourself?
Kim: Honestly, I’m a control freak. I have crazy specific standards that I’m not comfortable dumping on other people. Even so, I can’t continue to do everything myself if I want to make my brand sustainable. For me, being creative is the most important part, which includes designing, fabric sourcing, pattern-drafting, and making the initial garment. I know my strengths, and realize that no one can offer my exact aesthetic. There are sewists out there who are more skilled and have the ability to work more efficiently, though. So, I’m currently establishing relationships with a couple of seamstresses in the area to assist in making multiples of my designs.
Van: I think in general consumers have become so disconnected to how things are made and the people behind the product due to the prevalence of fast fashion in our culture today. And, it’s easy to get sucked into it when things are priced so cheaply that you don’t stop to question, “why is it so cheap?” So, when I was in the process of launching my brand I knew that this was an issue I wanted to address. I want consumers to be aware of how everything is made and who is making it. Everything has a story behind it and the people producing the garments is a big part of that. I also want to be a part of preserving the craft of sewing and continuing the art of making something with your own two hands. Everything is so automated or machine made now and I think this removes the heart and feeling from the product as opposed to something that is handmade.
I currently design and make everything myself, but as my company grows I would like to reach out to the immigrant/refugee community here in Nashville to employ those who are seeking gainful employment. This is not so I can pay less for labor or for marketing purposes—it is something I care deeply about and is very personal to me as I come from an immigrant family myself and know how hard it can be to find employment opportunities. My parents have worked so hard to get where they are now and there were so many people who helped us along the way and I want to pay it forward. This will be my way of giving back to the local community and economy, by creating jobs and celebrating diversity.
Emily: Wearing all the hats in a business can be tough at times, but the upside is that I’m never bored! Making all my pieces myself is something I’ve chosen to do for a few reasons. I started out with no loans and just a small amount of personal savings, so I didn’t really have a choice in the beginning. As my business has grown, I’ve realized that making everything myself has advantages, as having complete control over my production allows me to be as nit-picky and obsessive about details as I’d like. Eventually, though, as my business grows, I’d love to have an in-house team of sewers who work alongside me to create all our pieces!
What were your biggest challenges starting out?
Kim: Money is tricky and growth is difficult, but self-doubt has been my biggest challenge. It really shaped the initial model of my brand. I dabbled in selling my designs for years, but wouldn’t allow myself to fully commit until we moved toSouth Carolina and I left a job behind in Philadelphia. It took a lot of good feedback from my “me-made wardrobe” before I hesitantly decided to go for it. Because I was afraid to take out a loan, I started out on a strictly made-to-order model. And, it’s still the way I operate, for the most part. Making clothes and buying fabrics as-needed is far less daunting than making and funding full size runs, especially when you’re not convinced others will think it’s special. Allowing self-doubt to hold me back has not been a positive thing, but I do believe it has helped me problem solve my start-up creatively.
Van: The biggest challenges starting out were funding, time management, sourcing, and also just figuring where to start. I still have a part-time job so finding time to get everything done is still a struggle, but I know it will pay off one day. Sourcing sustainable materials is also a challenge since it’s not as easy to find on a wholesale level as more conventional materials so it takes a lot of research and googling… ha!
Also, balancing my creative wants with the business needs is always a challenge. For example, I may want to design something that can be elaborate, but would take a lot of time to produce which might make something too expensive so I have to constantly ask myself if there are better and more efficient ways of doing something. Or, I might want to offer something in multiple colors, but then I’d need to have all those fabrics in stock and I might not have the funds to do that. So, how I deal with that is by doing things one at a time when I’m ready for it. I don’t have to do what everyone else is doing and offer everything at once. I don’t have to release full collections when everyone else is. In fact, I want to offer an alternative to the traditional fashion cycle—one that is more thoughtful and intentional. I want to create a business that will last, one that will innovate solutions to our collective fast fashion addiction. And, doing anything that is against the mainstream is always a struggle. But, I think it’s a battle that’s worth fighting because we only have one Earth and we’re all in this together (cheesy, I know, but true).
Emily: To be totally honest, this is still something I still struggle with, but my biggest challenge starting out was trying to figure out everything alone! I am naturally an independent and solitary person, but sometimes it’s difficult to get out of my own head when I’m making decisions.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of running your slow fashion label?
Kim: I feel most assured in my calling, like everything has come full circle, when my clothing helps women feel more confident. I also LOVE helping people make the connection between their products and the human involvement. When we are reminded that there is a maker behind our consumption, we start to consider more… more about the items and about the lives of those who made them. This is so important when it comes to ethical living, and breaking the habit of fast fashion and disposable clothing.
Van: The most fulfilling aspect for me is that I now feel like I have a sense of purpose. I never wanted to make just more stuff. I wanted to create a business that had a mission and gave back to the community in some way. And, being a part of the slow fashion movement is being a part of something bigger than myself.
It’s being a part of a revolution that’s about community, empowering others, and creating a better future for all of us. It’s also fulfilling to me to create something that has an inherent meaning outside of the product itself. The clothing isn’t just another top or dress, but it’s also a means to tell a story about where it came from, who made it, how it was made, and how we’re all connected.
Emily: My favorite thing about running my label is getting to do something I love every day. Expressing my creativity though my designs, working with my hands to create beautiful garments, and engaging with my amazing, thoughtful customers are all so fulfilling, and I feel so incredibly luck to be doing what I’m doing! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more cognizant of the way I spend my time, and I’m so happy to get to spend my time in a way that is both fulfilling to me personally while also doing my part to make the world of fashion more ethical and transparent.
What is something about having a life as an entrepreneur or a fashion designer that most people wouldn’t expect?
Kim: I’m ashamed to say it, but we don’t all look cute when we’re working. I make some of the most comfortable clothes I can imagine, and they look great on… but when I’m working alone, in my home studio, it’s a hurdle for me to even get out of my workout clothes (I wear them hoping I’ll convince myself to get to the gym)!
Van: Most people may not expect that being a designer is not that glamorous and it’s a lot of hard work! I think a lot of people have the notion that being a designer is all fun and sketching and making beautiful things. But, that’s only a small part of it. There’s also marketing, accounting, product development, web development, copywriting, photoshoots… the list is endless. There’s always more to do, it’s never just one thing and it’s a constant juggling act.
Another misconception I think many people have is that you have to be an extrovert to be a successful leader or entrepreneur or designer. I don’t think that’s true at all. I’ve even been told that to be a designer I need to have a big personality and I understand where they are coming from. However, I think you also have to stay true to yourself. I know several people who are introverts that are very successful. A big personality will only take you so far, you also have to have conviction and be able to deliver what you promise. I think the main things are to be confident, believe in your product/service/business, honest, kind, authentic, and able to follow through.
Emily: So, not surprisingly, I work a whole lot, more than I ever have prior to starting my label, and often at very weird times of the day or week. Sometimes I push myself too hard and work too much, but overall, and this is something that surprised me, I feel a lot healthier and happier than I’ve ever been. As tough and as stressful as my job gets, the love for what I do is always there, and it really has affected my health and disposition in a positive way!
What advice do you have for women out there who want to start their own business?
Kim: Don’t wait. Don’t let yourself get stuck in a job that’s unfulfilling, especially when you have dreams out there to catch. If you need to rely on a day job, find a way to start small. But make a plan for moving away from it. Spend your free time researching, learning new skills, and building your business. Scrimp and save so that you can eventually quit your job, and afford to go without work for a while, as your brand starts out. You’ll have to work with less for a while, but less is really so much more.
Van: Always be curious and continue learning. Because the moment you think you know everything is when you become stagnant and stop growing. There are so many resources out there now to better educate yourself or learn something new that there’s no reason not to make good use of it. It doesn’t even have to be directly related to whatever field you’re in, but as long as you’re curious about it and engaging yourself it can only make you better by widening your world view and perspective. It could be just listening to a podcast or taking a class on Skillshare. You’re never too old or too good to learn something new.
Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and who aren’t afraid to challenge you. I don’t currently have any employees, but I still have people that are way smarter than me and great at what they do that I go to for advice and support. I think this can only make you better as a leader and it never hurts to see things from a different point of view. You’re going to need these types of people when challenges arise and they’ll be the ones that are most likely to think of new and better solutions to push you forward.
Support other women. We all become better when we support and encourage each other. There’s room for all of us to succeed and another woman’s success doesn’t take away from your own.
Oh, and be kind. Kindness can go a long way, and it’s free.
- Have another source of income as long as you can! The extra time of not working another job is great, but you’re not going to be able to spend that time very well if you’re worried about paying rent.
- Don’t expect miracles overnight. Most of the businesses out there “making it” were quietly hustling for years (and years and years) until their success came.
- Believe in yourself, keep learning, and don’t give up!
A huge thank you to Kim, Van, and Emily for taking the time to share your insights, thoughts, and perspectives on slow fashion and running your own labels!
Here’s where to find more about these fabulous female fashion entrepreneurs:
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