Emily Carlson, founder and CEO of WRITTEN Apparel knew she wanted to be a designer since she was a child. With support from her community and family, she has since built her brand around her staple pencil skirt. And even better, all of her products are made right here in the U.S. PATTERN recently chatted with Emily about how she got started, what it’s like being a designer in the Midwest, and plans of expansion.
Allie Coppedge: How did you decide that pencil skirts were what you wanted to design and sell?
Emily Carlson: It actually came in a roundabout way. I originally started out wanting to design a whole collection. One of the first pieces I designed was a pencil skirt. It was always a piece I had loved because I felt great wearing one. Because of this, I knew that I wanted to have a pencil skirt in every collection I designed. The turning point came through research and interaction with mentors and advisors. I was continuously reading about all the ‘big names’ in fashion and how the commonality they had was that they started with one piece. E.g. Ralph Lauren with the neck tie, Diane Von Furstenberg with the wrap dress, and countless others. So I had been mulling over the idea of just starting as the brand who designs pencil skirts. It wasn’t until I met someone who has now become a mentor that persuaded me that the single product path could actually be a differentiator and was a good idea. From there my vision became very focused and I knew that WRITTEN Apparel would launch as the brand for pencil skirts.
What I love about pencil skirts is that they are a classic for women’s wardrobes. They’ve been around for decades and the silhouette has become iconic. It’s not a trendy piece that will be here today and gone tomorrow…its longevity has been proven. What I saw missing in the market was a brand that focused on elevating the pencil skirt. So many brands offer pencil skirts within their collections, but there’s not a lot of creativity put into the design of them that I see. My mission with WRITTEN Apparel is to become known as the only brand for the best pencil skirt in the market. High quality, innovative design, and statement elements that make it the star of an outfit.
AC: Did you have a lot of support from those around you when you started designing?
EC: Yes, always. My family has always been incredibly supportive of my dream to be a designer. In fact, my parents tell me stories of how I started sketching and designing my own outfits for paper dolls at a very early age. They love that story! I was always heavily involved in all arts (music, pottery, sketching, painting, you name it). Fashion became my art and therefore my catalyst to personal expression.
For the most part I have seen far more support than not with those surrounding me in the community. It’s somewhat of a foreign concept for someone living in Iowa to start a fashion brand and because of that I think many people are simply interested in knowing what the heck I’m up to.
I’ve also gained an incredible amount of support through the entrepreneurial community here. When I first began, I thought as a fashion brand Founder that I perhaps didn’t belong in a community of tech startups and other high growth companies. I quickly learned that not to be the case and realized that the business principles were relatively similar despite the industry of my endeavor. With that support from the community I was encourage to apply to a Startup Accelerator. Over 200 companies worldwide applied and WRITTEN was 1 of 6 accepted this past Fall (and the first fashion company accepted amongst a previously primarily tech focused program. Without that experience to further build my business acumen, I don’t know where I’d be.
It’s somewhat of a foreign concept for someone living in Iowa to start a fashion brand and because of that I think many people are simply interested in knowing what the heck I’m up to.
AC: How did you decide that you didn’t want to get involved with disposable/fast fashion?
EC: I’ve always had an eye for quality and have good taste (I think I got it from my grandmother). There was something in my gut that never sat right within the fast fashion arena. That is to say within the typical fast fashion model. I was never shopping at fast fashion stores and there must have been a reason for that…maybe somewhat inexplicable, but why would I start a brand in fast fashion for other consumers if I myself as a consumer wasn’t drawn to it? Doesn’t make sense.
At any rate, I started doing some research (I like to learn, can you tell?) and watched a documentary called ‘The True Cost’. I recommend to everyone whenever I get the chance to watch it because of how enlightening it is. Many people associate fast fashion with sweat shops. Although that is part of it, there are so many other ripple effects that have a negative impact on cultures and societies all around the globe. Suicide rates amongst farmers, toxicity rates increasing due to landfill capacity, birth defects as a byproduct of chemicals infiltrating natural resources. I’d like to believe that some companies really just are so far disconnected that they aren’t conscious of the effects of their business decisions and partnerships. As the CEO of my own company, I recognize the magnitude of every decision I make and think the market is so focused on cheap that it’s hard for me to think that increasing the bottom line isn’t the only driver despite ethics for so many companies.
AC: How important was it for you to keep your items made in the U.S. versus overseas?
EC: It was important for me for a number of reasons. One, you hear horror stories of overseas manufacturing like those I just mentioned, or startup brands sinking all of their time, money, and resources into an order overseas only to have it completely not right in some capacity (missing deadlines for seasonality, inadequate quality of product, lost orders). That can put you out of business before you even begin.
Perhaps somewhat selfishly, however, I knew that starting in the U.S. was my best bet. Manufacturing in the U.S. has allowed me to develop and produce pencil skirts at far lower minimums while I’m still testing out the product, further validating the business model. On a limited budget, I wouldn’t have been able to develop one on one relationships with my manufacturing partners. It took me a while to vet the right manufacturing partner who could deliver on the quality of product I was unwavering with. I have made 20-hour day trips to Detroit and countless day trips to Chicago, meeting with suppliers and manufacturers. I’ve met with manufacturers in Denver, Colorado, and even flown to Los Angeles and back in a day to meet with manufacturers. None of that would be possible working with a factory overseas.
In working with my manufacturer in New York, I’m able to take a design from concept to production-ready sample in just a few weeks at top notch quality. Manufacturing in the U.S. lets me stay nimble in the product development realm.
AC: On your website you mention how fashion can have this ugly, sometimes brutal, side to it. Have you ever been directly involved in a situation like this?
EC: I read about it all the time and I don’t think it’s a mystery to anyone that the fashion industry has its dark side. I personally haven’t had to deal with anything that I’ve deemed that awful or maybe I have thicker skin than most. Knowing myself and the level of grit and determination I have doesn’t allow me to stop and think about situations I’ve been in that may be deemed brutal, because I don’t let it stop me. Of course I’ve dealt with a great amount of rejection in trying to get the brand out there: you send emails to store owners asking to meet with no response, you call store owners only to get cussed out or told not to call again, you pour your heart and soul into a new design or some really crafty marketing message only to have it fall flat, but you really have to keep going and learn from what works and what doesn’t. Have there been days where that 110th ‘no’ sends me into tears? Yes. But have I considered quitting? No.
The most brutal part that I’ve experienced isn’t limited solely to the fashion industry, but can affect anyone starting a business. The level of time commitment necessary and sacrifice required can really put a strain on you mentally, physically, and emotionally and on the relationships you have. I’m not so sure it gets any easier either.
AC: What is it like being a designer in the Midwest?
EC: I think at times I see it as an advantage and other times as a disadvantage. The disadvantage to me is that for whatever reason, there is a lack of credibility that people associate with designers out of the Midwest. We are perceived as less skilled, less knowledgeable, or less ‘cool’ in general. Designers in the Midwest know this isn’t true, but I definitely think we all have to have a little chip on our shoulder. There is also less resources in the Midwest for those wanting to pursue fashion, or at least a less established fashion industry. This requires a bit more travel to find the appropriate resources, but hey, I always love to travel!
As an advantage, however, growing up in the Midwest and being associated with the Midwest, also leaves many categorizing us as ‘honest’, ‘trustworthy’, or ‘authentic’ and I’m ok with this. It’s true and I think in both my designs and the way I’ve developed my brand, it shines through.
Becoming a designer in the Midwest has also allowed me to fill a role I never would have expected; I’ve become a resource for others wanting to break into fashion not knowing where to turn. I am always getting emails from young girls and guys wanting to know how I’m doing what I’m doing. This has become a motivator for me to pave the path for them so that it doesn’t seem like such a challenge when they decide to achieve their dreams.
I think there are many great outlets for Midwest designers to come together as a community and participate in fashion. You have organizations like FGI, Midwest Fashion Week, and even PATTERN who are all doing amazing things to connect Midwest designers with Midwest designers. This is important.
AC: Was owning your own business something you’ve always wanted to do?
EC: No. I wanted to be a fashion designer. Becoming a business owner came about as a result. Since I didn’t go to a fancy design school, I saw my option to achieve this as starting my own label. I had worked corporate retail management and didn’t want to climb the rungs, I wanted to do it when I wanted to do it. In order start my own label, I either needed a lot of money to pay someone to run the business or I had to learn it myself. I didn’t have a lot of money, so obviously I went for the latter.
AC: What are some cool experiences you’ve had through owning your business?
EC: The coolest experience is being able to get up every day and go to work for myself while working to achieve my dreams. In the process, I’ve learned that this alone is very hard for most people to do or is undesirable, so just the fact that I’ve taken that step is cool.
Other experiences would include just the sheer amount of really cool people I have been fortunate enough to meet, talk to, and learn from. The level of growth I’ve experienced as a person by having to step outside of my comfort zone while navigating the journey of achieving my dreams. So many times I had to do things that were uncomfortable, sent me into a nervous panic, or were flat out things I never imagined I’d do. I could have simply not done them. Instead, I faced them head on and from that I grew, that’s what life’s all about isn’t it?
I’m still waiting for my day of meeting Anna Wintour or Ralph Lauren, that would be cool too, but until then, I’ve had some pretty great experiences.
AC: How important is it to you to have an online presence? Both with selling things through your website as well as social media.
EC: I think it’s important from a consumer reach perspective. I think in this day and age online presence is a necessity. What I like about it is WRITTEN can have a presence, a window, a storefront around the world, without the overhead. Although our business strategy is very much multi-channel, at this point as we continue to grow the brand, online still serves us well for the traditional brick and mortar retail shopper. How many of us hear about something and rush online to check it out first to find out if we even want to go through the hassle of driving to the store…much less trying it on? Online is people’s way of vetting I think. That being said, we have so much more success selling our skirts when we are able to get in front of people via one on one type events, such as trunk shows or pop-up shops. Right now we are looking for boutiques and other avenues to partner and replicate this experience over and over. What we have found is that once women are able to see, touch, and try on a WRITTEN pencil skirt, the skirts sell themselves. Sales are what we need to keep going; you can’t get that tactile experience online…yet.
Our online presence also allows us to educate our customer. So many times we heard ‘I just don’t know how to style my wardrobe.’ We use our website as a way to showcase versatility and show how our pencil skirts can be styled for a variety of lifestyles and personalities within the WRITTEN Woman. It’s our way of merchandising.
Finally, social media has grown into such a powerful connector. Again it has been fundamental for us in creating a message, finding an audience, and amplifying the message through existing audiences. For us it’s also been such an influential networking tool. We just had a Professional Women’s-focused style consultancy out of London reach out and ask to feature WRITTEN in their style boards. We wouldn’t have crossed paths had it not been for social media; now we will get to be in front of an entirely new audience with no monetary expense.
AC: What have you found that the modern woman looks for in a piece of clothing when she’s shopping?
EC: She wants something unique, she wants something comfortable, and she is conscious of cost per wear. If she’s going to spend a little bit extra on something, she wants to be able to wear it more than once in occasion and relative to quality. Most importantly she wants to feel good; that’s unique to each individual, but everyone knows when you look good, you feel good! We design for the modern woman who wants all of these things, but most importantly doesn’t want to blend in. She recognizes she is unique and special, the last thing she wants is to look like everyone else.
AC: Would you ever consider expanding and designing things other than pencil skirts or do you want to stay specialized?
EC: The pencil skirt was our starting place; our foot in the door so to speak. Yes we definitely plan to expand into complementary products, in fact we are in the works of doing this right now. Based on customer feedback we have heard ‘blouses’ and ‘dresses’ so we plan to expand into both in the very near future. Stay tuned in upcoming seasons for the launch of these.