Apiece Apart is a women’s clothing line started by two friends, Starr Hout & Laura Cramer, who were inspired by the idea of a simplified wardrobe - essentially a “go bag” – for everyday life. Over the past few years the brand has really taken off, and I met them for a conversation at their downtown office above the Apiece Apart pop-up store on Broome St.
When I arrived at their space, I walked into a studio full of inspiration boards, swatches of new fabrics, drawings of their latest collection and plenty of fresh flowers. Although the space was humming with activity, when we sat down Starr and Laura exuded a calm centeredness, and I suspect this plays a big role in their success. As partners, they have an easy way with each other and a nice harmony in the way they tell their story.
And their story is nothing short of a hero’s journey. From explosive beginnings on the side of a road in Texas, through launching the business in a recession, to finding the perfect financing partner, theirs has all the makings of a true Bootstraps adventure. We discussed everything, and through the course our talk they revealed all sorts of insights about starting from scratch, the importance of having supportive family and friends, grassroots marketing v. traditional PR, and scaling up once you’ve established your brand. It’s a tale that will leave you inspired by their efforts and creativity.
And one discovery I personally enjoyed was that my mission for By The Bootstraps is similar to the reason they decided to start documenting the women wearing their clothing in their content series: Those that have been fortunate enough to cultivate a modern life while pursuing their creative passions should impart the wisdom from their journeys on the next generation.
Scroll down, aspiring bootstrapper, and discover how these intrepid women made their mark on the fashion industry on their own terms!
Photo courtesy of Apiece Apart
Starting at the beginning… How did you guys meet? Did you have a similar vision?
SH: We met in this computer programing course at ITP, which is basically MIT meets NYU. We met in a computer programming class for graduate students but we had talked ourselves in as undergraduates…
That enough is a bond!
LC: Yes. It also says something about our inter-disciplinary interests. At the beginning of the class they asked everyone why they were there. We were the only women and Starr went first and said, “I’m interested in melding art and technology together” and I was like, “Damn, she just stole my bit.” (Laughs)
SH: Well yes, but we also had different lives. We were studying and had our own worlds up until the week after September 11th when we ran into one another on the street and realized how much our circles of friends overlapped. Then we really clicked… at this moment where things were going well but also everything is falling apart.
Disaster does that to you.
LC: It was scary taking the subway and not knowing what was happening but we were in this circle of people that were just like “live baby live” and it all came together.
That was fifteen years ago. Then we started a clothing line, just for our pleasure. I was in Austin sewing these dresses very poorly at my kitchen table but people were saying, “There’s something here,” and that same thing was happening to Starr with her project.
That was 2003 but we didn’t really start until 2008. We were both celebrating our 30th birthdays and we decided to go out to West Texas, to Marfa. The next day we got into my car. I had this old Mercedes and the engine was just smoking and smoking and what was meant to be an 8-hour journey turned into 16 hours. In that amazing landscape, the two of us, our boyfriends at the time and my dog Lola were all together...
SH: And we were ripe for inspiration and letting things in.
LC: We had this spark of an idea – a bag that you could pack and go anywhere that had all of your key pieces in it.
And then being in Marfa, seeing these Judd pieces and being so off the grid, that really inspired us. I think that ‘off the grid’ idea and doing things on your own terms really appealed to us. It’s also kind of how we put the company together, without too many outsiders.
We weren’t too sure how to break into fashion but things just started rolling from there. There was interest in the pieces, we had our collection and then we got our first Vogue write-up.
How did you guys decide to go from your day jobs to this? At one point did you feel like you could fully commit to it?
LC: We would’ve committed heartily at that point but still had to work. I was in Austin and would come up for six week stretches to stay where they (Starr and her husband Tim) live, in a closet basically.
There are a lot of closets in these Bootstrap stories!
LC: (Laughs) It was a long slog. We had all this success but had someone told me how hard it would’ve been early on, I’m not sure I would’ve stayed with it.
SH: We were financing the whole thing and it was really scary. We borrowed money from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
LC: Our first round was the “friends and family” funding round.
Did you guys think of getting investors or was it all credit cards and family?
LC: Both of us were always thinking we needed a backer. But we didn’t really have any business doing what we were doing and didn’t have that infrastructure in place yet. That was 2008 and the whole economy had also just crashed.
All the people that might have been interested before that crash had dropped out completely because they had just lost all of their money. Stores were closing and it was just not a good time. In retrospect it was also a great time because what we were really doing was product development but we didn’t know it. We were working really hard and had supporters telling us to keep going but sales were not there.
Also, the more success we had, the harder it was on our personal bank accounts, because you have to invest to make money back. That was a period when every weekend was work and every night was work, up until 2am talking about patterns.
SH: With the growth that was happening, we couldn’t grow without investment. And there was no money available then.
LC: Ethan and I had eloped and I was pregnant and I was looking at our numbers and I was like, we can’t keep going. We could borrow $30,000 here or there but we can’t do this until we have a true financial partner.
It was a philosophical conversation – do you redouble your efforts or pivot and try another path?
So we made the decision to stop what we were doing. And we shifted our focus from the collection and making new pieces to the business plan. We would meet with anyone we could to get answers but no one had all of them.
What we thought would be a six-month business plan turned into a two-year journey.
Then, in December of 2011, we found an investor, an angel, and that was the moment it was back on. We drove down to Philly to meet with him and we were tired, really tired, and I think we decided that if this didn’t work, it would be over.
SH: I don’t even think we ever discussed that. It was just an unspoken thing that we both understood.
LC: Up until that point we had meetings with all of these top people telling us that online sales were never going to happen and our darkest days were ahead (Editor’s note: how you like them now?! J )
SH: We’d had this business plan as well as this pitch that we’d practice for hours. It was so dark. Why can’t we just take normal jobs and be happy like everyone else? But we just couldn’t let this go.
LC: By the time we met our financial partner - who is an amazing partner and a dream come true in every way - we’d been through so much, that aside from having our children and meeting the loves of our lives, our best moment in both of our lives has really been meeting this person who helped us turn our business into what it has become.
SH: Had anyone told us, like Laura said, had we known how hard it would have been, we may not have done this. You will push yourself further than you ever think you will.
LC: Yes. So back to our angel – we went to that Philly meeting and it went well but we’d also been through enough of those meetings where people had been kind to us but weren’t really interested so we weren’t sure what to expect.
We were on the drive back at nine or ten at night from Philly and got the text, “I’m in”. Not some of the way in, all of the way in. We didn’t even have to split up investors across 20 or 30 people like we were anticipating. I was actually pumping breast milk in the backseat when the news came in (laughs).
That’s amazing. After all this hard work, you guys must have been so excited.
LC: We were still living in Austin and Eva (my daughter) was just about to turn one. We were passing through New Jersey when that news came in and there was this, “yes, amazing” moment but also an “everything is about to change” feeling.
SH: One thing we haven’t noted yet is that our better halves, our husbands, have been these amazing supporters. Ethan was our cheerleader and Tim would make us these amazing meals and be this wonderful supportive person.
LC: When we called them to tell them, I think both of them started crying too.
SH: Also, Ethan had to uproot his business from Austin and move to New York to support our dream now.
LC: We had discussed it and thought maybe there is a way we can do both but he made the decision that we were moving and about six months later, we were here.
So now you have financing and a collection to build, what next?
LC: We had forgotten how to design (laughs).
No, not really, but we had learned so much over that break that we joked that this was really Apiece Apart 2.0, evolving from all of our missteps along the way.
Things were going great, we hit our numbers and we had a great season. That was proof to everyone, including our investor that everything was on the right track. That said, we still didn’t have an office and we still were doing everything ourselves.
It was funny, two full years later that we debuted our product again and people didn’t even realize we’d went away.
SH: I had felt like a big failure but people didn’t even know that we’d left which made us feel better. You go straight into the failure, then you feel it and then you’re on the other side. You learn to live with that fear and learn from it.
How did it grow from there?
LC: We had a great season then a bad season right after, ups and downs. All the money was going towards product so there was no office, no team, no infrastructure, just Starr and I working our asses off.
And it was a year from that disastrous season that we came back with another great one, with more of our learning incorporated. And with that great season, we had the benefit of adding our first full time hire, who is still with us.
With both of us being parents at that point (2014), we had to grow the company sustainably for our families, for our selves and for our health. It couldn’t just be the two of us alone anymore.
I was just talking to a woman this morning that was like, how do you do it? And I said the team has so much to do with it.
SH: Both of our moms own their own businesses so I think it’s in our blood; creating a sustainable and warm, yet passionate, hardworking environment that will take care of you because you’re being your best self in it. That is something we know we wanted to do. We are a bit more progressive in the way we do things, we don’t want a stressed out work environment just to have one.
LC: Our moms are such hard working people but they also took care of us. You can do good work and not have to be there 12 hours a day forever; you can get help that believes in the company just as much as you do.
There is a romance to putting your business together and working late nights, but as you have your family and the business develops, at some point you have to delegate. What are the bigger dreams for Apiece Apart? What is your vision?
LC: Both Starr and I want to be at the helm of this business while growing it. The idea has always been there and we’ve always felt so strongly about it. We want it to be a large American clothing brand and we want to expand into menswear and housewares. Our wholesale business is very significant for us at the moment, but we’d like to shift to more direct sales and also grow the e-commerce.
So the pop-up is also a big opportunity, how’s that been?
LC: The pop-up is great because it’s the straight to customer stuff.
SH: Our brand is atmospheric and we can use Instagram and the website to tell that story but now we have an actual space to tell it.
I like that you bring the brand to life on Instagram through more than just product shots. Are there other ways that you guys have found to connect to your consumers without a big media spend?
The biggest story of the past year for us has been launching all of those pieces of content with Apiece Apart stories and building that following. With normal PR, we’d get in the pages of Vogue or the NY Times and nothing would happen.
In the very early days, we used to think that if we were getting coverage in the Times we had to have people waiting by the phone to take orders. But more recently, we’re seeing the real way that people engage.
They’re not looking in a magazine and seeing it and going to buy it. They’re not engaging with the clothes right away when they see them on Instagram necessarily but it’s more like inspiration. If we put a woman in a dress, we get very few hits. But if we show a beautiful corner of someone’s home, that’s when we see people connecting.
With PR and marketing, once we started to say, we’re going to take it grassroots style, who we are and what we actually really like, that’s when we saw it grow. What do we believe in? Once you start talking from the heart and you’re authentic, that’s when people engage with you.
That’s great, thanks so much. Final questions, for the upcoming election, any things you guys would hope for related to the business?
SH: One thing that’s been on my mind lately is thinking how we can all be more sustainable - ways we can all come together to be more green.
We can have an impact just by saying, we care about plastic bags - every business has a voice in those small ways. But then bigger picture, we had a great meeting with Eileen Fisher recently where she wanted to share their secrets of sustainable fabrics and dyes and relationships with their workers. Most companies wouldn’t share their secrets of success but she’s so progressive and really just opening up to everyone everything they’ve learned for the greater good.
LC: Another thing we’ve talked about is access. So often we’ll think, we’re pricing this beyond what people we know could personally afford. There is a cost of things that people have been ignorant of to date. In the past 10 to 15 years especially, clothing prices have been driven so far down and that drives wages down around the world and also has an environmental impact. In an ideal world we’d love to manufacture everything in New York and use only organics but the real cost of doing that makes things unaffordable to most.
There is a reckoning now in the world and people are talking about the cost to the environment of this unsustainable model but I think only people in the position to be able to afford the higher priced items have the luxury of making some of those better choices unfortunately. Until the masses are made a little more equal in income, their impact can be felt in that way as well.
I really love Bernie Sanders – I really love Hillary as well – but I identify with his thoughts on that inequality when it comes to thinking about politics and the business.
What would I like to see happen? Obviously it is more complicated than this but… Firstly, that people start to make more money, relative to the world that we live in. Then, that there is a tax on the types of things that are really hurting the environment more. And then, that there is a credit to companies that are starting to think along green terms to incentive them. We’d need to have a long-term vision to really go full in that direction. Even someone larger like Eileen Fisher, their sustainable line is still just a passion project. It would take everyone involved to make a big change.
Last question, any advice for anyone starting out?
LC: Don’t listen to advice.
SH: Yes, I would agree with that. Also, protect your credit score if you can. That’s something I didn’t pay attention to much when I was younger but when you are business owners, your fiscal profile is monitored so it should look good.