Athelia Woolley | Fortunate Frustrations

Athelia ‘CK' Woolley, the co-founder of Shabby Apple, studied dance, art history and neuroscience and worked as a counselor and in human rights before launching into her fashion career.  She still listens to neuroscience lectures in her car and can never pass up a chance to go to an art museum. 

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Splat.  I looked up at a laughing audience and a stunned dance partner.  Falling in the middle of a performance?  I could get over it.  But dancing through my senior project with a hurt leg?  How?

“Work with what you have; utilize your limitations,” Professor Moses told me.  “Yeech! Trite advice.”  But, now that I couldn’t jump, I decided to do the entire piece with a part of my body connected to the wall.  The dance remains my favorite.

Fortunate frustration.

In high school, I put in writing that I wanted to be a fashion designer; unfortunately, I couldn’t sew.  I tried.  Once I designed and sewed costumes for my high school dance concert.  To the chagrin of one dancer …and the delight of the boys in the audience…her costume fell apart mid-performance!  That, I thought, ended my fashion career.

Frustration.

Sewing machine

Source:  istockphoto

Work with what you have:  Three years ago, I had finished graduate school, but health problems forced me to return home to live with my parents in Salt Lake City.  I had studied women’s rights and international development, but I couldn’t find a relevant project in Utah… Frustration.  Nor could I work for long hours at a time.  This limitation forced me to focus and work efficiently.

 Fortunate.

My friend, Emily McCormick, had her own set of frustrations.  With a new baby, she no longer wanted to pursue a full-time career in marketing, but still wanted to keep a hand in marketing.  As we brainstormed possibilities, reminiscing about how we enjoyed dressing our high school friends in cute clothes, we decided to start a line of clothing line, focusing on dresses.

Tuxedo dress

The “Tuxedo” dress from our first line is made of a simple blue cotton poplin.  We kept the design simple, adding a ruffle down the front. 

Utilize your limitations:  Because we had limited experience, we did research and lots of it (our two favorite books were McGraw-Hill Guide to Starting Your Own Business and The Fashion Designer), but there was still so much we didn't know.  Like industry jargon.  I remember listening carefully to what store owners said at retail shows, but one factory owner later asked me where I had received my training because my “phrasing was so unique!”.

Our limited experience also meant we didn’t understand all of the fashion business protocol; this actually worked to our advantage.  For example, we didn't know we were supposed to hire an expensive wholesaler to represent us to buyers, a task that most wholesalers do not do well, causing many companies to fail.  And because we knew we bought our own clothes on-line, we simply bypassed the wholesalers, and opening a dot.com store.

Nine to Five dress

“9 to 5”, also from our first line, is made from a simple green jersey blend.  We added some ruching at the sleeves and a bow at the neck and kept the rest simple.

Another limitation that accrued to our benefit was the lack of funds.  As a small under-capitalized start-up, the one manufacturer who would help us gave us only two fabric choices: cotton poplin and poly/spandex jersey.  Because each seam, pleat, button or pin tuck in a dress cost extra money to produce, and we didn't have money, out of necessity, we kept our designs simple, making the design process easier, faster and better.

We experienced many ‘blips’ in manufacturing before we perfected our process.  One such blip involved Emily and me personally ripping off the buttons of 500 incorrectly sewn dresses.  And a manufacturer who ‘changed its mind’ about producing dresses two days before it was supposed to ship hundreds of dresses we’d pre-sold.  Not all frustrations are fortunate.

Anchors Away dress
This is our “Anchors Away” dress.  The first batch came with ALL of the buttons sewn to one side.  We had to have every dress remade.

As for limitations around design, whereas Emily and I agreed easily, convincing the manufacturers we really did want our dresses to have sleeves, higher necklines and hemlines at least to the knee, was not easy.   As frustrating as this was, it helped us define our brand and eventually get more publicity for Shabby Apple.

Since starting our business, we've learned that many women cast about for the right accessories, so we added a line of jewelry, shoes, and bags and combined them into “vignettes” or outfits that can be bought together.

 We've also learned that, like us, many women struggle to find a dress that flatters their figure.  Thus came our “fit to flatter” section.  After taking a quiz, the site tells you your body type and then tells you which pieces will look best.

Athletic body type

Everyone has frustrations in life.  Some frustrations and limitations can’t be overcome.  I still can’t work regular hours and Emily is soon to be the mother of three.  Even with these constraints, and quite possibly because of them, Emily and I have been fortunate to do something that we both love.

Shabby Apple

Above is a ‘sneak peak' at our Fall 2009 collection.  We've gotten more complicated in our designs since the first line.  This one has pockets, a side zipper, sash and is made from a thick canvas material.

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For those of you that are trying to work out what your dream is, what have been some of life's greatest frustrations?  In dealing with your constraints, is it possible that you have cultivated your greatest strengths?

For more on clothing as a metaphor for ‘daring to dream', you may enjoy:

  1. Is Your Dream Off-the-Rack? Or Tailor-Made?
  2. TLC’s “What Not to Wear”: A Hero’s Journey
  3. What We Can Learn From TLC’s “I’ve Got Nothing to Wear”

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