Bright Ideas: Stitching up success

Aubrie Pagano was faced with a common dilemma. She was invited as her boyfriend’s plus one to his brother’s wedding and she couldn’t find an outfit that measured up.

She was meeting her beau’s 40 closest relatives and she really wanted to look great. Pagano scoured her favorite online retailers and she traveled to all of her go-to shops, from Nordstrom to smaller boutiques in Boston. She even contemplated having a dress custom-made, but spending $1,000 for the event wasn’t in her budget. Nothing fit the bill. So she did something most people probably wouldn’t do, she decided to make the dress herself.

Pagano sketched up her dream dress, went to a New York fabric store, created a pattern and stitched together a masterpiece (with the help of a talented designer friend). The piece took her about 30 hours of work. She was tweaking it up until the week of the wedding in her boyfriend’s parent’s attic in 100-degree heat. The dress was a smashing success. Word spread among the wedding attendees that Pagano had created the dress herself and it was a great conversation starter. She hasn’t worn the dress since and she’s no longer dating the guy, but the experience sparked her bright idea: custom clothing made easy.

Aubrie Pagano

Aubrie Pagano

After all of the attention she received at the wedding Pagano thought to herself, “I can’t be the only woman who’s had this problem.” The idea drove Pagano to move in with her parents, save about $40,000 from her job as an Internal Strategist at Fidelity Investments and eventually quit to start a company she would call Bow & Drape, an online retailer that allows women to make customized clothing and accessories.

An entrepreneurial spirit, Pagano started her first business when she was six years old. She commissioned every kid in the neighborhood to make her a piece of art, which she then sold on the street for a profit.

Pagano attended Harvard to study business and always new she wanted to build something and make a difference.

Fashion was always a passion of the Harvard grad’s, but besides winning some best dressed awards and making a few of her own garments, she never really took it seriously, but her inability to find her perfect dress sparked her curiosity. She wondered, “Why can’t someone spend a couple hundred dollars and get something more tailored to their style?”

Pagano teamed up with a web designer and started a site. She began collecting data from 30,000 would-be customers to find out what styles worked and how many options to give shoppers, but getting people interested was the easy part, finding a manufacturer to make the custom clothing was a whole different story.

Pagano had to find a partner that was equipped to make one-off pieces. Most manufacturers are set up to make hundreds of thousands of garments, with a specialized workforce, meaning one person sews the seams, another sews the pockets and so on.

“Again and again all I heard was, “this is a stupid idea. It’s never going to work; the industry doesn’t work like this,” Pagano said.

She began to wonder if she was making the right choice, “Maybe I should just quit while I’m ahead. Maybe I should invest that money in a condo instead of a business.”

Even after months of searching for a manufacturer, she didn’t give up on her idea. Pagano knew she wanted to make the items in the United States so the turnaround rate would be fast. She combed through New York’s garment district, knocking on doors to see if she could find someone to bring her one-off idea to life.

New York’s garment district was once the mecca of American fashion, but since the 1960’s the area has been bleeding jobs. Even though factories were desperate for orders, making one-size fits one pieces wasn’t the traditional way manufacturers wanted to do business.

Pagano eventually found Sample Studio, a company willing to take a chance on her startup. She was able to come up with a system where materials are hand-cut, hand-sewn and within two weeks of ordering, part of a customer’s wardrobe.

At first Bow & Drape only made dresses, but since they opened less than two years ago, the company has expanded its offerings to tops, pants, sweatshirts and even 3D printed clutches and belts. The startup was even selling trendy customizable pet clothing. To make a piece one of a kind, the customer can change the color, the length, the sleeves and the appliqué.

It is that type of customization that has allowed Bow & Drape to maintain a product return rate of less than six percent. Technology has played a key role in giving customer what they want, because on the site they are able to interact with the final product to ensure it looks the way they want it to.

Bow & Drape is expanding thanks to some big time investors, like Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh. Hsieh has led a round of financing worth more than $1 million dollars, giving Pagano cash to expand and enlist a second manufacturer in Las Vegas.

Pagano’s goal is to change the way women shop, and some big designers have started to mirror her business model, offering options for customization.

“Designers and brands need to find new ways to create value in their clothes and so we think that customization is a way for someone to feel connected to the clothes and provide value that didn’t exist before. It’s one of the only possible paths we think to grow as a brand and stay relevant,” Pagano said.

She relates the customization to Burger King’s “have it your way” campaign, where the fast food chain allows customers to combine the ingredients they want. This trend has become more and more popular in food, with chains like Chipotle and Quiznos.

The model has moved beyond food, even popping up in the toy industry with stores like Build-A-Bear, where you can customize your own fuzzy companion. Pagano thinks the fashion industry will begin to give customers more options too, “what happened in food we think will happen in fashion where really personalization is king and what you say as a customer, goes.” And so far her hunch that women want to have clothes their way seems to be accurate; Bow & Drape has seen 300% revenue growth this year.

The company has plans to expand the social aspects of their site, giving people the option to share their designs and get store credit for items that gain popularity. Bow & Drape is even hoping to one day have a boutique, creating a shopping experience where customers can walk out of the store with their creations the same day they design it.

Oh yeah, and that dress she slaved away on for the wedding didn’t amount to nothing, at least half a dozen of the women at the event have ordered from Bow & Drape.

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