While New York’s bike-share program may have been put on hold until next spring, the growing number of cyclists have made CityRacks a common sight throughout the five boroughs. One Brooklyn designer and year-round bike commuter has been tackling ways to create practical accessories for the fashion-conscious urban cyclist, while maintaining sustainable production practices. This week, Damsels in Design sits down with Audrey Robinson of Dargelos to talk about the ups and downs of starting a small business during the recession and the importance of environmental ethics in design.
It’s common to hear designers justify not starting their own business because they either think that they need more professional experience or because the market is not in a good place. You launched Dargelos upon graduating from Parsons in 2012, amidst our current ‘Great Recession.’ What inspired you to start your business, and what prompted you to stake out on your own rather than working for someone else first?
I worked in various design positions for six years before feeling prepared to start my own business in 2007. By then, I was able to distill exactly what was important to me and felt open to potential business ideas. Mine was born out of the frustrating experience of cycling in the city and having to choose between being safe or looking good. Just as I was formulating my ideas, the financial meltdown happened and out of caution I decided to return to school to focus on a business plan and a clear design direction. Had there been another established company to learn from in New York – one that created creating stylish cycling clothing and accessories – I would have definitely tried to work with them rather than going to school, but that was not an option. Upon graduating in 2010, despite the recession, I couldn’t wait any longer and dove in.
During the early days what were some of the greatest challenges you faced as a design entrepreneur and how did you work to overcome them?
When I first started absolutely everything was challenging; from sourcing materials to having custom ones made, learning how to find a factory to work with, figuring out how production works, and doing practically everything by myself. I think there is always a learning curve, and each business is so unique that it’s almost impossible to feel prepared. I went to school because I thought I’d learn such practical matters from experienced professionals, yet information was scarce and mentoring nonexistent.
It was especially difficult to keep my vision intact and trust my instincts. For instance, I wanted to launch with a single item, the Lightning Vest, perfect it, produce it, iron out the kinks, then add another product. But everyone I spoke to insisted that having one item was not enough. So during the first year I was furiously putting all my ideas out there before I felt they were ready. I ended up retracting numerous products because I was overwhelmed and finessing the ones I already had.
Your work centers around sustainable practices within fashion. How have you developed your practices and products to be socially and environmentally responsible?
To begin, the impetus for starting Dargelos was that I had numerous ideas for products, yet, felt no desire to add to the surplus of ‘things’ in our disposable consumer culture. I eventually decided on inventing products (patents pending) that were unique, versatile and responsibly made. Every product is designed to minimize waste and manufactured in a way to support the local economy and reduce the time, money, and emissions caused by transportation, as well as to meet the people who are working on the products. As a small company, I don’t often have the leverage to get what I want; minimums are often too high for custom-made fabric and my ideal materials often do not exist ready made.
Hemp is the most sustainable fabric because it has low pesticide and water needs, quick growth and is very durable, yet hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S. The only waxed hemp I could find was from England and discontinued, but I was able to buy the last of what they had to make a limited edition TransPorter. It is lined with a 55% Hemp/45% organic cotton muslin and the corners are reinforced with a vegetable tanned leather that matches the handle and the backpack are made of 100% hemp webbing. The other TransPorters and Belt Pouches are made with a waxed cotton canvas from New Jersey, though the material is imported, it is dyed and waxed there. They are sewn in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just a couple buildings away from the Dargelos studio.
For the Lightning Vest, I had to develop a custom-made reflective material by combining reflective products made in Texas and converted/ sliced in Rhode Island. It is then cut and knotted at our Brooklyn studio and packaged in pouches that are made of U.S. grown cotton, sewn in Kentucky. Any excess material is upcycled into our reflective Tufts.
The Flare Vest is virtually waste-free, as it is cut from a single rectangle. The material was impossible to find in the U.S., settling on an imported one is temporary and the search continues for the perfect fabric. It is cut in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, downstairs from the Dargelos studio, where the finishing is done.
Some have dismissed sustainable and ‘slow fashion’ as merely a fad. How do you respond to this? How important do you think it is for other young designers to consider the ethics behind these movements in their own endeavors?
Taking care of yourself, others, and the planet are not fads to those who care about these things; they’re fads to those who don’t. My focus is on designing products that can transcend the limits of being just aesthetically appealing, by being addictively practical while minimizing any negative impact on people and the environment.
It’s really important for young designers to believe their decisions and actions affect everyone and take responsibility for what they put out in the world, how it gets there and where it will go when it is disposed of. Unfortunately, business is only concerned with numbers and sustainability doesn’t enter the equation – so it’s really about individual responsibility. Everyone should take the time to educate themselves, society won’t do it for you.
Soon after launching Dargelos, you joined the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. Has working alongside other designers benefited your business and design practices?
Working in the Pratt Incubator encouraged me to stick with it. It is isolating to start a business alone and on top of that, care about sustainability. Working alongside other determined entrepreneurs that are dealing with similar problems and can share their experiences makes you stronger. It makes you feel like you are part of a larger movement.
You design goods for the bike commuting culture in Brooklyn. How do you go about developing products that are both fashionable as well as functional? Do you literally take all of your prototypes for a spin around the block?
Every product has evolved out of my own personal needs as a devoted, year-round bicycle commuter so I’m always the first one to use them. I am a really practical person and also a total aesthete, so I invented products that embody both of these qualities. It’s awesome to be stopped on the street and asked where I’ve gotten my products. I think the most satisfying is when drivers ask me about the Lightning Vest – because I know it’s working!
What advice can you offer women who would also like to start their own design businesses?
It takes a strong vision, thorough preparedness and determination to carry you through, so start small. Don’t be pressured to grow faster than you feel comfortable with and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a business class that caters to your industry and find yourself an accountant, business advisor and even a partner if possible. It’s lonely, so if you don’t like working by yourself for hours on end you need a partner.
Damsels in Design fosters a supportive, engaging, and non-competitive environment for professional women. We believe this is the way to secure successful opportunities and to give back to the community. How important is it that women support and assist one another along the way?
I think sharing resources is very important. Creating an environment of openness and honesty, where women feel comfortable to share what they know or express what they need, could open up opportunities and result in wonderful consequences.
If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Find a good accountant!
New Yorkers experienced a whirlwind of emotions this past week. From being helpless and tired to scared and angry, residents everywhere were affected by Hurricane Sandy. At Damsels in Design, our hearts go out to the victims in the most damaged areas including those in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. Although many of our members were spared the loss of power and other effects of the storm, others were not so fortunate. We would like to take this opportunity to send our well wishes and blessings to the families who are still dealing with the aftermath. The effects will be felt for a long time and we urge those who are able to assist with clean up and donations to participate in the coming weeks anyway they can including donating to locations like Manhattan Beach, Long Beach, and the Rockaways.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Damsels in Design partnered with ClosetDash Shop–the ultimate clothing swap shop for women–to collect donated goods from our respective communities and networks. We are absolutely amazed and delighted by the donors who dropped off clothing, water, food, diapers, and supplies this weekend. Many of them came from Astoria, Harlem, and Brooklyn without adequate transportation to give back to those in need. We thank each and every one of you for taking the time to help others. All of the donations were distributed to relief centers in Red Hook and Staten Island late Sunday afternoon.
Damsels in Design is forever grateful for its exceptional community of members and neighbors. Thank you!
Interview by Jennifer Markas, Photography by Amy Lee
Evette Ríos is a
jack jane-of-all-trades! When she’s not helping Rachel Ray come up with amazing do-it-yourself crafts, Evette can be found hosting Better Homes and Gardens 100-Days of Holidays online video series and reporting for ABC’s The Chew. She is inspired by her Puerto Rican heritage and the energy of New York City. Damsels in Design is very lucky to sit down with Evette and learn how she uses her creativity and imagination to brighten up homes across the country. And her best piece of advice: “No man, or woman, should be an island!”
Can you tell us what you were both doing before appearing on television? How is it different from working off-camera? What are the time-frames like?
I did a few things before becoming an on camera TV interior designer…I worked for a high end interior designer with an incredible French country/Scandinavian/well traveled aesthetic. She had a remarkable command of color and I learned so much working with her. I also was an in-store salesperson/designer for Waterworks. There I learned the ins and outs of designing and specifying plumbing and fixtures for bathrooms and kitchens. I also had a wonderful group of private design clients that I worked with. Doing design work for broadcast on television is way different than doing one on one work for a client. The budgets are lower and the time frames are tighter. Sometimes I feel like things just can’t be done for TV. But then we get it done! I guess I do my best work under pressure so for me its perfect!
How do you manage all of your daily to-do’s? Have you adopted morning/evening rituals to help you get through the day? If so, which ones have had the greatest impact on running your own business?
I am a compulsive list maker, it must be the Virgo in me. I make lists about making lists! Sometimes it’s a little ridiculous.
Also, as a self-employed person, finding balance can be really difficult. I am not always the best at it. The first thing that I really try to implement is to make Mondays my computer work day. I try to keep it free of appointments and obligations. I find that if I do that the rest of my week goes smoother and I feel accomplished. I have also started to ask for help. You can’t do it all on your own! I have a friend helping me update and post blogs on my website, I have someone else helping me with graphic design and logos. And I recently hired a publicist to help get the word out about my work. I was so resistant to hiring people to help me but I realize now that it frees me up to do the things that I really love and I am good at, which makes so much sense! You can’t be everything to your business and as much as it hurts a bit financially to add someone to the payroll, if you find the right person, your productivity will go through the roof!
What is your favorite part about the projects you create and teach? What inspires your aesthetic and creativity? How have your colleagues (Rachel Ray, etc.) informed your sense of design and business savvy?
I LOVE listening to my clients needs. I find them to be the most inspirational. As a designer you get very involved in your clients lives, you have to listen to what their likes are but more importantly you have to be ultra observant of how they live their lives. Those kinds of insights will ensure that the design you create will be a lasting one!
I have worked with Rachael Ray for years now and I LOVE her. What I learned from Rachael is to be fearless with color in the kitchen. I used to have the utilitarian kitchen thing, stainless steel accessories and off white cabinets. Working with someone who uses color so fearlessly has really been inspiring!
We want our readers to understand that design is everywhere and how important it is to be a well-rounded designer to remain flexible in the ever changing design industry. What advice can you offer young women in college who would like to pursue a career such as yours? How important is networking in your line of work? How has it helped you build your community, garner support, and connect you with new projects/contacts? If you could offer one piece of advice to the next generation of designers what would it be?
The biggest advice that I can offer anyone is to start working as soon as you can in the industry. If you are studying design, try to find a job in a design savvy company. Even if you aren’t doing exactly what you had in mind. Say you are restocking sample rooms for a fabric showroom for example, you will learn so much just by being present and interacting with established designers. Those connections that you make will be lasting ones and will help you as you get ready to launch yourself in the design world.
The other piece of advice that I have is to force your self to get out of your comfort zone and do things. I can be a bit of a homebody, and slightly, at times, nervous about going out and socializing. But I have noticed that when I am resistant to doing things is when I need to do them the most! Force yourself to get out there socialize and network. I have never, ever regretted it.
My final bit of advice is to remember that design is an art form and is entirely subjective. There is never a right or wrong solution, just YOUR solution. Have faith in your decision-making and present your suggestions with confidence. If you are listening to your instinct then you are always making the right decision!
If there is one thing you could change about the design industry what would it be? Has the idea of a DIY revolution hindered the market in any way?
I think what I would change first about the design business is that it can sometimes be a little snarky and slightly elitist. I grew up in a working class family in the projects of Brooklyn but to this day my parents have one of the most stylish homes I have yet to see. We always had original art on the walls, gorgeous antiques on the shelves and hand sewn slipcovers on the sofa. It is not about getting “brand name” or designer product. It’s about trying to find the right, well designed solution to your clients style, taste, program and budget.
I am so excited about what the DIY movement is going to do for design. I am a huge proponent of American made products and I think the more self sufficient we become as a society the more value will be put on great design. The DIY culture is about making what you need yourself instead of just going out and buying it. It is a 180 from our usual consumerist tendencies. I think that this ensures that what we bring into our homes is better suited and better designed for our needs. It is all very exciting!
Let’s talk about the future. Do you plan to launch a home accessories line down the road? Any books on the way? Any new collaborations to look out for?
Yes and yes. I am working on a book right now that combines crazy stories about my family. We are a SUPER DIY family, I call us “pioneer-ricans”. The book will also include some of the best DIY advice I have up my sleeves. It is all really exciting, and a home accessories line should be coming soon after! But you are not going to see me do slight and superficial twists on contemporary favorites. I am all about solutions. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, solve a problem or make me unbelievably happy I will not design it. We only have space for so many things in our homes and in our lives and for me those things must be beautiful and work well.
Damsels in Design fosters a supportive, engaging, and non-competitive environment for professional women. We believe this is the only way to secure successful opportunities and to give back to the community. How important is it that women support and assist one another along the way? What steps can we take to ensure we’re maintaining this camaraderie and creating opportunities for one another?
Women need to stick up for one another in the design world! The truth is we provide an extremely vital voice in this industry. The female designers that I know create spaces that are thoughtful, comfortable and welcoming. Not that men can’t, but we seem to cut to the chase a little faster than men would. My female designer friends are probably not going to upholster a busy families sofa in white silk for instance. We instinctively know why that would be a horrible idea. And that for me is the sweet spot in design, where form and beauty meet. Women are champions of that!
I think it is so important to create relationships with other female designers. I personally come from a place of abundance. I know in my heart that there is plenty for everyone. There is no need for competition. Making friends, getting together and sharing ideas is so important. No man, or woman should be an island!
Last week Goodwill NY/NJ invited Damsels in Design to participate in its Halloween Project to help support its mission of empowering individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment to gain independence through the power of work. Damsels in Design believes everyone should have the opportunity to excel and and be inspired–especially women in design. We could think of no greater honor than to collaborate with Goodwill NY/NJ for this fun project.
Damsels in Design invited 3 of its exceptional members along with its founder to meet at the Goodwill Shop in Greenwich Village. Our mission was to come up with creative Halloween costumes under $30 in order to spread the word on what a great resource Goodwill is to pick-up an affordable, last-minute costume. Watch this short video to see what they found!
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Damsels in Design started off its morning with a huge culture infusion! A group of 15 Damsels toured the “Century of the Child” Exhibition on the 6th floor gallery of the Museum of Modern Art with Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design, Aidan O’Connor. While we learned about many of the objects on display, Aidan focused the tour on how the exhibit was actually conceived and designed. Who knew there was an actual method of hanging wall labels a certain number of inches below a framed piece of art? Some of us had fun climbing on giant size furniture while others reminisced about our childhoods watching Pee-Wee Herman and playing with Barbie’s Dream House. For those of you who were unable to attend the tour, we highly recommend visiting before the show closes on November 5th.
Interview by Jennifer Markas, Photography courtesy of Alice Alan
Finding the selection of comfortable, yet stylish shoes for women to be woefully lacking, Alice Chen traded in Corporate America to develop her own line of ‘go-to’ heels called Alice Alan. Damsels in Designs sat down with Alice to talk about how she went from office to design studio, and what she’s learned along the way.
DID: When did it become clear to you that there was a need for your product?
AC: I found my way to footwear design after a long layover in Corporate America. I have always had a lifelong passion for shoes and spent my early years admiring shoes I could never wear - shoes designed to make a statement but not to support my body. I could not be the only woman who constantly had to trade style for comfort or give up my heel habits. And let’s face it, you can’t have your “A game” on in frumpy shoes.
The idea for my business started in 2008, so I studied shoe-making for fun. I apprenticed under a footwear and fashion professor and learned all about pattern making, sewing and the countless other steps that go into constructing shoes by hand. It was then, the proverbial light went on. I had the skills and background necessary to design a line of shoes that would help women like me put their best foot forward. And Alice Alan was born with the launch of my first collection at the end of 2010.
DID: How do you manage all of your daily to-do’s? Have you adopted rituals to help you get through the day? If so, which ones have had the greatest impact on running your own business?
AC: I have a long to-do list! It is the only way to stay organized and sane. I focus on the highest priority items first thing in the morning. If I get too busy with another aspect of the business and do not get to #2, I will have finished the most important item for the day.
DID: What is your favorite part about running your own fashion business? What inspires your aesthetic and creativity? How have your past experiences shaped what you’re doing today?
AC: The best part about being an entrepreneur is doing something I am passionate about. I also love that my company and collection help to improve a woman’s life and give my customers a product she can actually wear. I draw a lot of inspirations from the streets of New York City. The diversity pushes me to reinterpret what I see into something that is unique. I am also inspired to do what is right for my customers which means I balance style and wearability in my designs.
DID: What advice can you offer women who would like to pursue a career such as yours?
AC: Manage and scrutinize your costs. As a new entrepreneur, you do not have the luxury to be extravagant with your expenses. When I started, I focused only on the things that mattered most to a start up, such as a producing a high quality product, building a website and creating brand awareness. Any work I could do myself meant I did not have to pay someone else to do it. I did as much as I could with as little money as possible, asking friends and family for help, negotiating with suppliers, and even bartering for services. Everyone is willing to help, so do not be afraid to ask.
DID: If there is one thing you could change about the design industry what would it be?
AC: One thing that I would love to see more of is the return of footwear manufacturing back to the US. Footwear manufacturing has all but disappeared, and along with that the skilled labor, technology and those who supply to the industry. While there has been resurgence in recent years to bring footwear manufacturing back to the US, it will take time. Every pair of Alice Alan is crafted in NYC and it is extremely rewarding to have the opportunity to work with the local community and feel that I am making a difference.
DID: Let’s talk about the future. What are your plans for Alice Alan? How do you know when to expand and when to sit tight? And, you’re expecting a little one soon — how will that change your priorities?
AC: Our goal is to stay focused and listen carefully to what our customers are telling us and what they want from our products. As a small business owner, I have the flexibility to tailor my own schedule. Even with other priorities, with technology, I can always stay in touch wherever, whenever.
DID: Damsels in Design fosters a supportive, engaging, and non-competitive environment for professional women. We believe this is the only way to secure successful opportunities and to give back to the community. How important is it that women support and assist one another along the way? What steps can we take to ensure we’re maintaining this camaraderie and creating opportunities for one another?
AC: It is so important to be a part of a supportive women’s network because we have similar experiences and challenges. I have learned so much through my network. It has been extremely rewarding to meet other strong and fabulous women who are making it happen. It is critical to network, ask for much needed help and pay it forward.
Interview by Jennifer Markas, Photography by Amy Lee
Design is everywhere. It’s in the cup of coffee you drink in the morning to the subway ads you read on your commute to and from work. Design is also in the items that bring us the most pleasure. It’s sexy lingerie, seductive novel covers, and dare we mention those naughty unmentionables? From chocolate body paint and pin-up pasties to condom covers and velvet wrist-restraints, Shag Brooklyn carries it all in a tasteful, carefully curated and well-designed package. Damsels in Design stepped in to the boudoir-style shop to learn more about Co-Owners Samantha Bard and Ashley Montgomery-Pulido’s passion for sexy design.
DID: How did the concept of Shag come about?
SHAG: Sam was getting her MFA at Hunter – her art revolved around issues of sexuality, gender, intimacy, etc, so Shag was a logical next step, since the shop is a marriage of sex and art; Ash was consulting with a number of small businesses in the NYC region, helping them with financial and organizational operations and brand development concepts. We started Shag because we felt that there needed to be a store, a “sexy shop”, where everyone was welcome, no judgments are passed…someplace that is open, comfortable, and accessible to all.
DID: What is your favorite part about curating your own shop of sexy wonders? Who are your favorite artists/designers you carry? What do you look for in designers and products you carry?
SHAG: One of the best parts of curating the shop is seeing how much AWESOME stuff is out there! It’s amazing the sort of creativity, skill, and imagination our designers and artists have put into their work, and it feels great as a business to be able to support local talent. As for the products we carry – we look for high quality, original, trend-setting products from local artists and designers – virtually all of our locally made products are hand made by the artists themselves, so a lot of love goes into these pieces! Currently, we have over 70 artists/designers making products for Shag.
DID: How do you manage all of your daily to-do’s? Have you adopted morning/evening rituals to help you get through the day? If so, which ones have had the greatest impact on running your own business?
SHAG: The first year was a little difficult in terms of time management for the business and our personal lives – at the beginning there must be some sort of sacrifice, and we were OK with that. Now that things have stabilized we both try to balance out our business lives with our personal lives – believe it or not, your business will actually do better if you allow yourself some personal time – otherwise burn out is inevitable. Sam’s morning ritual is an intense workout program outdoors in the sun (or the rain!) that keeps her in shape, both physically and mentally, and is a great help in preparing for the day. Ash does Bikram yoga and spin classes for her physical balance, and loves to travel for her spiritual and mental balance. We also try to get together for a glass of wine a few times a month to talk to each other about business and share with each other about more personal things. We do talk, email, text and/or instant message with each other almost every single day… (!)
DID: What advice can you share with first-time entrepreneurs about opening up their own business? How important is it to design your customer’s experience especially on a subject that is so intimate and personal?
SHAG: We never came into this business thinking about what people would think about us – we knew from the beginning that we were creating something very unique and special, and we were not ashamed to talk about it. Our passion for this business has drawn a lot of people from the community who also want to be a part of something special; that sort of passion is contagious and it engages everyone with whom it comes in contact.
Shag is all about designing our customer’s experience – it is one of the most important aspects of the shop, as we strive to create an environment that is friendly, open and non-judgmental. We like to think that even if you come into the shop a little unsure of yourself (we do understand that some people may not feel as comfortable as we do when it comes to sex and intimacy), you will leave feeling educated, knowledgeable, and confident – we are here to both teach and listen!
In terms of the actual design of the shop – we have created a very “homey” feel – vanity tables, dressers, and antique furniture make up the brunt of our merchandising units – when you walk into Shag, you feel like you are walking into a friend’s home, and it feels comfortable…it feels good.
DID: If there is one thing you could change about the industry you’re in what would it be?
SHAG: We wish that the general public be a little more accepting and open about sexuality, and that there was more education on how to make decisions regarding sex (especially in our formative years), and where to go/who to speak to for those who are in crisis.
DID: What are your future plans for Shag? Opening up any new locations (Manhattan, please)?
SHAG: Haha, well a Manhattan location is part of our future plans, but we can’t say exactly when that will be. We also just recently launched our online boutique, so now people can shop Shag from anywhere in the country. We also are slated to start a wellness leg of Shag; that will address sexual health and holistic wellness as key components to overall quality of living.
DID: How important is networking in your line of work? How has it helped you build your community?
SHAG: Networking is extremely important, no matter type of business you are in. Our community has grown organically, and there are so many people in this industry who are trying to do good in the world that natural partnerships with other people/businesses seem to form regularly – and our community keeps growing everyday.