So Sew English: Building Community By Servicing Unmet Needs
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This is the week when the corporate retail world would normally be gathering en masse in New York City, to either drink a toast to a successful year or to drown its collective sorrows after a lousy one. But there wasn’t anything normal about 2020, and the entire retail ecosystem – consumers, retailers, manufacturers, and everyone in between – has struggled with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it created. Perhaps no retail vertical has been hit quite as hard as the fashion industry. Some famous names have fallen victim to hard times: Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Stein Mart, Le Tote, Ascena Group (including Ann Taylor, Justice, Lou & Grey and Lane Bryant), Arcadia Group, Debenhams, JC Penney, J. Crew, Forever 21, and Neiman Marcus, to name a few, have all either filed for bankruptcy protection or have closed their doors.
Despite all of that, people still want to look good in the clothes they wear. Quietly, without a lot of fanfare, a DIY movement has been building up in fashion for people who aren’t satisfied with the off-the-rack choices of the chain store fashion retailers and can’t afford tailor-made clothing. A few entrepreneurs have discovered the space between commodity fashion and luxury, and have created brands that enable consumers to do their own thing –with the support of thousands of other people who want the same blend of quality, style, uniqueness, and (perhaps most of all) a perfectly fitting wardrobe.
One such entrepreneur is Amanda Carita, the founder and owner of So Sew English Fabrics, a company that offers “high quality fabrics at affordable prices”. But that website tagline doesn’t begin to tell the real story of “SSE”; what Amanda and her team are really all about is developing a community of people who like to sew and want their clothing to both look good and fit great (and they often want those things on a budget that won’t break the bank).
I had a chance to speak with Amanda last week about So Sew English and the unique value proposition that the company offers to its growing community. I explained my interest in highlighting the SSE story and asked her about the company’s mission. “Here’s the thing – have I got you sewing yet?”, she asked, “the job’s not done until we’ve got everybody sewing!”
Amanda started the business a little over four years ago. She explained, “I had never thought much about it, but I come from a background in textiles. My great grandmother was a weaver. My great uncle wove silk pictures for a company in Coventry in the UK, my mom worked for one of the leading manufacturers in man-made textiles, and my great aunt used to have a haberdashery store in Leicester, where she sold buttons and needles and threads and laces and everything!”
So, fabrics and sewing were in Amanda’s DNA, “but I on the other hand worked in casinos for many years and traveled around the world. I ended up in California, and I was a single mom with two children, and as a way of paying for Christmas, I would make blankets, and knit scarves and hats, and people would approach me and offer to pay me to make scarves for them. I realized that I could sew scarves faster than I could knit scarves, but I found it very difficult to find fabric. I went up to Los Angeles to the garment district but realized that they didn’t have exactly what I needed. So, I moved into custom printing and custom producing my own fabric.”
So it was that So Sew English was born out of Amanda’s need to find quality fabrics for her own projects, “at a price that a single mother could afford.” Amanda explained that if a fabric costs $25/yard and the rule of thumb is to sell an item a 3X cost, “you really can’t sell too many things at $75 and have a lot of people wanting to purchase from you. To be competitive, I had to get my prices down! That’s really why I started SSE, to bring quality fabrics to people at a good cost with compromising on quality.”
The entrepreneur said that SSE isn’t something that an investor “who really doesn’t care” would put money behind. “I am my own customer”, Amanda explained. As a result, about 50% of the fabrics sold by SSE are custom-produced. Amanda works with the artists and the textile companies, and “I go to them with inspirations.” SSE also buys overstock and closeouts, but according to the entrepreneur, “my favorite fabrics are the ones that we take all the way from concept to production.”
All that really remained was to find a demand for her creations. “Here’s a funny story for you”, said Amanda. “I really wanted to do a sugar skulls fabric <Ed. Note: look it up!>. I saw a lot of great fabrics, but they were all cotton woven. You can’t make leggings out of cotton woven – you need knit fabric. So, I went to one of our suppliers; they produced artwork and I approved it, but they demanded a minimum order quantity – 1500 yards!” This was a “bet the business” proposition, but Amanda made a 50% down payment. “I was over the moon that I had done this, but still really nervous”, she explained. But a month after she received the product she went back to the showroom, and saw that the supplier had produced another 1500 yards of the same design, on the assumption that since she was so confident that they should get in on it too. “I ended up buying the other 1500 yards”, she explained. “It took awhile, but I sold through it – and then I ordered more.”
The rest (as they say) is history. The SSE team developed a value offering that is all about affordable quality, exclusive designs, and community support. But, as one SSE customer explained to me, “it’s really about empowerment. Women often have to make compromises when they buy off-the-rack clothes; things don’t ‘quite’ fit – they’re too tight or too loose, or the colors aren’t right. What SSE does is make it possible for me to have what I really want without having to compromise.”
The company has learned to use easily available commercial technology to extend its reach. Most business is driven through its Facebook and Instagram channels, which in turn direct members to the company’s website (built on Shopify). Orders are all fulfilled from SSE’s Southern California warehouse, which employs about 18 people.
Here are some fun facts about SSE and the community it has created:
- The SSE Facebook group has 66,700 members and counting. It also has an Instagram following of 19,800 and 6,660 subscribers to its YouTube Channel.
- Members are encouraged to share photos of their “makes,” ask questions to the other members about the uses or feel of a certain fabric, and to help inspire others.
- The SSE website not only offers yardage for sale, but also coordinated bundles. These are packages of two different coordinating fabrics (generally enough for most projects) and are prepackaged and ready to ship immediately. They generally feature fabrics that are new or up and coming to the shop and are of a limited quantity.
- At the end of every month, there is a Bundle Chicken event on the Facebook page. This is where Bundles are discounted 20% one day, 30% the next, then 40%, etc. The “chicken” aspect is that the customer knows the discount will be deeper the next day, but Bundles are limited and may not be there if they wait.
- Every Thursday at 6pm PST, new yardage is offered via the website, along with a post on the Facebook page at 6pm that will link customers to the new yardage available. This is preceded in the morning by a Stocking Sneak Peek, where photos are posted of the yardage that will be added that evening. Because some yardage is limited, many members set alarms to purchase right at 6 PM.
- Some of the fabrics sold at SSE are exclusives. The most famous one, arguably, is called Blush Lilly.
- Recently SSE began offering PDF patterns, and they are already incredibly popular. One of the most popular aspects of the patterns is inclusive sizing, e.g., youth patterns that go up to 20 (compared to the typical 14); women’s patterns go up to a 10 XL.
- Before releasing a new pattern, SSE sends it to a group of testers. Each tester assigned a specific size and option of the pattern to make (using SSE fabrics) and asked to give feedback and take photos. Once the pattern is released, SSE uses the tester photos to promote the pattern.
- There is a separate Sew-A-Long group on Facebook. These groups walk members step-by-step through making a new pattern that has been released by SSE.
The So Sew English story is really important in this age of rapid commoditization and fewer choices in big retail. Explained Amanda, “I wanted to make sure that I knew my clients, I listened to my clients, and most importantly, I educated my clients. If I focused on education and not on sales, I would make the sales without hard selling. So right from the beginning the focus has been on educating and helping, rather than sales, sales, sales.” This is really the kernel of wisdom from the SSE story to think about. To successfully compete against low-cost disposable fashion on one side and high-end fashion on the other, smaller players need to work in the “crease” that exists between those two value propositions by offering something special.
And ultimately that’s as much about community as it is about price and quality. Amanda Carita and So Sew English have figured out how to make all three possible, and make the experience fun, liberating, and a source of personal pride that comes from creating “Me Made” fashion.