This Female Founder And Clothing Designer Is Using Tech To Bring Both Fashion And Function To Adaptive Clothing
Mondays can be rough—sometimes we need a little motivation to get the week started. Our #MondayMotivation blog series brings you tips and life hacks from Project Entrepreneur Alumnae—female founders who applied to the Project Entrepreneur Venture Competition to attend our two-day PE Intensive and join a nationwide community of hundreds of women entrepreneurs. Get to know more about the PE Community and #beinspired by how these women motivate themselves each Monday to tackle the week ahead.
For people with disabilities, dressing is a struggle and most clothing is both uncomfortable and potentially harmful. PE Intensive 2017 Alumna Stephanie Alves is a fashion insider who came up with a solution—to consider people’s limitations while dressing and make design-driven, easy- on, easy- off jeans with seams and details that would not rub and fabrics that would not chafe.
Stephanie is Founder and CEO of ABL Denim, which makes jeans for adults and children with limited mobility or dexterity and sensory processing issues. We caught up with Stephanie to discuss the inspiration behind her company, her biggest mistakes, and where she sees the adaptive clothing industry heading next.
What inspired you to start your business?
My stepsister became a wheelchair user after a failed back surgery. Shopping for fashionable adaptive clothing yielded only senior clothes. With my background in clothing design, garment construction and lifelong ties to the disability community, I knew enough [about my stepsister’s] needs [and the needs of others] to ask the right questions and get started.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Maintaining sufficient inventory levels is our number one challenge because manufacturing in small quantities is so expensive. When you have enough capital to invest, immediate and future sales become easier to attain.
Our second biggest challenge, as every entrepreneur will tell you, is hiring staff. It’s so hard to find self-motivated people when you’re a small business and staff work remotely.
What changes would you most like to see in your industry, and how are you working to make those changes happen?
After two years of customer discovery and nearly five years in business, I achieved my goal of being one of the few adaptive designers to bring this niche to the forefront of the fashion industry. It’s now a “thing.” Investors no longer look at me like I have 3 heads [when I pitch my concept], and large companies like Target are now getting into it. My styles have even been copied! I assume the fashion industry is testing what is, for them, a nascent market. The new normal of buying online is a natural for people with disabilities because trying on clothing in a fitting room—which is ill-equipped for anyone with mobility issues—can be a discouraging experience.
Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?
When customers ask when we’re going to add more styles and fabrics, or when they contact us to tell us they love their jeans and hadn’t been able to wear jeans for years. It only takes comments like these to make your whole day. In other words, the greatest reward is knowing we satisfied our customer. If we made their life a little easier and made them feel good about themselves, we reached our goal.
Can you provide a few updates on what’s new with your business or what you’ve accomplished since you attended the PE Intensive in April 2017?
In 2018, we were awarded a grant from the Wurwand Foundation, awarded to women entrepreneurs by the founders of Dermalogica. And we’ve pivoted our capital search strategy from investors to an acqui-hire. We are in talks with global corporations in apparel and medical supply/healthcare-related industries.
We have also changed our business model to include more tech in several areas. As per parents’ requests, I made an update to the commonly-used weighted vest for autism-related anxiety. I designed a cute, adjustable denim vest around a pneumatic pressure system that is undetectable, can be worn anytime—not just in therapy—and is operable by an app or a push- button mechanism.
I believe the future of healthcare includes wearables and fashion that incorporates technology. There are new sensing fabrics being developed that I want to incorporate into my designs so I can take helping people to a whole new level.
Can you describe a problem you solved in your business that other early-stage founders face and tell us how you went about solving this problem? How can other early-stage founders repeat your success?
Not looking at the true value of marketing results. When you see that tests don’t pay off, test other avenues and act on the results. I was too afraid to spend enough money to make an impact in our marketing, and I should have sought out more advice earlier. Things worked out organically (thankfully we got some good press coverage after I won a major grant from Chase Bank and Google), but it took a long time.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?
Do not start the business alone. Look for a co-founder before you begin. I’ve twice been through co-founder remorse. Look for a co-founder whose strength is in key areas different than your own right from the start. No matter how much you like each other personally, I would urge that the “engagement” should last a year before the “marriage.”
For more motivation from our PE Alumnae, check out our interview with PE Intensive 2017 Alumna Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, Founder of Project Vive, where she and her team are dedicated to making speech assistive devices available to everyone. We spoke to Mary Elizabeth about the passion that fuels her work, the difficulties she’s overcome as a tech hardware founder, and her advice for female entrepreneurs just getting their companies off the ground.