It’s natural for businesses to think of success in terms of growth. Producing more, producing it faster and making it more affordable to attract a mass audience.
But some designers are happy to produce enough. No more, no less and no mass production.
Dorothy Jones of Bespoke on Cherokee Street isn’t planning to expand. She wants to stay busy but only within controlled parameters.
It takes her and a very small team about four weeks to deliver a custom-made garment to a client (that goes up to three months for bridal), and she accepts a handful of new projects each week. This starts with a consultation and measurements, then one or two fittings before the garment is complete.
She operates out of a corner building that’s more than 100 years old. The most recent tenant was an illegal church, whose members had hacked the electricity and were squatters on the property. Jones and her husband, who owns the building, renovated the space into a showroom-style boutique in front and an airy, bright and spacious workroom in back.
It’s the type of workroom that you don’t hide from customers. It’s visible from the street, and it’s part of their brand.
“I spent my life in basements and attics with no windows and other unpleasant spaces, and this is my backlash to that,” Jones said. “There is dignity and pride in this space because we are artisans. We don’t have to work in a sweatshop.”
Jones, 60, said that she’s doing what she loves and her customers appreciate that.
You don’t get the traditional rush of instant, cheap consumer gratification at Bespoke, but you do walk out with the notion that the person making your clothes genuinely cares about making you look your best in something that they are dedicated to handcrafting to the best of their abilities.
There are hundreds of small-business owners now committing their livelihood to operations that are more interested in personal fulfillment than skyrocketing sales.
Kristen Kempton of Fink, iheartfink.com, said that she has absolutely no interest in crafting a product that’s a guaranteed success (i.e. something practical and easily sold, something that looks familiar or expected).
She said that she’d rather ask herself, “What doesn’t exist that I wish did exist? And then I try to make that.”
Kempton describes herself as an artist who just happens to craft clothing. She’s done an array of odd and extraordinary jobs in her life including custom bookbinding and working as a magician’s assistant.
Her clothing company Fink, which stands for fashion and ink, was opened the year she gave birth to her daughter in 1999. She needed something stable she could do from her Central West End home, but she never thought of making compromises to make more money faster.
She refuses to cut corners.
Instead of getting her textile designs mass produced, she screenprints large swathes of fabric in 12-by-12-inch increments. Each iteration has variances and the artistic touch she relishes. After she prints her fabric, she cuts and sews items to order. She outsources nothing.
She makes her own hang tags, does her own photo shoots (and thanks to a timer and a lot of practice, she models her own clothing with expert skill) and then she ships and packages every item to addresses around the globe.
A business consultant would suggest at least a dozen changes to streamline her process and maximize her profit margins, but Kempton would laugh at that.
She sells T-shirts starting around $125, and her most expensive items are black-tie worthy jersey maxi dresses in the $1,200 range.
She has plenty of admirers who say, “Wow, I wish I could afford your clothing” or some other variation that implies that perhaps her clothes are priced too high, but Kempton’s customers buy and then return for more because “they get it,” she said.
Her clothing costs what clothing should cost when it’s made conscientiously by an artisan you respect, she explains. Like Jones, her workspace is bright, cheery, spacious and well-appointed to handle her entire one-person operation.
Her clothing is her livelihood. She makes beautiful things with care and attention and good cheer because it fulfills her and affords her the means to support her daughter and herself. She said that she doesn’t mind working a little harder for the satisfaction of doing work that she’s proud of in every way.
Jones said something similar, and there’s a bonus. Their businesses attract like-minds as customers.
“My customers tend to be women who are imaginative and interesting and really appreciate what we’re doing here,” Jones said. They even appreciate her location on Cherokee Street, which isn’t an obvious location for a custom-fit higher end shop, nestled among graffiti-walled buildings, hipster millennial bars, Mexican eateries and resale shops.
“I get adventurous people because of the location,” Jones said. And she says those are the women she’s most interested in dressing and collaborating with.
The showroom is stocked with prototypes; customers choose their fabric (or bring it if they choose) and almost everything can be adjusted.
Of her prices which start around $200 for a dress or high-waisted skirt, she said that “it’s not terrifically expensive, but it’s not Forever 21.” However, she works to custom fit items for women who typically can’t buy off the rack without taking items in for alterations.
Shannon Crowley of Holly Hills works as a Pilates instructor and a wholesale wine seller. She stands nearly 6-feet-tall and struggles to find coats and shirts with arm holes and sleeves that work on her wide-shouldered frame. And the length of skirts and dresses is a constant battle. She’s been a client with Jones for about 11 years.
“I come here because I know I’ll get something exactly right,” she said. “And it feels luxurious. It’s a completely different shopping experience.”