Interview by Elizabeth Heywood
We all dream of turning the thing we’re passionate about into our life’s work. In the case of one artist and entrepreneur, a creative way to stock her closet on a budget took a surprising turn and blossomed into a thriving business. This week Damsels sits down with Ariana Boussard-Reifel, owner of Mode Marteau, a curated online boutique that gives high-end clothing a second life. As a special offer for DID readers and members, Ariana is offering a 20% discount on everything in her shop between now and June 30th. Use the code GOODDESIGNSAVESLIVES at checkout.
What brought you from a Montana ranch to running your own curated online shop in Manhattan?
I moved to Manhattan right after college to pursue a career in art. I dreamed of being a famous sculptor- or at least making a living. I was working at an art gallery and hobnobbing with the art world elite and really struggling to dress the part. The only way that I could afford the Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent that I coveted was to thrift for it in the same places I was hunting art-making materials. At the time I’d never imagined I would open a shop or work on the internet. I had always had a love of fashion and of found things, which, I suppose, lead me to founding my own fashion company.
Montana is very much a do-it-yourself kind of place. I grew up learning to work hard and to get my hands dirty. I took that approach to building a business. It was a one-person team for a long time. I sourced, modeled, web designed, photographed, shipped & schmoozed until we grew to a place where I could afford help. My parents were both artists, so from early on I was imbued with a sense of the importance of craftsmanship and design in all things. With Mode Marteau I take these lessons to heart. Everything we select, regardless of expense or origin, is beautifully and thoughtfully made.
At what point did you realize that you could turn how you shopped into a business model?
Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I had just quit my promising job at a Chelsea art gallery because I wanted to take off on a voyage through India. When I re-examined my finances I realized that I would have to keep working. I knew I wanted to work for myself, but at 22, without significant capital (and before the big web 2.0 boom) my choices were limited. I knew that I had good instincts for quality and that I loved the thrill of discovering things. I’d been reading Vogue and watching Elsa Klensch religiously since I was a child so my recall for important labels was spot on. I took these seemingly meager skills as my resume and started a small shop on eBay. My love of treasure hunting met my admiration for entrepreneurship and before I knew it I was in business. It took years after that, as the internet evolved, for me to build my own shop and design my own brand that has become Mode Marteau.
What is the greatest risk or biggest mistake you’ve taken in your career? If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Last year I was offered a reality show with a major network, so I spent loads of my time rethinking my brand for an unfiltered audience, negotiating with lawyers and worrying, lots of worrying- not to mention jetting to locations, filming and applying false eyelashes. After all that the show was put on hold. In some ways it felt like a big waste of precious energy, but in hindsight I can’t even count the number of things I learned from the experience. So, you never know what you will gain when you say YES.
My advice to my younger self is to be bold! Early in my career I made choices to keep my business and my life at a scale that I could easily understand. I didn’t push my limits and really ended up limiting myself. I lost the chance to be the first to throw open the online vintage market. There is always comfort in doing things you know, but the real adventure happens when you step into uncharted waters.
What advice can you offer women who would like to start their own online businesses?
It really depends what business, but as far as retail goes I think the most important thing is to figure out how your store differentiates itself from all the others. There is a lot of noise online now, so standing out means having a distinct voice that is of interest to a distinct audience and then staying responsive and loyal to them.
How do you go about discovering and selecting the unique pieces for your shop?
Serendipity has something to do with it, and that is part of the fun. I can find amazing things anywhere, it is all about keeping my eyes open. I bought a vintage Hermes scarf last week on the street in Bushwick for $1 while I was attending Bushwick Open Studios. Or I’ll find myself talking to a woman at cocktail party who just realized she’d love to consign her 40 pair of Christian Louboutin heels. Being open to discovering treasures is the first part and then paring down all the fun and wonderful stuff in the world to a razor sharp curated collection, that is the second part.
We only buy things that are “rare & remarkable”. Immaculate craftsmanship and fabrication is the number one criteria, after that we look for a sense of timeless wearability that transcends trends and finally we want pieces that are unique, that can express the spirit of the woman who will wear them and tells the story of the woman who wore them before. All this, plus a little humor- not too much to ask!
Ultimately we select things that will make our customers tingle with excitement. Our customers are smart, self-actualized, young professional women who express themselves creatively through their wardrobe. They are savvy enough to know that they don’t want to pay retail price and that they don’t want to look like everyone else. We aim to make it indiscernible whether an item came from Barney’s (via a fashionista’s closet) or from a flea market, channeling another place and age. Our growing fan base knows to come to us for fashion that is wearable, international and unusual, so if I see something, even if it is a really good deal, and doesn’t meet those criteria I won’t buy it.
How has your experience as a fine artist affected how you run your business – and vice versa?
It is really beneficial to bounce back and forth between my creative mind and my business mind. In the contemporary art world it is just as important to have a strong brand and voice as it is in business. So that is an area where I apply the lessons I’ve learned building up a business to my art career. Running Mode Marteau, involves making tons of aesthetic decisions, so I apply my fine art training in that way. Also I aim to make Mode Marteau more than a vintage shop. I see it as a lifestyle company that has soul and speaks to the women who shop there. Infusing my company with a soul and purpose feels a lot like making an art piece.
Your career seems to be very much about connecting to the right people with the right pieces. How has networking helped you build your community and garner support?
I really don’t think you can network too much. I’m a bit of an introvert, so getting out and talking about the things that I’m passionate about isn’t always natural to me so I’ve sought out groups like DID, or the Women’s Entrepreneurship Festival where I know that I am in an environment of like minded women, who understand the struggles of being a solopreneur and are thrilled for my successes. I’ve found that this kind of networking has not only brought my clients and professional relationships but also friendships.
Interview by Elizabeth Heywood
The arrival of cherry blossoms and farmers’ markets means we can look forward to shedding our ‘sleeping bag’ coats and delving into our spring wardrobes. In honor of this annual pop of color and pattern onto our cityscape, Damsels sat down with image and lifestyle consultant Sunee LaClaire. Having recently been living Hong Kong where she had been running her own consultancy business, Sunee is back in the States and helping clients as a partner at Fit Valet. Find out more about Sunee on her blog, Thoughts on Style, her business site La Claire Styles, and be sure to check out her Etsy store where she’s started selling her handmade accessories.
The more I’ve been thinking about stylists, the more I realize I don’t actually know that much about the profession! Could you please explain a little more about what you do? How does being stylish differ from being on trend?
What a great question! The first thing I should explain is that I am trained as an Image Consultant, which differs from a personal stylist in a couple of important ways. My job is to make men and women feel fantastic by giving them confidence by knowing that they look their best. I am also trained in teaching etiquette and well as presentation skills. Personal styling is generally more of a one off that is less involved with the personality of the individual. The focus is to ensure that the client looks good for a particular event as opposed to training them how to shop and choose appropriate items for their shape.
Being stylish is for most of us vastly different from being on trend because by their very nature, trends only look good on a rather small percentage of the population. While it suits some people’s personalities to follow trends, that is not true for most of us. In general, we each have styles that suit our specific body shapes and personalities. We can always tweek that look in small ways to make it up to date or more on-trend but trying to always fit into trends simply doesn’t work for most people.
You had been a teacher before making the switch over to being a stylist. At what point did you realize that the time was ripe for a career change?
Actually I was a teacher for thirteen years! In truth, I knew it was time for a change when I started waking up every work day dreading what the day was to bring. It’s not a nice feeling to realize that you no longer enjoy what used to be your passion. So I decided to explore another passion of mine, style.
I love helping people and that is a big part of what I do. Seeing someone walk away from a consultation with a new sense of confidence and a great big smile really makes my day. Plus I get to make money shopping and I LOVE to shop.
What inspired you to move to Hong Kong to start your own business?
I decided to use my Masters Degree in Education as a way to travel the world. There is a rather large community of International schools who are looking to hire well-qualified teachers in all corners of the earth. I landed my first overseas job in Shanghai in 2004. After 2 years there, I was offered a position in Hong Kong. I loved living there and when it came time for me to change careers, I decided to stay in Hong Kong since it is a very entrepreneur friendly city.
How have your travels influenced your sense of style?
All of my experiences have influenced my style, however the last 8 years in Asia have allowed me to embrace a little more spunk in my personal style. I also really love some traditional elements of Chinese style and I own many mandarin collar dresses. In addition, Hong Kong has a large haberdashery district where you can buy anything you might like to create your own clothing and accessories. I love making things so naturally I was there often buying supplies to make accessories. Oh and it’s very inexpensive to have your clothing tailor made in China so that I got to become a designer of my very own wardrobe. I’ll miss that the most!
What are the most difficult and more rewarding parts of being a stylist?
To begin with the positive, I love helping people. I have a gift of being able to put things together easily and my clients love it when I can pull a look that they might never have dreamt of. And I really like discovering new designers.
I think that the most difficult part right now is convincing people of the value of the services that personal stylists provide. I often meet people who ask me right away how they should change their style. I’m always polite when that happens but part of me wants to say, “I get paid more than $100 hour for that advice. I’m not giving it away to you for free!” Anyone who provides a service can understand this. When what you are selling is your time and expertise, you have to make sure you value it appropriately.
If you could go back in time to when you started your career and give yourself advice, what would that be?
When I first launched Immaginare Limited in Hong Kong in 2009, I thought I could do everything on my own. I can’t. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way so now that I have relocated to New York, I’m definitely going to find other people to work with or hire to help me rebuild my company and network.
Do you want to help create a powerful organization of women in design? Are you looking to volunteer your expertise and time in a productive and rewarding way? If so, Damsels in Design has an opening for you on one of our committees!
Whether you are social butterfly or a savvy business woman, Damsels in Design is in need of your enthusiasm and ideas. Get ready to join the only cross-disciplinary networking organization for women in design. In our community, your experience counts. We are looking for the brightest and most dedicated members to plan engaging events, grow lasting sponsorships and recruit amazing women in design. In return, we offer an incredible network of contacts, opportunities for promotion and plenty of wine!
To apply, please fill out the application below. Committee Positions are for one (1) calendar year. EVENT Committee Members receive free or discount tickets to DID events. MEMBERSHIP Committee Members receive a Free Emerging Professional Level Membership for one year (discounted membership for subsequent years). SPONSORSHIP Committee Members receive a Free Emerging Professional Level Membership and discounted tickets to DID events for one year (discounted membership for subsequent years). Applications will be reviewed by the DID administration and notified by Friday, April 5th if accepted.
Interview by Elizabeth Heywood
While the ice and snow of winter have finally caught up to us, nothing beats snuggling into a soft sweater on a grey February day. Anya Cole has made a thriving business designing beautiful cashmere knitwear through her label HANIA by Anya Cole. Originally knitting to suit her own needs in communist Poland, Anya’s woolens now stock high-end shops and boutiques throughout the country and continue to be made by hand in NYC. This week Damsels sits down with Anya to discuss the comeback of artisan craftsmanship and the importance of advocating for other designers.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to start HANIA by Anya Cole?
As a young girl growing up in Poland, my mother taught me that if I needed something, I would have to make it. Learning to knit was a necessity that grew into a lifelong passion. As a ballet dancer in Poland, and later in Germany, I knit my daughter sweaters. Living in New York I would wear sweaters that I had hand knit and would receive compliments from curious strangers asking where I had purchased them. It was then that I realized there were people out there who appreciated the rare craft of hand-knit.
You have taken your craft a long way, from making sweaters out of necessity to selling your creations throughout the country – including gracing the shelves of Bergdorf Goodman. At what point did you realize that you could make a successful career out of knitting?
Once people understood that all of our products are 100% hand knit, right here in New York City, with yarns from the best mills in Italy and Scotland, they will realized how special and unique each sweater is. When Bergdorf Goodman and other luxury boutiques took notice and placed orders I realized that success was possible.
It must have been difficult starting not only a creative business on your own, but also starting that business in a foreign country. What were some of the early struggles you faced? How did you overcome them?
I’ve been living in US, specifically in New York City, for 23 years now and I am very well adjusted. As far as the struggles, I faced starting the business – they are the same that any new business faces.
Have you been fortunate to have support from others throughout your career? How important is it for designers to advocate for one another?
Yes I’m fortunate to have the support of my husband, family and a loyal team. Growing up in a communist country I learned from an early age the importance of advocating for one another and the same holds true in the design world.
For many of us a knitted good is a mass produced, machine made item constructed out of anything but wool (let alone quality wool). In your opinion, what is the state of craft today? Do think that there is still room in today’s market for handmade goods? Is there hope for a next generation of knitters?
The craft of hand-knit products disappeared from the market long ago as machine made sweaters replaced the craft of skilled workers; not only in America but also in Europe and around the globe. Having said that, I strongly believe that there is a market for handmade goods and we are pioneering a comeback of the craft in the market place. In fact, the hallmark of my entire collection is artisan craftsmanship as well as made in New York City. My hope is that other designers will rediscover the beauty and uniqueness of hand-knit and hand made goods so we can support artisan craftsmanship.
What inspires your designs? What’s your creative process?
As a professional ballet dancer, in Poland and Germany, I was always swaddled in layers of sweaters, scarves hats, gloves and of course leg warmers, so the dancer’s garb tradition of dressing has long influenced my personal style and it continues to be a great source of inspiration for my designs.
What advice would you give to other women who’d like to start their own design and craft businesses?
As long as you have the passion and a clear vision of where you want to be and the tenacity of pursuing your dream – everything is possible.
We’ve partnered with LearnStuff to bring you a compelling way of looking at the gender wage gap in the United States. We bet you didn’t know that “over a 40 year career, women miss out on $431,000 because of the gender gap.” Scroll down and take a peek…be sure to leave us your comments below!
With or Without an MBA, Women are Becoming Dominant Solopreneurs
by Emma Collins
According to the second annual “State of Independence in America” career study by MBO Partners, “Almost 17 million Americans are now ‘solopreneurs,’ 900,000 more than in 2011 and another 27 million U.S. adults are considering a shift to this form of work.” Experts suggest that this shift is more evident among women as they are leaving the workforce in droves, and opting to work from home not as homemakers but as solopreneurs. But before we discuss this rising trend among women it is important to spell out the meaning of the term “solopreneur.”
A solopreneur can be defined as an entrepreneur who works alone (hence “solo”) and runs his or her business as a one-person-show. A solopreneur may subcontract certain staff members and consultants, yet has full responsibility for the running of the business without an operational team. MBO Partners loosely describe solopreneurs as adults who work at least 15 hours a week as independent contractors, consultants, freelancers or project workers. MBO also includes small-business owners who have fewer than five employees.
Recent years have witnessed an explosion of women solopreneurs. Natalie MacNeil in her article in Forbes says that women have been starting businesses at a higher rate than men for the last 20 years, and increasingly tend to create home-based micro (less than 5 employees) and small businesses. According to the article, women will create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018 and more and more are doing this from home offices across the country.
The increase in the number of women solopreneurs may largely be attributed to the fact that many women view corporations today as being fundamentally flawed and limiting in their value structures. The Guardian Life Index, for instance, cites “office politics” as a driving factor for women leaving Corporate America to start businesses. Many women become solopreneurs and start businesses that align with personal values and offers freedom and flexibility when it comes to things like scheduling.
A few prominent women stand out among the crop of recent successful solopreneurs. Highlights include the following:
Olga Vidisheva. A Y-Combinator and Harvard Business School alum, Vidisheva launched Shoptiques with the objective to provide unique boutique clothing online. The site is currently U.S. only, but Vidisheva is working to bring the Shoptiques experience to international consumers.
Tracy Sun. After earning an MBA from Dartmouth and working as the Vice President of Merchandising and Inventory Planning at the Brooklyn Industries, Sun co-founded Est. Today in 2007. Est. Today is a site that allows young girls to design their own fashions and share their creations with friends. In 2010, she launched another company called Poshmark, an iPhone app that lets you browse, buy and sell clothing and accessories in real time.
Christina Wallace. Harvard Business School graduate Wallace co-founded Quincy at the start of 2012. Quincy is an apparel company designed to flatter any woman’s body type.
Amy Jo Martin. Martin founded Digital Royalty in 2009 to help companies, celebrities, professional sports leagues and athletes strategize, build and monetize their digital universe.
Leslie Bradshaw. Bradshaw is co-founder of JESS3, the agency known for its deep understanding of the digital space. The company specializes in social media marketing, web design, infographics and data visualization.
Anne Raimondi. After an illustrious marketing and product career at companies including eBay, SurveyMonkey, Zazzle, Gymboree and Blue Nile, this Stanford alum founded One Jackson, an e-commerce platform for original kids clothing created by indie designers.
“Solopreneurship” no doubt seems to be the career of choice for women in the post-recession decade. It offers the freedom to be your own boss, create your own business model, and choose your work style. At the same time, though, it can be a huge challenge even for seasoned entrepreneurs. In order to increase revenue and achieve long-term success, solopreneurs need to ask strategic questions and design and develop important tactics. According to a recent Fox Business article, these include having a written vision, marketing plan, and budget, among other things. In the words of Marla Tabaka, a small-business advisor, “‘Solo’ doesn’t mean small.” Thinking big is often the biggest secret to success.
Interview by Elizabeth Heywood
It’s always a fantastic opportunity to meet with those who practice outside of our own particular realm of design. Whether that person creates shelters, adornment, clothing, media, or tools as any of the five thousand design specialties out there, we all stem from the same foundational roots. Our perspectives differ; when we allow them to cross-pollinate something truly unique can happen. The potential for something even more creative occurs when design mingles outside of the studio. This is just what happened when Melissa Moore crossed disciplines from biology to product design, recently launching Nikkuu Design.
(Editor’s Note: Nikkuu Design will be one of the studios featured in our Prize Raffle at this year’s Damsels in Design Holiday Soiree. It’s only eight days away, but fret not – we still have a few tickets left!)
Rather than having taken the traditional design school track, you have a background in biology and had been a math and science teacher for ten years. At what point did you realize that you wanted to switch gears and start Nikkuu?
Although I formally have a degree in biology and taught science for many years, I have known that I’ve wanted to be a designer since I was about 12 years old. I have been building, creating, and designing since I can remember. I used to tape together pieces of graph paper to make huge architectural drawings of home interiors (I have no idea where I learned how to do that or why I was so obsessed with it), developing my own board games, building my own toys. I often bragged about how I wanted to be a ‘toy engineer’; I think I intuitively made up that term. In the early/mid-80’s they were not really teaching girls that there was such a thing as a product designer. Even over the past decade of teaching, being a musician, and creating visual art, I see all of these interrelated disciplines as design. I have really been designing all of this time. After a decade of a fulfilling, yet exhaustive teaching career, I decided that I wanted to either apply to design school or start my own studio. After contemplating for some time, I realized that just going for it and starting my own business was what I was meant to do. It has been about a year and half since I made that decision and it was absolutely the right one.
How was the transition into the design world? What were some of the early struggles you faced starting your business? How did you work to overcome them?
I am still very much in the early stages of my business. I’ve been doing a ton and learning a ton. By educating myself and steeping myself in the design world from all angles, I’ve quickly come to learn a lot about who I want to be as a designer/entrepreneur and what I don’t want to do. I officially began the studio (prototyping, production, etc.) when I was still teaching and I would spend my breaks and weekends developing my first line of products. I had already been building things for fun so it was a natural progression to continue to develop concepts and ideas that a wider audience would be interested in. I researched the places where I thought my products could sell and took a couple of small business courses to learn the basics. I seem to have a natural tendency toward business, so much of the things that I learned were very intuitive. In many ways I had a gradual transition into the design world, but in other ways I just had to jump in. I had to make the decision that this is what I was going to do and then just do it without looking back. In certain ways I couldn’t look back.
What I had struggled with was, of course, being able to finance my own business start-up. I had to transition from a decade of having a consistent, well-paying job to doing something that I was learning from scratch on my own. I also had to quickly figure out that while I could design and build things that people thought were beautiful, that didn’t necessarily mean that people would connected with these objects strongly enough to want to buy them. So another struggle I would say was developing awareness of my ultimate goals and aligning them with my observations of what people actually wanted to own. I soon came to realize that I could maintain my own unique voice within my products while still providing something familiar, fresh, and marketable to a wider audience. Finding that balance has been a struggle, but now my buyer confidence has increased drastically. It also took a while for me to figure out who my market is. It took (and likely will continue to take) testing out a variety of selling contexts for me to understand where “I belonged”. Not going to design school has forced me into a position of having to figure out all of these things on my own through both intuition and trial and error. I also love learning so the cycle of research/observe/learn is something that continues to be of great benefit to me. I’ve been working on being innovative and doing my own thing while having enough humility to learn from the folks who’ve ‘made it’. Having only being in business a year, money for production, tradeshow fees, prototyping etc. are still a concern. However, I try remind myself that although I have done a lot in just a year, it’s only been a year and I still need to pay my dues.
At Damsels in Design, we’re firm believers that we all benefit from developing connections with other lady designers (no matter what field they may practice) for inspiration and support. Did you have the any groups or individuals to help you along your way?
It has been difficult to find folks to work and collaborate with but I am thirsting for it. While I’ve done a great deal on my own, I deeply understand the need for interdependency and collective effort, knowledge, skill sharing, and even profit sharing. I’m interested in alternative economies and ways of working with others (and definitely other women and people of color) to build a unique model and experience for all involved. I didn’t really have groups to help me during the process of building my studio (besides supportive and encouraging loved ones, which is very important), people are starting to connect with me and offer some of their services and skills because they are excited about my work and believe in what I’m doing. This is happening more and it is very encouraging. It makes things feel more collaborative.
You work spans furniture, lighting, jewelry, and wall art. It’s beautiful and functional, constructed both by hand and digital methods out of traditional and modern materials. How does your background in science play a role in what the development and construction of what you make? Do you think that your unique background has enriched your creative process?
I absolutely think that my background in science enhances my sense of aesthetics and idea development. I see science as problem solving and design thinking, just with a different end product. Experimentation, developing hypotheses, developing curriculum, strategizing, brainstorming, iteration, and prototyping are interdisciplinary skills that can be translated into so many fields and disciplines. Being able to think that way was invaluable in developing a design studio/business. I probably got interested in science at a very young age because there was so much of a relationship between design and science. I’ve come to realize that I likely fell in love with the aesthetics of science more then the subject itself….the equipment, the tools, and the process. They’re all related to my love of design, really. But if you look at my work it is clear that I was influenced my math and science. I’m inspired by it so much, that it’s hard to confine it. The materials themselves often “speak” to me and help me develop them into something that I feel others will love and connect with. I feel like they often communicate what it is they want to be.
You and your work have already been featured on Core77, Readymade, and Fab.com, and have been accepted into the Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair and the ID Pop Up Shop at Chelsea Markets. How do you see your business growing in the future?
I really love connecting with people. To build my business I would like to continue to do independent designer markets. This is also a great way to test out products in the market at pretty low risk. I would like to expand into some retail stores and a few more online marketplaces. My greater goal is to have my products picked up by interior designers and architects. I am very connected to and excited about interiors. I’m interested in how Nikkuu products can help to develop and enhance an interior space and create specific environments, both residential and commercial spaces such as bars, restaurants, and hotels.
Do you have any advice for other women who might also be interested in changing careers and delving into the creative industry?
After working with youth for so long (and still being very much connected to them) and thinking about my process, I feel like people should think about what they loved doing when they were young. What were you drawn to as a child? What did you find yourself wanting to do? Connect with that and find a way to make it feasible, marketable, and sustainable. Try not to let fear limit your options. Fear will be there and likely won’t go away as long as you are doing something that requires some element of risk. Not letting fear be a barrier to change and authenticity is really where the work comes in. Planning is important but you can’t wait until “everything is perfect and perfectly aligned” before moving toward your dreams. A balance of planning, risk-taking, and willingness to ‘fail’ are all a healthy way to keep perspective on making your dreams a reality. Equal parts humility and confidence…it keeps you learning, growing, and doing.