Business Beat - Independent designers strive for success in changing industry

Oct 28, 2015

This piece was produced in conjunction with Missouri Business Alert, a digital newsroom that provides business news from across the state of Missouri.

Charisa Slenker sold her first piece of jewelry when she was 15.

“I saw a little beading kit at Michaels and I decided I’d want to do that,” Slenker said. “So I bought that and I started making earrings and I would take them to school with me and sell them to my friends and teachers.”

In 2009 while studying fashion at Stephens College, she opened an account with the online retailer Etsy, and a few years late she turned that account into an active online jewelry shop called "Charisa" to sell her handmade pieces.

“I really wanted to have one of a kind pieces and so I just started doing wire working and creating initials or words that mean something, I kind of fell into my niche,” Slenker said.

Today, Slenker splits her time between her full-time job as a computer technician for a dental laboratory and running Charisa which she has been devoting more and more time to. She sketches, designs and makes the jewelry, while creating her own logo, branding and packaging.

She utilizes social media to promote her shop and makes sure to share her listings not only on Etsy, but also on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. “Everyday you have to do something, and you have to be creative with your marketing too,” Slenker said. “It’s definitely about guerilla marketing and social networking, just being out there as many places as you can be out there.”

Slenker is one of many young, independent designers who are trying to make it on their own in the fashion industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the apparel manufacturing industry has declined by more than 80 percent over the past two decades. Many people point to the increase in mass retailers like Target, Zara and H&M, which can offer cheap clothes and accessories made by foreign labor.

Monica McMurry, a dean of Stephens College School of Design, said it can be hard for young designers to compete with these massive retailers. “Independent designers or young emerging designers can't really afford those mass economies of scale that come with H&M and other fast fashion kind of outlets,” McMurry said.

Establishing online shops, like Slenker’s Etsy shop, can be a cheaper option for designers who are just starting out. “If you can figure out a way to effectively sell online, you can reach to large audience, and you don't have any overhead,” said Courtney Cothren who teaches fashion marketing at Stephens College. “However that [digital space is] so saturated that it's really difficult to stand out.”

It’s not all bad news for independent designers. Cothren said that more consumers are becoming socially conscious in their shopping and looking for unique items.

“I think that right now in fashion there is a big push towards not buying cheap clothing, because people are finally starting to realize how wasteful it is,” Cothren said. She said that people are starting to realize “maybe when you purchase poor quality clothing, or clothing that is really cheap that’s made in different countries, maybe they are not paying your workers fairly or people making your clothes are not working in a great environment.”

It’s not always easy for consumers to find local boutiques and designers who produce the kind of high quality goods they’re looking for.

Last spring, Ann Marie Brown and Gretchen Gannon founded "BoutiqueNav," a website that helps promote local boutiques and designers. In March, BoutiqueNav launched a mobile app version of its site in St. Louis that helps people find boutiques in their area. Brown said local shops serve their communities in ways big chains can’t.

“It’s better economically when local boutiques and designers stay in business,” Brown said. “They provide jobs and often give back to local philanthropies.” Brown said BoutiqueNav is in the process of expanding the app to Columbia and Springfield among other cities.

Slenker hopes that more people will continue to buy more from local businesses. “It's kind of investment in the community when someone buys locally, so if people are loyal to this kind of business that's helpful,” Slenker said.

Slenker said she wants to dedicate herself full-time to her Charisa by January of next year. Eventually, she wants to sell clothes and home decor in addition to jewelry, turning Charisa into a lifestyle brand.