#7 Badass Business Babes*: Rachel Kacenjar

Brianne Huntsman
Aug 9, 2017 · 13 min read

It feels like the media/press recycle the “same old” influential [white cis men] creatives. So, instead of just complaining about this (which I’m super good at!), I decided to begin highlighting some of my favorite creative business babes! (Here, “babe” is used as a gender neutral term.)

I’ve been following Rachel Kacenjar’s work for literally YEARS. Somehow we got to chatting on a Facebook comment thread, and she’s turned into a fabulous internet friend. Rachel is a leader in plus-size fashion, and is the owner and HBIC designer at Re/Dress, a brick and mortar and online destination for fashionistas all over the globe (no, really. The GLOBE.)

1. So, how did you get here? Did you always want to go into fashion?

I graduated from the New School in NYC in 2007, which was directly across the street from Parsons, where a lot of fashion students attended classes. I’d be walking to class, and Parsons students would stop me all of the time and ask me where I got my clothing.

Plus size women would pull me aside in the subway and ask where I found vintage dresses in my size. Keep in mind that 10 years ago, there really wasn’t a lot of fashion forward options for plus-size and fat people. When people asked where I got my clothing, I would literally say, “I got this for $1 in a church basement at a rummage sale in Cleveland.”

M0re than once I had a someone ask to literally buy the dress off my back. So when I came home in 2007 to help take care of a sick family member, and I was going thrifting for therapeutic reasons, I started selling my plus size vintage clothes on the LiveJournal group “Fatshionista,” which had sale day Friday. I would put like, 30 vintage items up, and they would all be gone within an hour. And people were emailing me, offering to pay to get a sneak peek of the items. It was pretty bananas. I thought to myself- “Hey, maybe I could do this for real.”

After that I opened my etsy shop called Cupcake & Cuddlebunny. I moved all my customers from LiveJournal to Etsy and got a lot of new customers too. It was basically the same story as Girlboss, except I’m fat and never got a bunch of angel investors.

It was basically the same story as Girlboss, except I’m fat and never got a bunch of angel investors.

It came to a point where I started being hindered by only having one of a piece. I thought to myself, What if I could design and have more than one of a piece? How can I manufacture stuff?

I started off having my grandmother teach me the basic principles of sewing. She was also plus size, and had been making clothes her whole life. I added pattern making lessons in the mix while I read up on manufacturing practices. I joined a ton of message boards that were full of wholesalers and manufacturers, and I started working for a local project runway contestant and learned what her process for manufacturing clothing was.

2. Woah, that’s amazing. How did that happen?

Deb Malkin owned Re/Dress at the time, and bought me a plus-size dress form and sent it to me it in Ohio. She told me that she wanted more indie designers to sell at her store and gave me full support. It was incredible to have someone being my cheerleader this early in the game. This was 10 years ago now, and I ended up doing a bunch of fashion shows at Re/Dress. After I became better acquainted with the Re/Dress family, Deb asked if I’d be interested in running the Re/Dress website and being the shipping distributor for them. Deb would buy clothes and send them to me, and I would recruit models, shoot them, take inventory, handle all customer service and shipping — it was a great way to learn the business.

Having this position helped me learn what our customers were like and what our brand should really be about. So when Deb went to sell the store, I wanted to put on a bid on it because I knew the business intimately. I also felt like it was so important to maintain a queer/fat presence online and I wanted more than anything to have a physical space that could serve as a “club house” for plus size centered body positivity.

I knew Re/Dress had to be mine.

To do this, I cleaned out my savings account. Deb took it as a down payment, and I though to myself: I’m going to raise $30,000 online to buy this store. And with the backing of my community, that goal was made in 3 weeks. It really showed me how important Re/Dress was to a lot of people.

Deb closed the store in NYC and I ended up re-opening in Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown. It’s more financially sustainable than NYC and it was important to me to bring body positivity and a safe(r) space to the folks in my home town. Just because we’re not a big city doesn’t mean we don’t deserve fabulous resources.

3. Did you ever stop to ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”

No! That’s the secret to my success — I never do that. I see what I want, and I go for it, committing 100%. I more often find myself thinking, “What’s the BEST way to do this?” instead.

Also, the constant positive feedback I get really helps. People thank me for having the store open and thank me for the designs I create that make their wardrobe feel chic & effortless.

We use the store to have plus-size yoga and a body positive talk therapy group, and people are generally so kind, grateful, and amazing. I learn so much from my customers and have found so many new friendships through the store. It really rejuvenates me.

4. So, I don’t know quite how to phrase it, so I’m just going to say it: How do you balance the needs of the business with the diverse needs of the community?

I struggle with this the most, especially when we talk about the overarching needs of the community. My brick & mortar store has a lot of options up to 5X, but a lot of those pieces are samples or liquidated pieces, and most times we can’t get manufacturers to make the sizes we need. Most manufacturers stop at a size 24.

It takes a lot of money to even get to a minimum order that a manufacturer will accept, so a lot of times I’m just too small to afford the actual volume of pieces I’d need to create custom sizes above a size 24, which totally sucks.

I’ve had community members write to me about how disappointed they are about the size options and it honestly breaks my heart. If we can get more than 1 piece in a 5x or a 6x I put that online immediately, but we just don’t get that many things coming through. I literally spend at least 2 hours a week on the phone with different manufacturers trying to work with them to accept my own patterns, buy fabric in larger widths, and work with us to accept our smaller minimums. (For perspective, usually a minimum is 180 pieces, and Re/Dress can usually sell about 48 of a piece that is unique/not super basic.) Pre-orders are not always the answer to this, though sometimes they work out.

It’s hard to balance this aspect of the business. I only have the resources I have, and I have to put put that money behind what sells the most. So what that means is sinking my cash into 300 pairs of black Teggings™ (which go up to a size 6X or higher,) instead of putting money into amazing indie designer gowns, or super sexy pieces that are less practical — but I have to stay in business. Just like anything its all about the choices that will allow the business to not only survive, but grow.

Balancing the needs of the community with business sense is hard. I have to keep the doors open and my employees paid. I want to offer fabulosity, and I do, but for every liquid gold skin tight gown I sell, I sell 68 black flowy tunics. There’s a difference between what people think they’d like to wear and what people actually wear, ya know?

5. Oooo, I love that word “fabulosity.” Let’s talk aesthetics! What do you go for, as a designer?

I used to design really opulent and fun clothing, and now I design more practical, durable clothing. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older and want more comfy styles or I’ve evolved to cater more to what my customer actually buys [laughs]. A few years ago my best seller was a fuchsia ruffle-tastic coat that folks nicknamed my “labia coat,” and now my best seller by far are comfy cotton undershorts that people wear to prevent chub rub.

The things I look for when I’m buying from other designers are durability, timeless chic style, and wearability. If a piece is going to pill right after you wash it or have sweat stains that don’t wash out — I stay away from that.

If you look through all of the items on our website, some of our most popular items are our recycled jersey tunics that wash and wear without fuss. They have a lot of movement and a great cut and flow, and a variety of sizes can wear them. If you’re a mom and a baby spits up on you, you can wash it easily. If you’re traveling, you can pack one to wear with Teggings and they’re not going to wrinkle. If you wear them on the plane, when you get off, you will still look chic and fresh.

When it comes to a dress, I’m usually like, “Let’s see if we can find something that feels like pajamas and has pockets!” I also want a garment to have a special detail — a well placed pleat or zipper, something a little sexy. Never boring, but still well made.

Despite that, we still have a lot of super extravagant, fabulous pieces in the stores that are one-offs. Those are for weddings, big parties, galas — where you’re wanting to go all out for your style.

So I guess I try to do a mix of both things. We can’t keep the doors open if I only have one-offs, but it’s important to have options! Sometimes you want teggings and sometimes you as a plus-size lace bodycon with giant shoulders! I want both things to be available and affordable.

6. Do you offer styling services in store? Or over the phone?

I love styling. I love when a customer says, “Can we be a little more fancy?” or if they’re looking for a themed outfit for a bachelorette party or wedding, I’m so excited. I’m actually really good at helping people over the phone. I started my career out in a costume store rental department, so I’m really creative with this type of thing.

We also offer private appointments if people need a stylist and don’t want to come while the store is busy. I try to fit everyone’s needs as best I can, so we definitely offer anything from a quick phone call to an hour long fitting & individual stylist appointment.

7. Is there anything you wish your customers knew?

As a plus-size retailer, I’m not going to charge more for a 5x than I would for an XL, but our manufacturers do that. So when people complain about price, I hope they’re taking it into consideration that I’m trying to make things as affordable as possible while being equitable.

I also want customers to know that I’m not excluding the larger end of plus because I want to. As I mentioned earlier, I spend so much time working with manufacturers, trying to see if they’ll scale something to a 4X or higher. It would be my dream that we could easily carry up to a 6x and custom order even larger sizes for folks that need them, but I hear so many excuses. Things like, “Our fabric/cutting table isn’t wide enough. Our seamstresses are only trained up to a size 24. We don’t know how to make a pattern for that. Our minimum for custom sizes is 300 pieces, etc”

I know how to make garments and make patterns, and so I will be like, “What if I send you a pattern? Will you do it?

Another thing is that the profit margins on our clothes aren’t what customers think they are. For instance, our cotton bike shorts — a best seller — have just broken even with us this year. I have made 4 different patterns, and had several attempts at making them that were a failure. I’ve put so much time into them, and I pay a small sewing group in LA who manufactures ethically to make them. Quality + ethics barely ever= profit when it comes to the fashion industry.

I take a lot of pride in the fit of our pieces, too. People don’t see the work that goes into making a piece fit really well. When we manufacture a product, we test it across a minimum of 12 points of fit across 3 different sizes. I hope my customers know that I do that to give them the best possible product. I want people to really be able to feel the work that goes into the pieces Re/Dress creates for them! They deserve it!

8. Those are incredibly helpful insights for folks hoping to go on a similar journey, (i.e. me, lol). What other actionable advice do you have for young fashion professionals?

I definitely think that one of the reasons I was successful with Re/Dress right off the bat is because I worked for Re/Dress. If you can get real world experience, that will help immensely when you design or own your own store.

I try to take on 2–3 interns a year, and the interns that I work with consistently tell me that working at Re/Dress is the most important part of their education.

If you can, get internships or apprenticeships. Learn from the mistakes of people who have done this before you. Even if you have a new idea — don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel.

There’s a lot of information out there for you and you can prevent a lot of heartache by paying attention to folks who’ve already been there.

9. What is it like to have a brand that uses “visibly” queer models, and to be open about being queer yourself?

Re/Dress in NYC was very queer, and it’s the same in Ohio. Most of my staff and and a lot of my customers are queer. It’s incredibly important to have that representation, because fat bodies are already “othered,” and being queer (especially if you are gender queer or non-conforming) can push folks farther toward the margin.

It can feel really lonely and scary if you don’t feel safe expressing yourself, and its always been super important to me to have Re/Dress be a space that’s here to help folks feel included and seen.

I’ve been a weird fat kid since my childhood and was always bullied for either my body or my sexuality or a mix of both. I found freedom from that oppression by expressing myself through fashion. It’s really important to me that folks have access to style that makes them feel like they can embody the person they want to be. Even if they only want to be that person for a day or a night or alone in their bedroom. I want them to be able to get that fucking outfit, have it feel perfect, and express themselves based on their authentic feelings. Feeling at home in your body is a BIG DEAL.

We’ve scaled back our masculine styles in the past few years because we didn’t have the customer base for them, but I’d still love to maintain that presence, and I need folks who are fat and queer to know they have space here.

10. So what’s coming up for Re/Dress?

Right now we’re getting ready for a fashion show called Knockout in Portland! The garments for that show just went into production.

Knockout will kick off our fall collection called PRIMARY, which is a chic line of clothing in basic black + primary colors and I’m so excited to see our west coast community next month!

Last year there was a line around the block for the show, and it sold out, and I’d be so psyched to see it sell out again this year. We’ll also be selling our fabulous Teggings products, Pure Magic Leggings, out Most Perfect Tunics & more! [You can get your tickets for Knockout here.]

Want to keep tabs on Re/Dress? Check out their Instagram and Facebook, and shop online here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Bri! A queer fashion designer (currently paying for that calling as a business and marketing professional for HBICs). Insta here, twitter here. If you’re a Creative Business Babe, and would like to be featured, drop me a line!

If you enjoyed this post, please share the shit out of it! Let’s raise the profile of badass business creatives like Rachel.

Brianne Huntsman

Written by

Queer feminist and activist. Designer via @Stanford. Freelance creative & consultant. Here to raise a little hell. www.thehuntswomangroup.com

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