Female Disruptors: “Never give up”, with Brenda K. Swauger
Consistency is key — I try to be consistent with everything I do in life. Whether it’s creating my weekly business plan on Sundays so I’m prepared for the week, or even posting daily social media to maintain my online connections. I recently took a break over the holidays posting on social media, and a friend reached out to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes, you just need a break!
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenda K. Swauger. Brenda K. Swauger is the owner and founder of BKS Custom Clothiers, Chicago’s premier female-owned custom clothier and made-to-measure design company. With more than 25 years in the luxury fashion industry, Brenda uses her design expertise and a keen eye for style to create custom wardrobes that allow executives to enter each room with confidence, looking their best. Throughout her years in the luxury fashion industry, Brenda has established lasting relationships with some of the most noted and respected fabric mills and tailors in the United States and around the world, and in doing such, she is able to offer some of the most prestigious fabrics and designs to her clients. In addition to owning and designing her own custom label, Brenda has experience working with some of the most noted luxury brands in the world including Louis Vuitton, Paul Stuart, and COACH, to name a few. Brenda has taught Fashion Business courses at Columbia College Chicago and the International Academy of Design & Technology in Chicago. Brenda is a graduate of DePaul University studying entrepreneurship and has formal training from the Custom Tailors and Designers Association in the craft of design, styling, measuring and more.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a young girl, I played with my mother’s clothes and jewelry and dressed up my dolls all the time. I guess you could say I’ve had a passion for fashion from the start. When I was 15, and old enough to work, I got a part-time job during the holidays as a gift wrapper for a luxury family-owned women’s boutique in Louisville, KY. I then went to college at the University of Louisville and worked in the retail industry in sales before I was promoted to management. With a desire to move to Chicago, I transferred to DePaul University where I finished my degree in Entrepreneurship and continued my career in luxury retail.
I knew I wanted more though. I strived to have my own brand one day, just as I dreamed about as a little girl. Before long, a friend introduced me to another custom clothing business based in Los Angeles, and I worked for them as an independent contractor for over a year. During my time with that company, I learned so much about the industry, and how to measure, style, and run a business. I attended workshops with the Custom Tailors Association to acquire more skills regarding custom tailoring too.
After working with that company for a year, they went out of business. That’s when I decided to take a leap of faith. I went into business for myself and created my personal brand, BKS Custom Clothiers. Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked for other companies like COACH, Louis Vuitton, and Paul Stuart, while I continued growing BKS. However, several years ago I made the decision to commit 100% to my business solely and it was truly the best decision I ever made.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
For generations, the custom clothing sector has largely been male-dominated. The tailors and fabric companies are selective with the designers they work with and, as an independent woman-owned business, I’m proud to say I have spent years fostering relationships in this “old world” industry and am able to provide garments made of the highest quality and design to my clients. I am working to elevate my business and modernize how people look at custom suiting through my commitment to creating beautifully tailored power suits, for not only men but also women. I’m helping empower my clients by building their confidence through what they wear every day and making custom clothing attainable. Offering custom suits and other custom-tailored clothing for women is a space that not many companies are willing to invest in because the percentage of women’s business is much lower than men but BKS is proudly making that investment!
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My biggest mentors have always been my parents. My father still continues to be one. Before my father retired, he was a successful businessman in the banking industry. Whenever I need advice or direction with my business, I call him. Over 10 years ago, when the retail industry and brick and mortar stores were thriving, I was considering opening a retail storefront. I called my father, and he was incredibly supportive, even offering to help fund my adventure. After careful thought, I decided not to because my business model really didn’t call for it and it was simply too much of a risk. My mother was my personal mentor and I always took her advice to heart. One of the values she instilled in me was her perseverance and determination to conquer whatever obstacles came her way. For my mother, she fought very hard later in life when she was sick. She never gave up, never complained, just forged forward and dealt with her illness with grace and grit.
For me, as an entrepreneur, there are times that can be very challenging. However, after over 20 years in business, I’ve taken those on those challenges and turned them into opportunities. Even in the late 1990s, when the economy was on a downturn and affected my business dramatically, I didn’t give up. I lost many clients, but instead of closing my business I came up with a plan to gain more clients and prevailed.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Never give up — the retail business can be up or down, depending on the season. It’s just the nature of it. During the slower months, it could be easy to give up, but instead, I work even harder and take advantage of the downtime. I reassess my goals, set new ones, get creative, do research, learn, and read whatever can help my business grow.
2. Consistency is key — I try to be consistent with everything I do in life. Whether it’s creating my weekly business plan on Sundays so I’m prepared for the week, or even posting daily social media to maintain my online connections. I recently took a break over the holidays posting on social media, and a friend reached out to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes, you just need a break!
3. Integrity is imperative — Without integrity, you can’t run a successful business. My clients rely on me to give them sound advice, which ultimately is such an important part of how they look and feel, so I’m always honest and direct whether they’re picking out new fabric patterns, colors, or designs.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m going to shake things up by continuing to offer and expand my women’s suit & shirt collection even though most companies steer away from it. Female executives will be able to create beautifully tailored garments that fit them, and with many design choices, they’ll have the confidence to walk into any boardroom and close a deal!
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
The book “Fear is My Homeboy” by Judi Holler has had a real impact on me. It’s a new book that was just released this year. Judi is a Chicago native and former standup comedian at Second City and is now an author and motivational speaker. She’s bold, super cool and supports women! What Judi speaks to in her book is shutting down self-doubt, facing our fears and taking action! After reading her book in one weekend, I did just that! Networking can be difficult for me. Not necessarily when I’m there, but getting there. We can find so many excuses not to do something we don’t like, even when we know it’s important. BUT I always know it’s important to the growth of my business and I’m committed to doing more of it in 2020. So instead of finding more excuses, I make an effort to attend social and networking events. In fact, I’ve enjoyed myself and met so many terrific people this year from networking. Thanks to Judi I’ll continue facing my fears and just go for it in the coming year!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to inspire people to take better care of their bodies by eating healthier, moving more, and finding ways to create peace and happiness in their lives. Our lives can be so chaotic and busy and there’s nothing more important than taking care of ourselves and our bodies. There are many studies that show that eating healthy, and a plant-based diet, can actually reverse disease. I know from my own experience that when I eat healthier, work out, and practice yoga and gratitude, I feel great. Also, I would like to see people consider cutting back on eating animal products, even just one to two days a week. There’s research that shows we don’t need animal protein to thrive and it’s so much better for our earth when we don’t consume it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Gratitude can change everything. Being grateful can change our outlook on almost any situation. Having a gratitude journal or notebook is a wonderful way to practice it. Or you can write down a few things you are grateful on your phone each morning to start your day on a positive note.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- Instagram: bks_customclothiers & bks_women
- Facebook: BKS Custom Clothiers
- Twitter: Brenda Swauger
- LinkedIn: Brenda Swauger
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!