We make every garment to order in our Philadelphia studio. 

Our current lead time is 3-4 weeks.

Two years in: Where we've been, where we're going

Mary Alice Duff

Posted on September 23 2019

On September 22nd 2017, I sat in my tiny spare bedroom starting at the computer screen. Samples were sewn and photographed, the website was finished, patterns, bolts of fabrics, my cheap Singer sewing machine and shipping boxes were at the ready. And right before I hit the publish button my husband exclaimed “WAIT, what if we sell out?” To which I replied, “I think that’s a good problem to have”.

Well, Alex’s fears didn’t come to fruition that day, quite the opposite in fact. We didn’t sell squat. Not a single thing when that website went live. And we didn’t sell anything on day two, or day three, or day four. Despite my incessant social media posts and email blasts I couldn’t convince people that our clothes were worth their money. As the days went on, thankfully I sold a few pieces to my closest friend and an individual who had come to our first fashion show and loved our pieces—and I am forever thankful for those people who gave me just the bit of motivation I needed to keep going. But other than those two generous folks it was literally crickets. 

For whatever reason, stubbornness, pride, who knows, I kept at it. With my last few bucks I hired my first employee (Abby! who’s still with us today) and suddenly I was able to shift out of doing everything myself to doing everything with HELP. And you know what happened? We started selling. So I hired another person and moved from my shared studio (which was starting to get a bit cramped), to my dining room table (with my cat, dog and 3 year old), to our very own studio, and then I hired another person and another. And suddenly, I look up and it’s two years later—and, depending on my mood, marvel at the little business we’ve built. Two years in, nearly 400 customers around the world, over 700 orders processed, well over 1,000 garments cut and sewn, 40+ product releases, six figure revenue, a team of 5, countless DMs, messages and emails from women describing how our clothes have changed the way they see, well, everything…all in all, not too shabby. 

And yet, despite having achieved some pretty ambitious goals in a short amount of time we still struggle. In fact these past 3 months have been positively brutal on this small business. I even considered closing up shop and finding another way to fulfill both my creative outlet and the needs I see aren’t being met in this space. But I kept coming back to these words which a mentor and friend has said to me countless times when discussing the financial and operational struggles of running this small business: “You can’t change the world if you go out of business”. 

I’ve never shied away from sharing our ambitious plans with this community. As a former social worker, and someone who spent 10 years advocating for and working on behalf of those experiencing poverty, my end goal for Alice Alexander has always been to build an eco-friendly, large-scale, garment manufacturing facility that creates living wages jobs for Philadelphians, a city which is racked by poverty.  In addition I want Alice Alexander to help women fundamentally reshape the way they think about their bodies and their role in the world (which we’re making progress on!). I want the folks who wear our clothes to feel powerful and capable so that they can go out and kick ass in this world (which desperately needs more ass-kickers). I want this brand to exist to empower both the women who make our clothes as much as the women who wear our clothes. 

But vision and ambition are worthless if we don’t have a healthy, stable business first—because we can’t change the world, if we go out of business. 

Our first year in business we had nothing to lose. Our second year in business it felt like we had everything to lose, which in a way we did. In 2019 we built a team, rounded out our space, exponentially grew our capabilities, our reach and our customer base—yet for much of this past year I’ve felt like I’ve been desperately hanging on. Fearful that every inch I’d gained could be lost. As we enter our third year of business I’m eager to shift out of survival mode and start building for the future. 

Here are some goals we’re laser focused on over the next 3 months to 3 years:

-Dramatically decreasing our lead time to 2 weeks. This requires the ability to purchase higher amounts of bulk fabric and increase our team’s hours as orders increase. It also requires an investment in additional equipment (which isn’t cheap!)

-Increase the size diversity of models on our site. This will require DECREASING the number of individual pieces we launch in order to increase the number of samples made in more diverse sizes. (Our ultimate goal is a “see it in my size” feature which will require significant financial investment). 

-Expand our customer community. We’re a VERY small, small business. A micro-business in fact. Which isn’t financially sustainable at our current price point (if we wanted to remain this size we’d have to increase our prices dramatically, which we’re not doing). So we need to increase our customer base. Much of our new customers come to us through word of mouth. Which is why it’s so important that you share with your friends what we’re doing here. 

-Expand our benefit offerings to our staff. Despite offering a living wage for our locale, there are many additional benefits I want to begin offering to improve the overall quality of life for our team. This requires some level of scale to achieve. 

-Increase our profitability setting aside a portion of those profits to go towards purchasing our own very own building to be on our way towards building that dream factory. 

All of this can’t be done alone. After careful consideration I’ve made a well-informed decision to not accept equity investment. Accepting equity investment would force us to grow at an exceptional rate that I’m not comfortable with. In fact, evidence demonstrates that VC funded companies breed toxic culture and worker exploitation—clearly issues we are trying to avoid as a company focused on ethical production and worker rights. But without additional outside investment it means our growth, and the goals we want to accomplish, are slower. It means buying bulk fabric and developing a see it in my size feature and expanding our customer service team are things that will just have to wait until we have the financial resources to do so. 

As frustrating as all of that may sound there is one exceptionally bright side to rejecting equity investment and that is that our customers are our number one source of revenue, making our customers our investors. We don’t have shareholders to report back to or investors to keep happy. We only have to keep one group of people happy—and that’s you. And in its own way, that’s incredibly powerful. Your support, or lack of support for a particular piece or product line shapes what comes next. Your love or contempt for our brand impacts how many or how few new customers we attract. Our decisions are rooted firmly in what’s best for this community- and we hope that’s evident in everything we do. 

What started with just me, some fabric, a crummy sewing machine and an Internet connection has grown into a community that will shape the future of this company. And if I’ve learned anything in these past two years it’s that you can’t get much done alone (in fact it often feels as though your working backwards) but as soon as you open yourself up to accepting help everything shifts.

Thank you for being with us on this journey. 


Here’s to year 3!

XO,
Mary Alice 

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1 comment

  • Mary-Martha Johnson: September 26, 2019

    Mary Alice,
    Thank you so much for your concise explanation of what these last 2 years of development have been like for you. I realize if you want something badly enough you must keep working at it.
    I was very pleased with the outfits you made for my son’s wedding and received many compliments. The fabrics were beautiful and even when I felt discouraged that we would find the right shade your team persisted and it all worked out.
    I have found that when a style didn’t quite work your team ( Geneva) was open to making the adjustments for my body and you can’t find that in a large department store. I love your team- they are friendly, helpful, professional and they listen.
    Thank you for pursuing your dream.

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