There's really nothing like finding a brand that matches your ideal style. I remember finding Fleet Collection, full of fit and flare dresses and lace collars, for the first time and feeling like I had finally found one where every single piece was something I could see myself wearing. I also remember feeling devastated when I found out the brand was ending and worrying that I'd never find another brand that felt like it was made for me. Luckily, that didn't last long. Soon after Fleet Collection ended, Apricity came along from one of Fleet Collection's co-founders.
Eileen Chai started the brand a few years back, and I've been a fan ever since. Apricity breathes life into the most gorgeous vintage-inspired dresses in a stunning collection of colors and prints. They're all flattering on a variety of body types, and most importantly, they have pockets. They're the type of dresses that are easily worn with sandals for a casual day or dressed up for bridesmaid dresses. I've felt so lucky to have gotten to know Eileen over the years, and it's evident how excited each new piece she designs makes her. I'm so happy to get to share her story with you today!
Q: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of starting your business? What made you want to do this and how did you turn your idea into a reality?
A: I started designing dresses in 2011 for a brand I started with a partner, Fleet Collection, and when we discontinued that collection to part our separate ways in 2015, I had to take a beat to think long and hard about what I really wanted to next. I had this incredibly rare and fortunate opportunity to really take my life in any direction I wanted, and (perhaps unsurprisingly), after much thought and contemplation, I knew that this is truly what I wanted to do. I love vintage, fashion and sewing, and I love being able to connect with my customers on a personal level. I started Apricity that same year, and just wanted to create a collection of dresses that is pretty and classic (because classic never goes out of style!) and wearable really for any day or occasion.
Q: What was your first product to take off or find enough success that you were encouraged to do more?
A: I started the collection with just 2 designs: the SUNDAY and the JANUARY dresses. I was really lucky that these designs were well received by customers, and the first batch sold out rather quickly that summer. With that, I was able to make new batches with new colorways, also add new designs to the catalog and really, just take off running. These designs are actually still in the core collection today.. I mean, it really is lucky that the first 2 designs I launched happened to be a hit. Trust me, it doesn’t always happen like that! Sometimes, there’s a fabric or color that I personally love love love to death, and the customers just hate it, so you really never know what can happen despite how carefully you plan in advance!
Q: What were your friends and family’s reactions to you starting a business? Were you nervous to share it?
A: This is the 2nd business I started, so it does get a little bit easier, but...still not really! It’s the first business that I started on my own, so that aspect was a little terrifying and completely isolating. I think that was the first time that I really felt truly alone, even though I had a super supportive network of friends and family. My (now ex) husband was always really understanding and supportive in my projects and ventures, but we also didn’t really discuss my work too much. The same went for most of my friends. I have this circle of down ass bitches that I know will be there for me no matter what, but when it came to work, I felt like my challenges were singular to my own experience and didn’t really talk much about it. I honestly just felt like I didn’t have someone in the same boat as me, and discussing it was a futile exercise. So I kind of just bottled it all up, which made the anxiety even worse, and every decision I made became incrementally nerve-wracking. So yes, I was DEFINITELY nervous to share it! And I didn’t know what my Fleet customers would think about the new brand, and there was a low point of nerves, imposter syndrome, fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. I’m definitely glad that part is over, but yeah. I was nervous haha.
Q: Did you work another job while you were starting? How long did it take you to turn this into a full-time venture?
A: I’m sorry I keep going back to Fleet! Sometimes, I feel like Apricity is just an extension of Fleet because I was already completely set up to do this! I had my studio, I had the equipment, hell I even still work with all my old vendors and production team! Apricity is and always has been a full time gig for me, from the very start. I was simultaneously working on dissolving Fleet while I was started Apricity, there really wasn’t any downtime at all. For Fleet, I quit my job to do it. I used to do private label product development for an overseas cosmetics label, and eventually became the COO of their US based distribution branch. Wow, just talking about that now...that feels like a lifetime ago! But I left that gig to start my own business because I really believed that to produce full time results, I needed to dedicate full time work to it. I gave myself a budget and a timeline, and if it didn’t pan out in 6 months, then I would have to re-evaluate my goals and objectives at that time. Fleet because a full time venture within the first year, but man, was that first year WORK! I’ll tell that story another time!
Q: It seems to be pretty common for entrepreneurs to start their shops because they have a specific talent and then have to learn the business side of things (marketing, finance, eCommerce, etc.) as they go. Was this case for you or did you go into it having that knowledge? What was the most challenging part for you?
A: It was a little of both. The business logistics of it is second nature to me, so that wasn’t a problem. HOWEVER...marketing, especially e-commerce marketing, is a whole other beast to me. I’m not inclined to be a very visual person (I tend to be more numbers and text oriented), so content creation and layouts and photography (basic everything needed for social media and e-commerce and branding!) is incredibly challenging to me. I love sewing but I never would have considered myself a designer because there’s still some technical aspects that I struggle with. I can sew up a creation, but I hate patterning because it’s tedious and precise. I can sketch illustrations and designs, but I hate creating digital design flats for the production team, because again, it’s tedious and precise. I find that while I love the imaginative and playful aspects of creating, the technical side of it really bums me out. I used to think that I had to personally love and do every aspect of the design process well, but now I just try to focus on the parts that inspire me and outsource the parts that don’t. It really is unrealistic to think one person can handle and perfectly execute the many, many facets required for a business in any given industry. Yet small business owners tend to absorb all this responsibility and the pressure that comes along with it. And maybe they can do it all and do it well! But personally, I’ve accepted that I hate dealing with fractions for my pattern measurements and I just work with a professional pattern maker to clean up the messes I’ve created.
Q: How has your experience been selling your items wholesale? Do you like that side of the business or do you prefer to sell direct to consumer?
A: Wholesale is a double-edged sword. I think some lines can really benefit from wholesale opportunities, but businesses with limited run, labor intensive products can really burn out by wholesaling. I do wholesale, but only a really small scale. The reason is because my dresses are limited in quantity, there’s really only 5 available in each size in every batch. The more I wholesale, the less there is available for my direct customers. And really, I LOVE selling direct to the consumer. I actually remember every single one of my customers and what dresses they have. I remember their sizes and orders, and if someone has sent me a message or commented on my social media, I can immediately link them to their customer profiles in my Shopify and I know who they are! It’s a little crazy, but that’s the benefit of being personally engaged in every aspect of the business and customer experience. I don’t know what people think about the brand, like if it’s a faceless company with faceless worker bees, but honestly, it’s just ME here. I mean, it really is just a one-woman wrecking crew in my studio! If a customer has interacted with the company in any way, I’ve been hands-on in the entire process and I actually really love it! I’m a people person that works alone, so I just imagine everyone in my Apricity community as my people!
Q: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about buying from a small business?
A: I think for the most part, people who shop small understand the struggle and want to show their support by shopping with us! If there was one thing...I wish people would understand that a small business means that everything is literally small. Small space, small catalog of products, small manpower, small resources, small expansion. I actually had Facebook comment recently from someone who didn’t think the collection was inclusive because I didn’t offer plus sizes. I mean, plus sizing has been something I’ve been working on for some time, but it’s not as easy as adding a couple more inches at the waist and bust on the existing pattern and calling it a day. That would be like grading up to women’s sizing based on a children’s dress pattern without taking into account the change in proportions or curves. The fit would just be off. I’m a little crazy about fit, and when I do this, I really want to get it right. It’s been a time consuming process working with new patterns and fabrics, and it will happen! But it’s just going to take some time because I’m a small business.
Q: What goals do you have for your business going forward?
A: I’m dying to bring out new designs! My studio was recently hit with a roofing catastrophe that took out 90% of the inventory, and I’ve been working just to get the core collection back in stock to fulfill these wait list requests! But that means I’ve had to backburner all the new stuff I’m super excited about. But it’s ok, it’s a minor setback. I’m really looking forward to next spring for new dresses! Honestly, I’m just happy to be able to make a living doing what I love!
Q: What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
A: My biggest advice is just, go for it! There’s a lot of seeming red tape that will deter people from actually getting started, but the best thing you can do is just to do it. Once you’re in, you will find solutions for the problems that arise because at that point, you’re already committed. Minds will change, things don’t have to be perfect in the planning phase but the most important thing is just to actualize these plans and take the first step forward. And that leads me to the 2nd piece of advice, which is, don’t give up when it gets hard. Because, fuck. It will be hard. I think the most important attribute for succeeding in life is tenacity. There have been a lot walls I’ve hit along the way, a lot of mistakes (some more catastrophic than others!), and some days when I’ve felt like a complete failure and wanted to quit and/or burn down all the dresses in the studio. But if you really want it, you just have to keep trying, keep learning, and keep getting better.
Q: Lastly, let’s spread the love. What are a few of your favorite small shops owned by women that you personally shop from?
A: Hmm…I’m a recovering shopping addict so I really have to think about this one. I LOVE everything from Small Wild Shop, and my life goal is to finally be able to snag a critter before everything sells out in like 2 mins. I also love Unurth Ceramics by Jennifer, she creates these wonderful dishes and trinket trays in wispy, flowing watercolor palettes that are just gorgeous. There’s a bunch, I know this because I can’t walk a craft fair or pop-up market without going crazy and spending a month’s rent on things I *need* like stationary or local honey or handloom blankets. But these two are my faves that I can think of off the top of my head!
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