Historical costuming is a hobby for many, but Lauren Reeser made it a career when she founded American Duchess and started designing and selling historical footwear so that the rest of us wouldn't have to go barefoot. Running a business takes up a lot of time and attention, but she still manages to sew her own costumes and maintain a tight writing schedule for her historical costuming blog. She even managed to take some time out to talk to us about how she got started costuming, what goes into running a historical footwear company, and what's next in the pipeline.
How did you get into historical costuming?
I think it really started in earnest when I went to my first Renaissance Faire, up at Lake Tahoe, CA. I fell in love with the beautiful gowns the ladies of the court were wearing (I realize now they were boiling in all that velvet!), and I wanted to make one myself. Of course, I had zero sewing experience, didn't know how to read a pattern, certainly didn't know what was correct or horribly awful, in terms of historical accuracy, or even style. We all have to start somewhere, though! I started with a horrid velveteen 'bodice', the kind pulled out of the Halloween costume section of the pattern book. I did a terrible job on it, haha! From there is just spiralled, and I got into making retro dresses to wear to school, and then historical costumes for dances and events where I lived.
Do you have a favorite period?
It's definitely the late 18th century. I just love the clothing, the design, the colors, textiles and the silhouettes from those decades. I have other loves, too, though — I absolutely adore Elizabethan. It was my first love, in fact, and I still get giddy about it. I love the 1930s and 1950s too, and usually will wear a dress of one of those decades when I want to look nice, but not 'costumey'. '30s and '50s are my 'normal clothes', haha.
What did you study in school?
My degree is in Illustration/Animation at San Jose State University. I took quite a lot of Art History and Anthropology classes as well.
How did you wind up starting your company, American Duchess?
I have always been entrepreneurial and always wanted to run my own business. Before American Duchess Company, I was doing freelance illustration, designing giftware figurines. For a short time in 2008 I was vending at Renaissance Faires, selling hand-drawn portraits of patrons, and greeting cards and prints of artwork I'd done. In 2010 I tried a line of T-shirts and re-selling vintage items on Etsy. None of these things did very well.
One night, just before bed, Chris (my partner) was telling me a story about a friend of his who had a rocket toy manufactured in China, and for whatever reason 'shoes' popped into my brain. Over the next couple weeks, I became obsessive about historical shoes: who was currently making them, how much did they cost, what was missing in the market, etc. I started asking my blog followers what they thought of 18th century shoes, in terms of style, price, etc, and I got the impression that there was this massive hole in the market just waiting to be filled.
The hardest part was finding a manufacturer to work with. I got a lot of rejections and jumped through lots of hoops to find somebody who would even just do a sample, let alone a small run of 200, when most factories want orders of more like 1000 to 10,000 pairs. It was frustrating and I had given up on the whole idea a couple times, but it kept nagging at me, so I continued to search until I found a factory that would work with us.
In the end, when we'd gotten a sample that fitted the bill and were ready to try to sell it, we decided to test the market with a pre-order, with the idea that we needed to sell about 80 pairs to have the shoes made at all - and if we didn't make it to 80, we'd refund everyone and call it a day. Well, we sold 230 pairs by the end of the three-week pre-order period! From that moment on, despite all the crazy speed bumps and monumental hurdles that have thrown themselves in the way between then and now, Chris and I were officially in the shoe business. :-)
Historical costuming is a bit of a niche hobby. How did you know there would be enough of a market to sustain your business?
We didn't know, and sometimes I still get worried that it's not big enough, but the costuming community continually amazes me with how unbelievably large it is - worldwide! Initially, like I mentioned before, we tried a pre-order to test the market, to see if there were enough people interested. We still do the pre-orders for new styles: it gives people a chance to support what we're doing, and also get a nice discount, and it is a telltale sign to us if a style isn't popular. If it doesn't pre-order well, it won't sell very well when it comes into stock.
After you got your business started, did you encounter any big surprises?
Oh, where do I start? YES. A massive YES! Manufacturing is not as easy as it seems. We made so many mistakes and have been learning along the way, and while it feels like we understand everything now, I know there will be something else to come and give us a smack in the future, haha! The first major issue was that, after the first pre-order was so wonderfully successful, Paypal thought we were fraudsters and locked the account that contained all the money we needed to manufacture the shoes that everyone just ordered. We had to do most of it without any of that capital, which was only released after the shoes had physically arrived with customers. Then we had our first shipment burn up in the truck, on the way to the airport to be shipped to us. We had a huge issue with quality on one of our most important styles, Astoria, which meant that nobody's shoes would be arriving in time for the Titanic Centennial. We always try to do the right thing - be honest, accessible, and transparent with our customers when something like this happens - and somehow we've managed to keep going! Now we've got a lot of the kinks ironed out, and know how to avoid these things happening again, but issues still crop up - delays, for instance, and the occasional monsoon that keeps the planes grounded, haha.
Where do you see your business going in the future?
The goal is to expand the available styles to include at least one or two really nice shoes from every period from Elizabethan through 1940s. This year we have new 18th century stuff coming, but also (hopefully) new Regency styles, a 1930s oxford, a mid-Victorian slipper, possibly another boot, another Edwardian. We're also starting to carry more accessories, like the Angelus leather paints that you can customize your shoes with and I'll want to add new stocking styles, new 18th century buckles and perhaps some Victorian items too. :-)
Do you have a day job?
Nope! I'm happy to say that, because what I was doing before was incredibly draining and stressful, and I can finally be done with it! Chris and I both did freelance creative work for various clients until about last October. We couldn't rely on the shoes completely until recently.
Do you have a blogging schedule? If so, how do you stick to it?
In 2012 I set myself the New Year's Resolution of blogging every single day. I fell off the wagon a couple times, but for the most part I stuck to that schedule. Now I don't blog every day, but I try to blog at least three or four times a week. It's always important to have relevant content - something interesting - so if I'm not feeling it, I don't blog. But usually there's something on my mind that can be blogged about - haha, usually shoes, or current sewing projects.
Did you have to learn any new skills after starting your business?
Definitely. Looking back, it's amazing how much we DIDN'T know when we started. I started with a vague understanding of how a product is designed, sampled, and manufactured. I had been blogging and was active on Facebook, so I understood a bit about social media. My only very strong skill was design, both for product and for marketing materials like cards, posters, banners, etc.
Between the start and now, I've learned a considerable amount about overseas manufacturing, general business practices, taxes, how to deal with customers, PR and damage control, marketing, factory management, quality assurance management, warehousing, contracts, logistics and US customs, website design, shipping... the list goes on. Now we're learning to speak Chinese! You wear a lot of different hats when you and one other are running the whole show. Yesterday I was a marketer; designing new business cards, but the day before I was a warehouse worker; moving, packing, and shipping shoes to customers who have been waiting several months.
Can you tell me a bit about how your shoes are made? What is your design and production process like?
All of the designs for our shoes start, of course, with original examples. I look for very 'special' shoes in museum collections, shoes that are very typical of a period, but also have a 'WOW' factor to them. From there I'll ask the costuming community what it thinks, what it would like to see, what's needed, and that begins the decision-making process of what to do next and how best to do it, in terms of materials, overall look, etc.
Next I'll draw up a spec sheet - this is a detailed drawing of how the shoe is to be made. It will make note of any styling, materials for each part of the shoe, what heel and last is to be used, etc. That goes off to the sampling department at our factory, and we'll see a physical sample for the shoe some weeks later. They never get it 'right' the first time around so I'll make corrections and we'll usually do a second, and sometimes a third or fourth, sample until it's absolutely the best it can be. At that point, it's time to go to market. :-)
How do you decide what styles to make?
I touched on this a bit before, but initially I will look for and study up on shoes I think are real stunners, and very indicative of a particular period. At the same time, I'll ask my blog and Facebook followers what they think, and that never fails to bring back tons of great feedback. Usually there is a 'front-runner' - a style that a lot of people independently ask for - so I'll work on that one with the factory. It really is very democratic.
Can you give us a sneak peek or any hints about upcoming styles?
Well, we're hoping 2013 is a big year for new stuff. I've got more 18th century styles in the pipeline, but we're also expanding into Victorian and the early 20th century. I wish we could do all the styles for all the periods at once, but financing doesn't allow that so I have to try to bring the most demanded products first. Probably the most extravagant style we're working on is an 18th century mule with silver embroidery. We're sampling in pink as well as blue and they're just very Marie Antoinette - very frivolous and fun.
Do you have a dream costume?
Haha, that changes often! I suppose it's my someday-wedding-dress, my own version of the green late 18th c. redingote from the Marie Antoinette movie with Kirsten Dunst - the part where she's wistfully walking through the fields at the Petit Trianon, on her way back to Versailles. I have always loved that sequence, and that dress, from the film and that's what I want to wear for my someday-wedding. It's really simple, elegant, and a beautiful color. I'll have to have some of our 18th century shoes dyed to match, haha. :-)