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I remember the first fashion magazine I ever read. Gwyneth Paltrow was the cover star of InStyle’s January 1999 issue. I checked the magazine out from the local library in our small town of 1,000 in rural Iowa; my family couldn’t afford the $4 or $5 price tag at the grocery store, and I was obsessed with Gwyneth, whose star turns in Emma and Shakespeare in Love appealed to my nerdy, Jane Austen- and Shakespeare-loving self. (This was nine years before Goop.)
I had been interested in fashion before, but discovering fashion magazines sent my interest into full-throttle obsession: I drew designs, I spent hours mixing and matching pieces from my closet. But I grew frustrated as it became apparent that fashion was a difficult hobby for a girl from a blue-collar working-class family in a blue-collar working-class town. Growing up in a particular socioeconomic bracket in the rural Midwest before the age of online shopping, there were limits. The clothing in fashion magazines — and even the imitations that graced local mall stores like Express, Maurice’s, and J.C. Penney — were beyond my family’s budget, beyond what I earned at minimum-wage fast food jobs. Thrifting back then wasn’t thrifting as it is now, emboldened by e-commerce. I wanted to play with fashion, but even in high school, it was clear to me that money was a requirement to bring desire into alignment with reality.
Nearly 15 years later, when I was sitting on my front porch with a friend talking about how we as queer women were treated like shit in lingerie stores, and shouldn’t there be a store for us, and maybe I should be the person to open that store, money was the last thing on my mind. This was in part due to the number of beers that I had consumed. But as the days went on, I couldn’t shake the idea, even as my conviction ran up against my bank account. I was a Ph.D. student (which is to say, broke). My friends were mostly grad students (which is to say, broke). I wasn’t particularly well-connected. My family was doing better financially, but still had that frugal working-class mentality.
I had stumbled on an idea from which I couldn’t let go: I loved fashion, but really loved lingerie, which had helped me get in touch with my sexuality, with my queerness. The irony was that the lingerie industry itself was deeply conservative and heteronormative in its imagery, seemingly hell-bent on only showing thin, white, femme-presenting women who would appeal to the male gaze. I wanted to challenge that. Underthings were for everyone, and all that.
But where, exactly, would the money for this business come from? As with all things, how much money you have (or don’t have) determines what you can do. I took the short-term view — I’m a graduate student already in debt, why not go into more debt? — and took out more loans. I took out a business credit card. I made a business plan and ran numbers, but mostly I winged it; I figured that the investment I was making was modest enough that I’d be able to pay off the debt within the first year or two of business.
In hindsight, this was optimistic and naive.
The personal debt I currently have for Bluestockings Boutique (the product of that fortuitous summer brainstorm) is roughly $20,000 in loans and credit cards; call it an additional year’s worth of college education. When I talk about debt for a fashion business, it’s no joke. And this was just a boutique that was online, on a shoestring budget, not a brick-and-mortar boutique that would have required a significant amount of money up front to secure a lease. To start an actual fashion brand (not a boutique), that number skyrockets into the six figures — multiple six figures, depending on the number of variant items (“stock keeping units,” or SKUs), quality and amount of material, and factory location.
The second layer to this is that those are just start-up costs. That’s what it costs to open. In order to stay in business — to continue to roll out additional seasons, buy additional inventory (thousands of dollars a season), pay for photo shoots (which can easily run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a day-long shoot), and anything additional — you must continue to sink just as much money into the business.
This is why the third season (or 18th-ish-month mark) is the make-or-break season for most fashion brands (and boutiques, for that matter). No one makes money on the first season, and because of this, the second season also has to be self-funded. The hope is that by the time the third season rolls out, there will be enough customers and enough sales to springboard into a fourth season. The third season is when money runs out.
The third season is when brands start to go bust.
Folks in lingerie, and fashion generally, are tight-lipped about startup capital, about how much it takes to start and run a business, how long it takes to become profitable. And to be a bit blunt, the truth that the money most often comes from family — or even in my case, that it comes from loans and credit cards — is decidedly unsexy. Money doesn’t fall out of the sky. It’s a resource. It has to come from somewhere.
It’s important to be straightforward about the privilege that enables a career in fashion. While I may not come from a financially privileged background, I am privileged in being a white, college-educated person with the resources to apply for loans and business credit cards. No one looks at me twice when I walk into a bank. I have internet at home. I already owned a laptop on which to run my business. When that laptop was stolen in 2015, dozens of family members and friends pitched in $10 here, $20 there on GoFundMe to help purchase a new one. These are not insignificant pieces of the puzzle. And the fact that I could choose to take on this kind of debt for a new business is a statement in itself.
Still, there are nuances to the kind of privilege that help buoy a business through its red ledger startup days. The longer I’m in the industry, the more I learn about the stories behind prominent brands. Like one founder whose parents own factories in Colombia, or a lingerie designer whose father regularly bankrolls her collections. Far more prevalent, especially in cities like New York, are independent designers and creatives whose parents may not be traditionally wealthy, but who can afford to subsidize their adult children’s rent and bills to allow them to focus on their creative work in lieu of working a full-time “day job.” Or, of course, the folks who are able to borrow start-up money from family for far more preferable terms than they would receive from a bank. These are all privileges which, inevitably, put some folks ahead in the game.
“Life isn’t fair,” my no-nonsense, ex-librarian grandmother would tell my sister and I when we were teenagers. “Get used to it.”
The truth is that it takes a substantial amount of money for a fashion brand to stay in business, even at a loss. Recent bankruptcies declared by once-independently owned companies like Nasty Gal and Agent Provocateur stand as proof of this. The biggest mistake customers make is assuming that visibility in the media — or worse, longevity — are indicators of a brand’s profitability. In fashion, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Media coverage and PR can be bought or obtained through connections and hustling. And as we’ve seen through long-suffering lingerie companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood, longevity is sometimes only an indication of a slow, drawn-out death.
To be profitable means to operate in the black — to actually make a profit in business. This is certainly not impossible in fashion, but the margins are tough, especially for indies, who often aren’t selling the kind of bulk quantities that are going to get sales anywhere near the multiple six figures (to be extremely explicit, Bluestockings’ gross sales have been under $40,000 each year, before taking into account the tens of thousands of dollars spent on inventory, photo shoots, and a variety of business expenses, which includes accountants, bookkeepers, travel to industry events, and all manner of software that keeps an online business running). It’s not so much that profitability itself is a challenge; the emotional and mental endurance to make it to the point where profitability is possible is the challenge.
Personally, I have learned to separate “successful” from “profitable.” Bluestockings is not profitable. It never has been, and it is unlikely to be. For the eight months before Bluestockings opened, and then for the first year of business, I put in full-time hours building the business. Overtime hours. 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks. I didn't have an off switch. I wanted to devote as much time to Bluestockings as I could. For a year I took part-time nanny jobs, going without health insurance (and going months without paying student loans or credit card minimums while charging everything to credit cards). My (now ex-) partner paid for our utilities and most of the rent (this, too, was a privilege). When we moved to New York City in 2016, she covered our bills for five months as I looked for work and failed to find it — all while still running Bluestockings and not taking a paycheck from the business.
“What are you getting out of this?” she asked me in the beginning. My answers, once long (serving a need in our community, filling a gap in the industry, professional development) grew shorter and shorter.
Eventually, she stopped asking.
I slowly realized that I did not have the financial or emotional resources to sustain working 60-hour weeks on a business that could not pay me. In addition to the question of profitability, this is the other question: Who can afford to work for free? In college, I didn’t take unpaid internships because I simply could not afford to. But here I was, in my late 20s, trying to build a business — and driving myself into the ground financially, with no safety net.
Ultimately, I scaled back the hours I spent on Bluestockings and found a full-time job that was professionally challenging (and that could allow me to actually repay the loans I took out for Bluestockings in the first place). Still, almost everyone I meet is surprised that Bluestockings is not, in fact, my full-time job. My full-time job is in marketing at a tech startup. When I tell folks in the tech world that I'm happy with my business where it is, I get looks of confusion. But why wouldn't I want it to be a multi-million dollar retail chain with a bunch of investors and have an IPO in 10 years? I shrug. I've met people on the other side. I know the cost of the other side and know that I don't have the willingness to risk bankruptcy on the other side. I'm good where I'm at.
And the ineffable "making it?" What is “making it?” Is “making it” finally being able to pay my business’s bills through monthly sales without dipping into my personal savings? Is “making it” the fact that I haven’t needed to take out any more loans? Or is “making it” that far distant, nigh unreachable land of actual in-the-black, out-of-debt profitability? I don’t know. I have a feeling that the line is different for everyone. But after almost three years in business, I finally know where my line is. Every email I get from someone who tells me that because of my store they feel a little more seen, a little more welcome, and a little more comfortable picking out underthings affirms that I have, in fact, accomplished what I set out to do. And that’s enough for me.