When health challenges derailed CK’s dreams of being a dancer, she resourcefully pursued another interest, fashion design, which led her to start her own business: the modest dress company Shabby Apple. CK’s vision for her company stems from her belief that fashion can be a powerful tool for emphasizing women’s femininity and even their spirituality, as well as a tool for charitable giving. Recently married at 32, CK reflects on how the process of starting her own company has led to her mature views on marriage.
Do you have a background in fashion design?
When I was a kid I wanted to be in fashion, but I can’t sew at all. I tried sewing briefly, and I’m terrible. I’m horrible. In fact, I am so bad that I remember in high school we had to take either home economics or auto shop. I opted for auto shop because I didn’t want home economics to ruin my GPA. Fashion design was something I really wanted to do–I’ve always loved clothes, and I’ve always known about fabrics and trends–but I just didn’t think it was a possibility. In college, because I love design, I majored in Art History. While there, I took a class called the History of Costume; this was basically a history of fashion. I loved it! That class gave me the confidence to consider doing something in fashion.
While also in college, I took as many dance classes as I possibly could. I really, really wanted to be a professional dancer. After I graduated, I moved to London to study modern dance at a conservatory. But, as is often the case in life, things didn’t work out as I’d hoped! I’d anticipated becoming a strong, first-class dancer as the year progressed. Instead, despite my extra strength-training sessions and joining a gym, I became a first class wimp. Upon returning to the states, I learned that I had a rare health condition that was galvanized by over-exercise. For treatment, I moved to San Francisco, where I also worked for Amnesty International. After a year, I decided to move to New York to study social work. But, again as is often the case in life, things worked out differently than planned! After a year of school, I again had to move back to San Francisco to receive medical treatment. However, I was able to finally complete my degree a year later.
While finishing this degree, I was still nursing my health and found that I didn’t have the bandwidth to be very social or to be very physically active. Bored, I ordered a book from Amazon entitled something like Fashion Design for Dummies. I remember sitting in a café, reading the book cover to cover and deciding that this was much more interesting than my term paper. Upon finishing graduate school, my medical issues forced me to move in with my parents in Salt Lake City. I wanted to continue on with social work but couldn’t work on any sort of predictable schedule. Yet, in a way, this was an unexpected blessing in my life. This actually allowed the room in my life for me to start Shabby Apple. I had a good friend, Emily McCormick, who partnered with me and gave me the courage to actually do it! I started Shabby Apple thinking that it would be an interesting side project and found that I loved it more than any other job I had wanted.
What was your vision for Shabby Apple?
Having been endowed at 23, I had had modesty on my mind for a long-time. Dressing modestly was particularly difficult in the New York summer. In a land of tube tops, short shorts and 95 degree weather, my long-sleeved cardigans seemed both a fashion and a temperature faux pas. I remember a guy I was dating breaking up with me by saying, “Anyone who wears a t-shirt under a sundress doesn’t see the world the same way that I do.” It’s funny but it was also kind of true! It was way too hot in New York during the summer to wear pants. There was 100% humidity. I had no air conditioning. There were no summer dresses or skirts that I could wear that were modest. Finding clothes like that was virtually impossible. All of the summer dresses I owned required that I wear a cardigan over them to keep them modest. In that kind of weather, wearing a sweater was tantamount to suffocation. I started to realize that somebody needed to design dresses that have sleeves and a longer hemline. It was a real need. I remember thinking, “There should be clothing options that make women feel beautiful and allow them to feel spiritual.” (Or maybe that at least allowed their boyfriends to break up with them for a different reason.) That was about three years before I started Shabby Apple.
How did you know how to start a business with virtually no business training?
I think the thing that most worked in my favor was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know! If I had known how difficult it was going to be, I don’t think I would have done it. Starting out, I knew only that I had to sell the dresses for more money than I bought them for. That was pretty much the extent of my business knowledge. What I also knew, however, was how to figure out how to do things I didn’t know how to do. For example, I didn’t know anything about fashion design, so I Googled everything I could about the subject. (Google is magical for many things when starting a business.) I remember one particular weekend when I had just broken up with a boyfriend, and was quite crushed. One of my girlfriends came out from California to visit. We spent the whole weekend watching movies (about breakups) and emailing thousands of factories all over the world. I kept emailing factories even though I had pretty much no idea what I was doing. (I tried to keep this fact hidden.) Because most factories want to work with larger companies like Gap or J. Crew, it took a long time to find a factory that was willing to work with us. I also flew to New York and simply walked around the streets looking for fabric warehouses. I started by asking salespeople in the fabric stores such brilliantly sophisticated questions as, “Where are the other fabric stores?” or “Can I get this online?”
Can you describe the evolution of Shabby Apple?
Shabby Apple has definitely grown organically. My parents lent me space in their house, so I started storing dresses on the second floor. I would literally wake up in the morning in my pajamas and start shipping inventory from the house. Eventually the business grew into my parent’s garage and then into a warehouse. The business itself developed in lurches–at the very beginning it took off much faster than I anticipated. This was good but challenging because we didn’t have the inventory to meet the demand. We also had some problems coming up with the second line which didn’t go as well as the first line had. Since then, though, we’ve almost doubled our revenue every year. Hiring for the company has also been really organic. At first I was shipping packages by myself, and then I had a friend who began helping me. Eventually, we found a full-time shipper. I also did all of the customer service myself and then finally hired a customer service representative. My partner and I initially did about 95% of the design. Recently, we have launched a couple of lines that are created by a guest designer which, I think, gives our clothes a fresh approach. I’ve ended up hiring mostly women for these jobs. This wasn’t intentional. I definitely don’t have anything against hiring men. In fact, we’ve worked with two or three men at Shabby Apple. Having a woman-based company has been fun, though! As women we work together more collaboratively than hierarchically. At company meetings I ask for feedback from everyone; we all come up with ideas and then decide together on the best ideas. It’s definitely not a command and control environment. I think it’s a much more pleasant and effective methodology.
How did you apply your background in social work to Shabby Apple?
When I was first staring out I knew that I wanted my business to be women oriented. I had gone into social work specifically to help women. So I decided to incorporate charitable giving into my business plan. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be ideal to have a company that channels funds into something I believe in?” I figured that the perfect way to do that would be to work with microcredit. For the last few years, we’ve been donating a portion of each sale to a microcredit organization called Unitus that gives women throughout Africa and Asia small loans to start up their own businesses. Five percent of our net profits go towards these women. There is also a place on our website that invites people to donate $5.00 every time they buy a dress. We get a fair amount of money through this that we give to Unitus as well. Currently we’re trying to determine our approach moving forward. What is the best way to help women? As an organization we have to figure out if we want to keep working with microcredit or if we want to do something else to support women. Either way, I believe it will continue to be a strength for our company. Every so-often during our company meetings, we talk about how much we’ve donated and what we’ve done to help certain women. It’s been a motivating experience for everyone.
How do you think fashion be empowering for women?
I think fashion is like music: it can be powerfully uplifting or it can tear one down. Fashion can make one feel beautiful, no matter what a person looks like. If one wears something that is both flattering and respectful, one acts like a respectful person. That’s why people at private schools often have their students wear uniforms. That’s why we dress up for church. You behave differently when you’re dressed better. In college, my Mormon friends and I talked about the idea of radical feminism. It’s a belief that states that women and men are coequal but inherently different. This is what the church teaches. I think clothing can celebrate that inherent femininity, without compromising self-respect. In the work place and in life, if we can’t respect ourselves it’s very hard to demand respect from others. For example, if a woman goes into the workplace wearing a halter top, it doesn’t matter how smart and capable she is, no one is going to associate those qualities with her. That’s too bad. It’s unfortunate that as women, we sometimes sabotage ourselves. We should command respect and attention outside of our sexual appeal. I don’t think celebrating our femininity through fashion and commanding respect for our inner-selves are mutually exclusive. Those things can happen in conjunction when we dress and behave appropriately.
Starting up a business is a somewhat non-traditional pursuit for an LDS woman. Did you feel support from your family and religious community during this process?
Initially, my parents were nervous! I didn’t have any business or fashion design experience, and my personality was not one who would have been voted Entrepreneur of the Year. Out of the 7 children in my family 3 have MBAs. I am not one of them. My parents said, “Of all of our children, you’re the last one we would have ever thought would start a business.” About 6 months in, though, my dad realized that I really liked it, and he couldn’t have been more encouraging. He and my mom even gave me a statue of a ‘flying pig’ to celebrate their surprise at my decision. In general, my dad has always been supportive of women. He consistently stressed the education of women in my home and always made my sisters and me feel that our actions and spirits defined us, not our appearance or dating status.
As for my religious community, I attended a ward for six years in the Bay Area that was really supportive of women pursuing interesting career paths. I had three bishops in that ward, all of whom were extraordinarily supportive as well. Finally, I had mentors in that ward who were doing really interesting things with their lives. I was really lucky! When I was younger and just graduated from high school, however, I didn’t feel that kind of support. Instead of thinking about marriage as a sacred covenant and a new stage in my life, I conceptualized marriage as the ultimate success, like Prince Charming ready to take me to his castle! I’m unsure whether that came specifically from my LDS community or (I’m embarrassed to admit!) all of the romantic comedies I watched as a teenager. Either way, I’m very grateful that I got married later because my view of marriage shifted with age. I learned that I had to live my own life and make my own decisions. I learned that for me, starting a company was part of that process and that marriage wasn’t going to “save” or “rescue” me from anything. I learned that marriage is about finding an equal partner to share my life, not determine its path. I’ve since married someone who is really understanding. I feel like he’ll support me in whatever I choose. I don’t feel pressured into being a successful business woman and I also don’t feel pressure to quit my business. I feel really free. Growing up I bifurcated Mormon women: you’re either a rebellious, overly-educated, bitter old woman or you conform, marry young, have lots of children and are really happy. I’m glad I have since learned that this is a false dichotomy.
I really enjoy my job. Yet, I also firmly believe that as women, we have a divine mandate to procreate and be mothers. There are many complex and interesting conversations about women’s choices within the context of our LDS culture. These conversations can be healthy and I believe will become more frequent as we become more accepting of the differences in women’s life decisions.
Did you ever feel like you were destined to create Shabby Apple?
Philosophically, I don’t know if everything in life happens for a reason. I think that destiny may be involved but I never know to what degree. I believe that most of our life path is determined by personal choice. I read an article in my early twenties about failure that had a huge impact on me. It theorized that that the people who do the best in life are those who take failure and decide that they’re going to find meaning in it. I love this notion because it doesn’t claim that failure ‘happens for a reason’. Rather, as people who fail, we can choose to make these experiences meaningful. It is this choice that matters. I’m so glad I read this because I kept failing! I wanted to dance. I didn’t. I wanted to have a human rights career. I didn’t. I wanted to have a counseling career. I didn’t. However, I remember making a conscious decision that I was going to derive some sort of meaning from these failures. I decided that I wanted to make sure that I made my life better after these failures than it would have been had I never had them. I don’t really know if I’m happier now with my job than I would have been as a dancer. But, I do know that I love my job and that I never would have had it had I kept dancing.
At A Glance
Athelia Woolley LeSueur (CK)
Location: New York, NY
Marital status: Married
Occupation: Fashion Designer, Owner of Shabby Apple
Schools Attended: Stanford University, Laban Center of Dance, Columbia University (BYU for one semester)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “The Spirit of God”
On The Web: www.shabbyapple.com
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Wedding portrait by Joshua Brown. Photos used with permission.