For many designers, hiring more employees, outsourcing production and opening wholesale accounts are major goals for brands looking to scale their business and, in many cases, are the fashion industry's standard for what success looks like. However, while many designers are focused on growth, Alyssa Woods Founder and Designer of VAVA Lingerie has a different definition of success.
We visited Alyssa in her SE Portland studio to chat about how the fashion industry influences designers and how she's broken the mold and begun to determine her own definition of what success looks like.
LAPTOPS & SMALLTALK: WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO BECOMING A DESIGNER AND STARTING YOUR OWN LINE? DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A DESIGNER OR WAS IT SOMETHING YOU FELL INTO?
ALYSSA WOODS: I definitely did not know that I would wind up here. I went to school for Philosophy and at that time thought that I wanted to go to Law School, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to sign up for 60-80 hour work weeks. I spent most of my 20s moving around, alternating between waiting, barista, and bartending jobs in places that had rad natural settings. Eventually, I found myself in the Pacific Northwest and was really feeling the urge to make something with my hands. I had sewn casually since high school, mostly altering thrift store buys, and one day, standing in front of a $200 factory-made dress, offered to make a custom version for a friend for half the price. I was kind of hooked and decided sewing was a skill that I wanted to invest in, so I signed up for some classes at Portland Fashion Institute. It was a great option for me because, in contrast to attending a traditional fashion design school, I was able to skip any design or fashion history classes and focus on construction techniques, pattern making, and gaining a deeper understanding of fibers and textiles, all while spending way less than I would have elsewhere.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DESIGN LINGERIE?
Mostly because I really really love lingerie, always have. But I knew that sustainability would be a big concern in anything that I did, and lingerie is especially challenging in this respect because all of the materials that we use for modern lingerie (i.e. lace and/or stretchy fabrics) are synthetic. I was hoping to find somewhere where I could be part of a progressive shift or development towards more responsibly made garments, and lingerie was especially appealing because there’s so much work to be done and no easy, clear solution.
HOW DOES PORTLAND PLAY INTO YOUR STORY? WHAT ABOUT PORTLAND DREW YOU TO START YOUR BUSINESS HERE?
I kind of fell into Portland. I moved here from the coast to take sewing and patterning classes, thinking that I would figure out where I wanted to go next once I was done, but 5 years later here I am! Portland has such a warm, supportive small business and design community- the encouragement, sense of camaraderie rather than competition, and the openness with which people here greet new ventures has been invaluable to me. I also love how many designers here are producing their own pieces. Even most of the people I know who work with production partners still do some of their own production and at very least pattern and prototype their own work. Maybe it’s because there isn’t quite as much money being thrown around as in other major cities, but I really respect the bootstrapping, the mentality that if you want to do something you learn to do it; you don’t pay someone else to do it for you.
VAVA IS CURRENTLY A SMALL OPERATION OF JUST YOU AND A PART-TIME ASSISTANT AND IN TERMS OF SCALING YOUR BUSINESS, YOU AREN'T INTERESTED IN GETTING WHOLESALE ACCOUNTS, OPENING RETAIL STORES OR EVEN OUTSOURCING PRODUCTION. WHAT ABOUT STAYING A SMALL OPERATION APPEALS TO YOU?
There are a few things that I really love about operating at a small scale. The first is definitely direct customer interaction. Not only does working directly with customers provide me with invaluable feedback to improve the fit and design of my offerings, it allows me to offer customization options, and to know that customers are getting the right guidance in choosing their size, fit, etc. I think long term customer satisfaction is the crux of building a successful business with longevity, but I think it’s also at the heart of sustainability. People care more for garments that they love, that they feel are perfect for them, and when they find these pieces they also tend to stop shopping around for cheap alternatives that are manufactured overseas. Producing in house lets me keep everything tight with regards to quality control and primarily producing made to order means that we don’t make a lot of items that don’t already have a home, and that could potentially wind up in a dumpster (it’s insane how much clothing does along a traditional distribution model). I like being personally responsible for every piece I make. I also don’t mind taking home the full profit from each piece, as opposed to the 50% breakdown that is standard in wholesale relationships.
WHY ISN'T GROWTH IMPORTANT TO YOU?
If I’m completely honest, the lack of stress is the number one draw for keeping things small. I’ve thought a lot about scaling this past year and ventured down the path a little bit in exploratory and noncommittal ways. What I’ve found is that this usually means more people managing, more time in front of my computer and less time in front of my sewing machine. While I desperately wanted (and want) to be able to get more done, I realized that what I really needed was to be able to clone myself, and scaling is not that.
I basically have two goals with my business. The first is to offer garments that are the best. The. Best. I know that what I make won’t be perfect for everyone, but I like to try. This means that fit has been meticulously developed and can be customized, that every stitch is perfect, and that a lot of thought went into creating this garment with the least possible harm to people and to the environment. The second is to support myself and find a lifestyle that makes me happy. If growth helps to facilitate these things, then I’m down. But otherwise, I I’m not going to push for it.
YOU KIND OF TOUCHED ON THIS ALREADY BUT WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU THAT YOU DO ALL YOUR PRODUCTION IN-HOUSE?
Succinctly: quality control. Right now, outsourcing seems like such a hurdle. It’s been tough enough to train an employee to make things exactly the way I’d like, and communicating that on paper to pass off to a factory, even a local one that I can visit in person, feels daunting and not worth it at my current sales volume. I’ve also heard quite a few horror stories from other designers about orders they’ve gotten back from facilities, and quality control is probably my biggest concern about contracting out my production. That being said, there may come a time when it makes sense for me to build a relationship with a quality production partner. I’ve definitely been working to educate myself on what this industry looks like and how it functions at a larger scale so that I can be prepared to make the jump if/when it makes sense.
AS DEMAND GROWS FOR YOUR PRODUCT, WILL YOU GROW WITH IT OR WILL YOU MANAGE YOUR GROWTH BY DOING SOMETHING LIKE OFFERING LIMITED COLLECTIONS TO KEEP VAVA SMALL?
I’m really not sure! I’m a person who has a hard time functioning without a concrete plan, but right now I’m trying to plan for a lot of different options and let myself choose a course when I have more information about what works for me. I feel like I’m constantly learning new things about this industry and about my business in particular, and consequently, no one plan lasts long in its original form right now.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE SUCCESS? FOR VAVA TO BE SUCCESSFUL, WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE TO YOU?
For me, it's as simple as supporting myself by doing something that I enjoy and feel relatively good about. I’ve definitely daydreamed about becoming an industry leader in sustainability, or about a glowing mention on the pages of Vogue, but I’m not actually sure that would make for the most pleasant life for me.
HOW DID YOU COME TO DEFINE YOUR OWN DEFINITION OF SUCCESS? WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE?
My partner and my sister have been my two most important sounding boards- they ask me the right questions and they listen to my self-involved babbling about why I do or don’t feel satisfied with what I’m doing and how I’m spending my time. The times when I feel most caught up and confused are the times when I’ve been working too much when I haven’t taken a day off in a month. I’ve recently implemented mandatory weekends for myself because it actually helps me make better business decisions. I have to get away from work to be able to honestly ask myself the right questions: is this a thing that I want, or just a thing that I like the idea of, something that I think other people will like and respect me for? And, does it financially actually make sense?
DO YOU FEEL PRESSURED BY THE INDUSTRY OR CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS TO DO MORE OR TO GROW YOUR BUSINESS IN A CERTAIN WAY?
Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of “if you want to succeed you have to…” statements out there, and most of them hold some marginal truth at best. The apparel industry, and really the making and distribution of goods in general, is evolving so much right now that I think the outdated advice is the most prevalent problem. Before e-commerce you really did need to sell to boutiques to sell at all, but now you can build an entire empire without leaving your apartment if you want to, and you’ll get twice the money per garment selling direct-to-customer (plus you get all that awesome feedback I mentioned earlier, and the opportunity to provide stellar customer service). You can source small scale, you can market small scale, and you can sell small scale. Again, I know that these weren’t really options 15-20 years ago, but they definitely are now, and I think we need to embrace the variety of forms that a business can take.
DO YOU THINK THE RELAXED NATURE OF PORTLAND ALLOWS YOU TO HAVE THIS DIFFERENT BUSINESS MODEL? IF YOU WERE LIVING IN NEW YORK DO YOU THINK YOU'D HAVE THESE SAME THOUGHTS?
That’s a really good question. I do think that in another place it might be even easier for me to get caught up in what I “should” be doing (it happens a lot here as it is) and I think that Portlanders are especially into the idea of small, craft made goods, which is helpful both in material and verbal support. But I think I would probably be on about the same path anywhere, because I listen most to the people closest to me, and because I think I might really hate running a larger business!
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY IN THE STUDIO LOOK LIKE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? HOW ARE YOU SPENDING YOUR TIME?
On days when I work with my production assistant, I’m usually organizing and cutting orders to pass over to her to sew, helpings customers with fit or customization options, adding new products to the website, or placing orders for materials. We only have one of each type of sewing machine in the shop, so usually only one of us is actively sewing at a time. On days when I’m solo I might be sewing orders, or designing and patterning new styles, testing new materials, or maybe (unfortunately) losing half an hour to agonizing over the wording of an Instagram post. I prefer to do creative/design work when I’m on my own, but I also find myself more prone to time-wasting activities if I’m not focused because there’s no one there to judge me.
WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE YOU'D GIVE TO DESIGNERS ON DEFINING THEIR OWN VERSION OF SUCCESS?
Question everything, all the time. Be that obnoxious 5-year-old who responds to every assertion with “why?” Sometimes there are really good reasons, but sometimes the reason is just “because that’s how it's done” and it can be done differently. Ask yourself a lot of questions too. Are the things you fantasize about actually the things you want for yourself in your everyday life and are they all you want? I love my work, so much so that I sometimes lose sight of the other things that I love. I think my most useful line of thinking has been this: what things are most important to me? How much time do I want to devote to each of these things? Where do these things and my business conflict or compete with each other? Are there ways that I can make my business and my other interests facilitate one another?
WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE YOU'D GIVE TO EMERGING DESIGNERS WHO WANT TO START THEIR OWN LINE?
Just jump in! I started VAVA as an Etsy shop with just a few offerings out of my bedroom. Feedback was the most instrumental piece of building better offerings, and I was making (some) money while I figured out exactly how everything should function. Know that if you work hard your skills (in design, construction, and business) will improve- nothing is perfect and, if you care about what you’re doing, your work will always be evolving anyway. Apologize and make it right when you screw up, and then let it go and move forward.
WHAT'S ONE APP OR TOOL YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT THAT HELPS YOU IN YOUR BUSINESS?
I’m sure this has to be the most common answer, but Instagram. I don’t think there’s a better free marketing or networking tool out there. That being said- it’s a tool and like any other can be used to your benefit or hindrance. I’ve definitely fallen down a self-deprecating Instagram hole more than once: feeling like what I’m doing is completely unoriginal, or wondering why other people seem to be having so much more success than me.
WHERE DO YOU SEE VAVA IN 5 YEARS?
In terms of scale and structure, I’m really not sure. I do know that I want to incorporate even more natural, organic, and recycled materials into future offerings, and I’ve got a few specific designs in mind that I want to develop. I’d like to travel more to do photoshoots, and to explore fabric options closer to their source. I’ve also been thinking a lot about offering patterns, tutorials, and/or classes, because the gratification of making something yourself is immense, and because I think more small scale, local production might be the best solution for our current industry crisis of quality and ethics. In terms of VAVA’s production, it might just be me in cabin somewhere, or I may still be in this little shop in Portland, or maybe I’ll have a couple of shops and be working with a domestic production partner. So basically, who knows, but I can promise I’ll be having fun with it wherever I am!
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