Your mom, Renee, was a designer and tailor who made custom luxury shirts. Is that where you got your inspiration from?
My mom started her business when I was in high school. She has always been a very chic woman who knew how to dress. While others wore the classic “mom” getup, my mother would pick me up from school in leather pants. She and my father traveled quite a bit and I think that’s where she got a lot of her fashion inspiration. She also liked to sew. She had a little nook in our laundry room that was set up with her sewing machine and she would play around with different patterns. It wasn’t a business or anything like that; it was more of a hobby.
That all changed when my parents got divorced and my mom had to get a job. During this time, she had been playing around with a pattern for a wrap shirt and she wore this shirt to her hairstylist. Her stylist and other women at the salon immediately wanted that shirt. That was when the lightbulb went off in her mind and she realized that she could make a business out of this.
That’s amazing. How did she get the business rolling?
She started taking a class at a patternmaking school in Seattle and got really into it. She decided to open a little studio next door to this school and that’s where the roots of the business were sown.
At around this time, my mom developed a partnership with a woman named Rosa. She was an Italian shirtmaker from New York who had recently moved to the Seattle area. She found my mom in the yellow pages (remember those days?) and showed up at her studio. She was instrumental in the development of the shirt design and helped to create the modern and streamlined look that we sell today.
How did you get involved in the business?
I worked at Amazon for several years, but it wasn’t a particularly fulfilling job. I was inspired by my mom and thought I could help modernize her business: create a website, help with the bookkeeping, do some sales… And that’s exactly what I did. I had to wear many hats and learn a little of everything. How to make basic patterns, how to cut shirts, how to wait on customers. I also did all the bookkeeping and all the marketing. It was a grueling job. I ended up working for her for about 8 years.
When did you come up with the concept for Sarah Alexandra?
At this point we had a physical retail store at the Four Seasons Hotel. We found that the client base for custom shirts was very limited. Her customers loved the shirts, but we had a hard time scaling the business. So, we started playing with the idea of doing a line of ready-to-wear shirts and moving towards ecommerce. However, it was clear that if we moved in that direction, it was going to be my baby and not my mother’s. Creating an ecommerce RTW business is a totally different animal from her custom business and frankly it wasn’t something that my mother was interested in.
Tell us about the early days of Sarah Alexandra.
I started by looking for fabric and factories. I already knew the mills that I wanted to work with since they were the ones that had worked with my mom. We officially launched in the summer of 2016, kicking off with a pop-up in Bellevue for three months. Being able to physically showcase the product so that customers could see the incredible fit and the luxurious fabric was so much easier than trying to convey all of that through a screen. Once the pop up was over, we went exclusively digital and that’s when I realized how challenging the digital world is.
We ended up finding some wholesale channels which were great for us in terms of our growth and developing brand awareness. We continued our digital / wholesale combination, and I was really happy with our sales trajectory and how quickly we were growing.
And then COVID.
Yes. We had all this great momentum that came to a stop when the pandemic hit. Despite the challenges COVID has presented, it gave me the opportunity to slow down and take stock. I have three kids and a husband, the lockdown really forced me to rethink my work/life balance and prioritize family. So, it wasn’t all bad!
What was the biggest challenge going from custom to ready to wear?
Hands down the fit. I wasn’t comfortable with the traditional way of grading and marking. I partnered with a fit specialist who was a total expert and worked with her to make sure our fit was on point. Once we finished developing our final pattern, we found 16 women of different ages and body shapes to try on our shirts. That’s how we finalized the perfect fit. Then it was all about figuring out factories.
Tell us about your production process.
All of our fabric is made in Italy. Originally, our manufacturing was done in Canada at a factory right outside of Toronto. However, during COVID, they told me that between social distancing rules and stringent quarantine measures, it wasn’t going to be possible to do my production anymore. I was back to square one. I reached out to all my fabric suppliers and reps to see if they could help me. Exactly a month later, I found a small factory outside Florence, Italy and partnered with them. I couldn’t be happier. Their attention to detail is truly astonishing and takes my shirts to a whole different level.