4 Years of Alice Alexander
Mary Alice here, Creative Director and Founder at Alice Alexander. It’s been (more than) a minute but I am back and eager to share what’s happening both in my personal life and with the brand. But first! A retrospective…
Four years ago this week I started Alice Alexander. For those of you who don’t know, I am not a classically trained fashion designer, nor did I study fashion (or anything remotely related to fashion) in school. In fact, I have two master's degrees, one in social service, the other in law and social policy, and spent a 12-year career working in the nonprofit sector with expertise in domestic poverty. While I loved the intellectual and human side of working in the nonprofit sector, I was continuously disillusioned with the sector as it existed and couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t actually helping anyone. I was feeling a lack of creativity and joy in my life and was officially approaching burnout. These feelings coupled with the fact that I couldn't seem to find clothes made of real fibers that fit my body led me to start sewing my own clothes.
Each morning, (while my daughter was still sleeping), I’d spend a precious hour in front of my sewing machine, trying to pull something together that matched the vision in my head. I quickly realized that I couldn't be the only person living in a fat body who longed for silk, wool, linen in bright colors, and expertly fit. I couldn't be the only one who wanted more than what the mall was offering. So, in typical fashion, I went down a rabbit hole of research and learned everything I possibly could about the fashion industry. And what I learned was.not.good. Exploitative labor practices, environmental destruction, rampant fatphobia--all of this was the norm, not the exception. It seemed the entire fashion system was set up to harm women whether it was through exploitation or marketing manipulation--it was clear to me that while women were the primary consumer, they certainly weren’t the beneficiary.
So I set out to do something different. With very little money, no connections, and frankly, no real idea of what I was doing, in 2017 I quit a very successful career to start a fashion company. At first, it was just me, a sewing machine, some patterns, fabrics, and an internet connection. A few months in (and down to my last nickel) I realized I couldn't do this myself, and hired my very first person who is still with me to this very day (shoutout to Abby and the greatest cover letter ever written). Little by little the team grew. We soon outgrew our shared space and had to move production to my dining room table. Between a toddler, cat, dog, husband, and two employees all squished into our narrow Philly row home, it was not good, but, as always, we made it work.
That first year we showed at Philly Fashion Week and had many great write-ups. In 2018 we moved into our very first space (that I only got because my friend owned the building). We moved in our equipment and got to work cutting and sewing every single piece to order. We steadily grew our customer base, many of whom are with us to this day.
As the business grew in 2019, our expenses grew alongside and it seemed there was never enough money to keep us afloat. My husband and I got our personal expenses to near nothing, I didn’t take a salary despite working 60 hours a week, and we did whatever it took to keep the lights on. There were so, so many times I wanted to quit. So many times where I didn’t think I could go another month living the way we were living. And in those times where I desperately wanted to throw in the towel, my husband Alex, refused to let me quit, even though it was his public teacher salary that was keeping this thing going. I think deep down, we both knew (and still know) what this business was capable of and so we held each other up, and kept moving forward.
Without very much effort, we found ourselves offering up advice to other brands in need of assistance correcting their patterns for various fit issues. Realizing how few brands were offering up extended sizing and knowing that we had in-house expertise, we started offering pattern development for other brands who wanted to extend their size ranges.
At the beginning of 2020 things were looking up. Our team was rocking, sales were rolling and everything just started to click. It felt like we could breathe. Then, covid hit. On the day we moved into our new space, the mayor of Philadelphia ordered all businesses shut down. What we thought would last two weeks, extended to three months. Our cash flow slowed to a trickle. The city, state nor federal government had any idea how to get cash to businesses quickly. Creditors canceled credit lines fearing the worst.
Never being one to be able to sit still, the team and I got to work creating fabric face masks. With the help of our incredible community, we raised several thousand dollars to fund the production of masks in order to donate them to incredible organizations like Prevention Point Philadelphia, Joseph’s House of Camden, and Inglis House, ensuring that the most vulnerable folks in our communities would have access to personal protective equipment. We moved sewing equipment into our employee's homes so that they could safely sew from their living rooms and I spent much of my day cutting and dropping off bundles to sewers throughout the city. While doing this work was the right thing to do, it wasn’t a long-term business strategy. So as soon as restrictions were lifted, the team and I regrouped to determine how to get back on track.
In Summer 2020 we released an extremely successful linen collection without a photoshoot (shoutout to the world’s greatest customers) using computer illustrated flats to depict our products. Once the team reassembled in our studio, we hired two more sewing team members and got to work creating the pieces that had been ordered. While we desperately wanted to get back to “normal” the world was not (and is still not) anything back to normal. Fabrics were delayed, orders were backlogged, lockdowns persisted, it felt like no matter what we did, we simply couldn't get ahead.
In early September 2020, we hosted an online forum called, Redesigning Fashion, with 150 attendees and 40+ speakers. We covered topics like the politics of personal style, racism and anti-blackness in fashion, and advocating for plus size customers. It was a whirlwind 3 days, but my team and I pulled it off and it was a massive success. Funds from the event allowed us to move the business forward. And while it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, I couldn't ignore a feeling that something wasn’t right. Burnout was on the horizon once again. I needed to make a drastic change.
A few weeks after the forum, I took a trip to a remote farm in the middle of nowhere with no TV, cell phone service, or internet connection. I brought with me my family a few books, a notepad, and pen, and spent 4 days asking myself what I truly wanted and how my business could support those desires. As an entrepreneur, I’d been indoctrinated into hustle culture but the reality was, that culture of go, go, go, simply didn’t work for me. As someone who had struggled with a chronic health issue for years, I had a sneaking suspicion that my debilitating physical health issue was entirely correlated to my stress levels. I knew for the sake of my health, both physical and emotional, that I needed to reject the notion that I must be a martyr to my business. I couldn’t spend another minute overworked and underpaid. I had to find a way to live in joy. I needed to spend more time with my partner and daughter. I wanted to uncomplicate my life. Upon my return to Philadelphia, I was armed with a plan. Now, I just had to find the courage to share it.
In late 2020 I announced to my team, and then our customers, that we would be changing our business model. We’d be switching from an in-house, made-to-order business model to an outsourced, small-batch factory model. We’d have to do this while remaining true to our principles of ethical production and sustainable manufacturing. This meant we’d have to completely redesign our business from the ground up. It would take time and money, but I knew that I could either grow a clothing manufacturing business, or I could grow a brand--and I chose the latter because that is what spoke to my joy and the new life I was attempting to build.
In Spring 2021, as we continued to refine our new business model, develop factory relationships, and design new products, we developed a membership program. The membership program’s aim is to build a formal community of customers to support our business so that we can prevent over-ordering from our factory partners, ensure consistent revenue and avoid a constant frenzy of discounted sales. To read more about our membership, click here.
This past summer, after months of preparation we finally were able to have the collection produced. As most of you know, we have a very high standard of quality. When we received deficient product, we had to go back in and fix pieces before sending them out to customers. This delayed our production schedule since we didn’t plan to make this collection in-house. Despite these hurdles, our dedicated design team worked even harder to get us back on track.
So while our first go at producing our products at an external production facility didn’t go as planned, we are undeterred. We’ve found some truly wonderful production partners including a worker-owned cooperative in North Carolina who is producing our beloved Mia tee (launching in a few weeks!) and a woman-worker-owned, fair trade facility in India that is producing our best selling Cass dress and Ina Blouses. In total, we’re expected to launch 13 new styles and 5 of our classics in October and November. This includes the Tracee Pant in new fabrics and prints, the much anticipated Sally Jumpsuit, a revamped Barry turtleneck in gorgeous jewel tones, a perfect fall/ winter dress, a new sweater style and a handful of accessories (perfect for gift giving).
I would be lying if I said the past year and a half, or really the past 4 years had been easy. In fact, they’ve been the hardest of my life.
But I can sense a change--a change that my team and I have worked tirelessly to create. We have a team that is able to handle anything thrown at them including Abby and Geneva, who has been with us since those days on my dining room table; Itohan, Sofia, and Ty who’ve been with us since last summer; and our newest team member, Shaina. With this group, I have in place a team that has allowed me to step back from the day to day and focus on my strengths while giving me the space (both physical and mental) to do my best work.
At the end of this month, we’re moving (once again) to a larger space so that we can literally and figuratively spread our wings. We’ve embarked on a total rebrand with a brilliant brand strategist to help us refine our mission and values. We’re launching pieces later this year that light up every joyful neuron in my brain.
And as for me, I’ve made a massive change of my own. Earlier this year, I sold my home in Philadelphia, my husband resigned from his teaching job and we made the bold decision to move to southern France. Here we’re learning to take things slow, appreciate each moment, and learn everything we can. I’m prioritizing my health and my relationships. My daughter is back in school full time after 18 months out of the classroom and we’re finding our rhythm. If all goes as planned (and the French consulate allows it) we plan to expand Alice Alexander to the EU, utilizing France as our home base--while still staying true to my personal mission--building a life of uncomplicated joy.
When I reflect back on the past four years I tend to focus on everything that didn’t go as planned, every failure, every place I fucked up. I even avoided writing this piece as these past few years have been rather painful. But in retrospect, I’m glad I wrote this down. Because now I can see exactly how far we’ve come, how much we’ve overcome, and it makes me so damn grateful to be where we are today. To those customers who’ve stuck with us throughout this bumpy ride--thank you, sincerely, I can’t wait for you to see what’s next. To my team, you all are incredible and I feel beyond lucky that the universe has connected us at the right time and place--I know that if we stick together the sky is the limit. And to my partner, Alex, who loves me and believes in me unconditionally, thank you for believing in me when I couldn’t see it for myself.
So with that, here’s to a wild 4 years at Alice Alexander, and to many, many more. Onward!
Mary Alice Duff
Creative Director and Founder