In this installment of SBOC’s new monthly small business feature, we meet Stacy Johnson, 42, founder and chief designer of Stacia, a knitwear line sold in hundreds of boutiques in the U.S. and around the world. Johnson recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about how she launched her company, the challenge of reinventing it, and the aesthetic influence that comes from living—and designing—in Santa Monica, California.
by Susan Caminiti.
SC: What made you decide in 1998 to launch your own company?
SJ: I graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1993 and worked for Calvin Klein and J. Crew, among others, for about five years, but my goal was always to have my own thing. Back then, I was living in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn and I saw that there were a lot of young people living in the neighborhood. The rent was cheap so I found a space that I was able to turn into a store. There was a little back room where I cut the fabric and made all my patterns. I hired some sewers and we were making jackets, pants, and skirts in a bunch of different fabrics and sizes that sold from about $68 to $250. It was a legitimate boutique.
SC: Did the customers know the designer was the woman behind the curtain?
SJ: Sure, they liked the uniqueness of the clothes and they liked being able to chat with me about the styles and the fit. It made it seem more personal. And the feedback was good for me in terms of making changes to the fit of a garment or adding styles.
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SC: Most retailers don’t create all the merchandise they’re selling. How tough was it to do both simultaneously?
SJ: It was tough. The store was open every day except Monday, but I was working seven days a week from about 9 a.m. to around 8 p.m. or so. When I became pregnant with my first child, I started thinking about wanting a different sort of lifestyle. It was a lot of work running a retail store. And it’s not the way most designers start out. Usually you design a line and sell it into other stores. I sort of did it backwards by starting with the retail first and then got into wholesale.
SC: How did you make that next move?
SJ: Well, I lived in Hawaii when I was very young and just loved the idea of being near the water and the beach. We had visited some friends who lived in Santa Monica and always liked it. My husband is a journalist, so even though we wanted a beach lifestyle we needed to be near an airport for his job and Santa Monica seemed like a good place. We moved here in 2004.
SC: What changes did you envision for the business when you moved?
SJ: I contemplated another store but didn’t want that lifestyle again. Instead, I decided to reinvent Stacia as a knitwear line and really focus on the wholesale side the business. The knitwear items in the store in Brooklyn were always my best-selling pieces so I narrowed the scope of the line and created a little niche for myself.
SC: Wholesale and retail are so different. How did you make the transition?
SJ: After we moved here, I took about 6 months to create a few new samples of my knitwear line. I then went to all the showrooms out here, knocking on doors, to get a sales rep to show the line. At the time I had my baby with me so that was a good way to break the ice. The sales rep I have takes the line on the road, showing it to boutiques and at trade shows. We’re now sold in about 150 boutiques in the U.S. and around the world as well as on my website, Shopstacia.com. I signed the contract for my first order in July 2004 and made my first delivery the following April.
SC: Why boutiques and not department stores?
SJ: There’s less risk in dealing with boutiques because the orders can be smaller. Plus my line is delicate knits and they’re not the kind of clothes that like to be on hangers. The boutique owners get that and can have the clothes folded on tables and such.
SC: What makes the line different from others out there?
SJ: I really design it for the Santa Monica lifestyle, which is casual and relaxed. I live 10 blocks from the ocean and that inspires it, too. All my garments are unique. I use a special space-dye technique that produces colorful patterns on each garment. No two are the same. I also use sustainable fabrics: the Eco-Knit collection is made from bamboo, a wonderful fabric that is really soft, takes color well, and is washable.
SJ: There was actually very little risk. In the beginning I was working out of my home office and shipping the clothes out of there, too. Eventually I rented storage space but once the sales started to pick up I knew I needed to get actual warehouse space. I did that in 2006. Now at least I have a place to go and can have my line there as well.
SC: How did the name come about?
SJ: I didn’t want to use my name Stacy but I wanted something derived from it. Stacia just sounded right.
SC: Did the financial downturn affect your business?
SJ: Lots of boutiques went out of business and that forced me to tighten my belt with regard to cash. With the boutiques I sell to now, we only accept credit card payments or C.O.D. I’ve also become more conservative with my production orders. When these boutiques were going out of business we had lots of cancelled orders, which meant that I had boxes of merchandise that I had to sell. It made me more conservative in how I run the company and how much of the line I put into production.
SC: I see you’re back in the retail business again with a store in Santa Monica. How did that come about?
SJ: I wasn’t really looking to get back into retail. It’s a lot of work and I didn’t want that burden again. But one day I was taking my daughter to pre-school and I noticed a space for rent. Every day I passed it and finally one day I stopped in and thought I would try it again. The store opened July 2011 and it really gets me back to my roots and allows me to be in touch with customers again. It also enables me to showcase the entire collection, which is nice. And this time I’m only in the store 4 days a week, not seven.
This interview has been condensed and edited.