Most people dream of starting their own fashion business. For me, it was a stroke of luck and a little bit of dedication. I wouldn’t say starting a sustainable fashion company was my dream, but here I am, and here it is. This past year has been a whirlwind.
The Idea that Started it all
It all started, actually at the start of my senior year in college. I knew I wanted to run a business, but I didn’t know what it would be. Several ideas were running around my head, and none of them had to do with fashion. What started Bottle Thread was realizing that I had a need, that no one seemed to be producing already… a simple, comfortable, plain white shirt for women.
I was trying to cut down my wardrobe to just a couple simple items. At the time, I had dreams of going abroad to grad school and knew I wouldn’t be able to take much with me. Since staple items are the best to keep, everything else was donated. I didn’t end up going abroad, but the preparation is what lead me to my idea, and what really matters: fewer items.
If there were only a couple different garments in my wardrobe that went with everything, I could live indefinitely without buying more clothing. Except, I hit a snag when it came to the simple plain white button-down shirt.
Simply put: I didn’t have one, and I couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere. Not kidding. I searched at least 50 clothing stores, consignment shops, outlets, and thrift stores in my area to come up empty-handed. Around mid-October in 2016, I gave up and realized that if I wanted a button down shirt that ACTUALLY fit, I would have to make it. The idea was in motion, but Bottle Thread still didn’t exist yet.
Searching for Suppliers
Then, the day after the 2016 election, I just needed to get away for a little bit. Deciding to work on a paper for class, I ended up at the Carnegie Museum and Library in Oakland. It’s my favorite place to get away; High vaulted, ornate ceilings, and the invigorating smell of 10,000 books. Magical and relaxing.
That day was different, though. Everyone seemed to be on edge, especially the woman and her child sitting across from me. She was nervously watching the librarian walk over as her child played with a toy truck, whispering to themselves. Still working on my homework, I overheard snippets of their conversation. Database of manufactures…. Children’s clothing….
Of course, I thought. I was struggling for a couple weeks trying to find someone to make my shirts now that I had the idea. I didn’t realize that you could just walk into the local library and get free access to the data. That day was a game changer.
So a couple weeks went by and I ended up back at the library to ask the librarian about the manufacturer database. They were happy to help and set me up with the online portal. For the next three days or so, I scoured the databases to find the perfect manufactures for the shirts.
Working with the Manufacturer
Once I had a list of about 10, I started calling the manufactures individually. Some were out of business, others were going out of business. I finally found the one I was looking for in Southern California and started working with their onboarding manager.
After a few weeks and a couple hundred administrative dollars, I was able to set up the project for the first round of samples. Since the design program required three different designs, I decided to do a women’s shirt, a men’s shirt, and a women’s dress.
When I was first getting the designs started, I asked if we were able to make the garments out of recycled materials instead of the traditional polyester fabric. Making this decision, was what motivated me to name the company Bottle Thread. This business could have easily focused on making the best quality shirt, but given my major, I wanted to make the business as sustainable as I could.
Registering the Business
Around February, I was able to register Bottle Thread and Company as a Benefit LLC. Benefit companies are a relatively new concept, combining the benefits of a public good like a non-profit, with the for-profit aspect. I wanted this level of protection for my business later on if it were to be successful, I could focus on the public good without facing the legal repercussions of putting investment gains (no matter how small) before all else. It’s essentially a way to lead a more sustainable business, with longer-term planning than a traditional business.
Funny story, actually. When the company was first registered, I was within a two week period where benefit companies didn’t exist yet in the state of Pennsylvania. The state congress just passed a law allowing companies to incorporate as a benefits company. So, when I filled out the paperwork the first time, they kicked it back, saying that the paperwork was “outdated.” Frustrated, I send back the new paperwork, to find that I could register the company as a Benefit LLC. Given such a time fluke, Bottle Thread and Company must be one of the first ever Benefit LLC’s in the State, and for that, I am very proud.
Developing the Product
The next couple months, I focused on creating the business as well as developing the product. Working with the manufacturer during the first stage was the most tedious part of this whole process. I had to round up a couple samples of my own clothing and send them off as reference samples. One of my dresses, I didn’t get back until about 9 months after sending it out. The men’s shirt, I borrowed from a friend and didn’t realize it would take 3 months to get back to him. All part of the process. Keep in mind, manufacturers are used to dealing with much larger clients, so I had to fit in where I can with such a small budget.
Around the time, It was my last semester in college as a sustainability major. Thankfully, I put all my easy classes in this last semester, so I could focus more on the business. My senior thesis consisted of the business plan, which I would later use to help raise capital. I also took a branding class, where I was able to create the Bottle Thread logo.
It was around April 2017, when I put down the $2,000 deposit for the samples, and it wasn’t until the end of August that I received the first samples. Since I was a poor college student, I knew I would have to raise funds to help me through the investment stage.
I went through a couple options for finances. Most of them ended frustratingly because not a lot of people want to invest in a student’s startup. I had no mortgage, no car, no job (still in school), and a mountain of student loans. Even something as simple as a $5,000 loan was near impossible to attain.
Graduation was just around the corner, I was planning on moving back home. I realized that I could put together a Kickstarter fund to help raise capital. At the time, It was the best decision I could have made, but I still deeply wish I didn’t have to.
See, the Kickstarter platform was very much below my expectations on what it was supposed to be. The final date was changed to a month later, without my consent. When I tried asking to have it fixed, I wasn’t able to because people were already pledging, and I couldn’t take it down. So I decided to hold all the plans back an extra month.
During that month, I was still at home, trying to find a job while I kept working on the business. After meeting with some business advisors, It became clear that the best method for advertising would involve integrating Instagram and Pinterest, over any other type of social media marketing. To do this, I created a personal blog (alliefrownie.com) to help establish myself as a sustainable fashion expert.
I spent the whole month learning as much as I could about Pinterest and Instagram marketing. My follower count increased from 100 to 3,500 in the course of two months on Instagram, and I learned exactly how I was going to increase my total reach to my Pinterest audience. I also spend the month writing as many articles I could on sustainable fashion: as much as two articles a day, and then schedule them out for the rest of the year.
In August, over $5,000 was raised on Kickstarter. It was enough to pay off the samples and start the ball rolling on the final order. However, It wasn’t until late September that my funds were transferred over. Kickstarter held onto my funds for 6 weeks after the fundraising deadline… in addition to the extra month, so by this time I was 10 weeks behind schedule. **grumble**
The Post Graduation Gap Year
In late August, a miracle fell from the sky. Back in April, when I was designing my logo for the company, we finished the class by presenting our design process to a praxis of design experts. It just so happened that right before I was about to present, the president of the university walked into the class. This was his first year as president, and he was very good at listening to students and showing a presence around the university. I went on to present my logo designs. The president was so impressed that I used my classes to help me develop my business. He offered the university’s support to help better develop the business while waiting for capital. An absolute blessing.
This led to later in August, I was sent an email from the Dean of the Sustainable Campus asking if I would be interested in helping her out as an administrative assistant/ resident advisor so I could live on the campus, and work with some of the other students to further develop the business. I was (and still am) very grateful to receive such an offer. Having space and time to develop the business while mentoring other students, and spending time with my friends again was seriously the best part.
The First Book and Final Samples
Late September, I set off to get the final samples made by the manufacturer. This took until mid-December to receive. I spend the rest of that time, further increasing my reach with the blog, developing an email list, and finishing up my first book. Most were written during that blogging spree in July.
Mid October, I published Slower Style: The Amazing Future of Sustainable Fashion to help define sustainable fashion. So far, it has over 5-star reviews, and over 200 copies were sold in the course of three months with minimal advertising. I also gained 140 email subscribers in the course of five months, and 184 Pinterest followers.
Once the final samples arrived, early December, I had secured over $24,000 in funding to get all three designs produced. Usually, manufacturers won’t budge for even twice that amount, but I was able to negotiate. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to produce all three designs at once and would have taken another 6 months to get enough funds to produce them.
So while all this was going on, I still felt an immense amount of pressure on the Kickstarter orders. It’s one thing to have pressure for things you can control. You can focus that energy to do something about it. But when the situation is out of your control, and there is the same amount of pressure, it’s rather unbearable.
Thankfully, enough things fell into place, and the Kickstarter community I built was very forgiving and welcoming. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to secure the larger line of credit and produce the full order of garments.
Late December, and early January, I wanted to be further along than I am. Still working with the manufacturer to make sure all the garments are in order. At this point (while writing this), I am still working on getting the designs on my doorstep. I want to plan a live stream through my Instagram. If you’d like to be there when it happens, follow me on Instagram @alliefrownie
This past year has been a whirlwind, but I’m super excited to almost have a product soon. Thanks again, to all for your support. Cannot wait to see what the next adventure brings.