How I got my start: Sarah Manello & Menacing Pickle

Today’s entry is from one of our newest members Sarah Manello of Menacing Pickle Design. She’s been keeping everyone in the forum in stitches.

I always wanted to design costumes. From the moment I saw Grace Kelly in Rear Window I wanted into that world. I think a part of me wanted to be Grace Kelly, but my oompa loompa meets smurfette appearance would never allow that. The next best thing was to create beauty. I went to college declared as a costume design major. I carefully shopped around for the best school that would also offer me a liberal arts education so I would be well rounded. I found the first couple years of classes utter fluff. How to thread a sewing machine, how to use a color wheel, how to kiss faculty arse. Yeah, my shop hours were helpful. I had to learn how to thread 25 sewing machines before I could start any shift, later in life in many costume shops of varying quality this skill would come in handy as would learning how to manage unwilling student assistants, and accepting rejection without being defensive.

By this point I was finding myself falling asleep in costume stacks at night, too tired to go to my dorm. Then I lost feeling in my hands and feet and my face was swelling up horrible. Allergy to narcissistic directors? A sensitivity to the large egos that surrounded me? What is wrong with me?? I went from MD to MD only to discover I had a severe intestinal infection that had spread. Not having the money to drop out and retake the semester I continued my studies and underwent treatment at nearby hospitals for months during the time others bar hopped. The faculty at my college was intolerant even though I attended every class and rehearsal. Finally. the words that would form the basis for my life were spoken to me by my faculty adviser “I don’t want to be rude but there is no place in theater for sick people and there never will be. Do something easy, like aren’t you fluent in Sign Language? Go interpret for other sick people.” Note to self using the worlds “I don’t want to be rude” then following with an extremely offensive statement does not make you a decent person. It still makes you an intolerant jerk.

I thank him and the other horrible people that went out of their way to make my life difficult. Livid at their outward appearance of love and acceptance but the target of their personal hatred for anyone that wasn’t exactly like them I worked twice as hard as everyone else to succeed as a designer. I wondered; were they teaching because they couldn’t find jobs in their fields? It obviously wasn’t out of passion for the profession. If I couldn’t design, then what? This was all I ever wanted; I had to make this work. I continued with my studies and cross enrolled at a college across town that offered a flat patterning costume degree. The second college embraced me. I could go on for pages about how much I learned and what a change it was. It WAS hard, but not unfairly so. The faculty were professionals in the field who wanted to pass on this passion. But I also secretly learned one of the faculty there hid an illness and had accomplished more in his life than I ever could have dreamed. It opened the world I thought was closed to me.

Fast forward quite a few years where I had been working successfully as head of some costume construction shops and designer on various shows and small films. I was in charge of making sure all construction was executed for those items that would be made in house and that all appropriate rentals would occur. Then I worked with dressers and staff to coordinate the whole event together. I balanced books to make sure all was within budget as well. Really intricate sewing and fittings I did myself because it was more efficient. I traveled occasionally and did movie work as well. In my time off I battled the mysterious disease that had plagued me during college. I knew I did not have AIDS or cancer. Was there anything else? Maybe I was truly lazy as I had been accused of in college.

Through the years I would get calls and emails from directors, actors and crew I had worked with wondering if I could do special projects for them. Many were impressed by my sewing skills and wondered if I could make something for them or their children. I made some nice profits on the side doing this.

By 2001 I was so tired I couldn’t move some days. At this point I knew I had to make an immediate change in my lifestyle. I had left my post as costume supervisor at an opera and started slowing down on the number of films and plays I was accepting. And I hurt, everywhere. I also finally was diagnosed with an advanced case of Systemic Lupus. A disease I had never heard of nor understood. All I knew was my body was the enemy. I felt defeated but I would be damned if I would let the bigots I had contact with in my earlier life dictate what my future would hold. I couldn’t let them be right.

I also realized by this time there are A LOT of ways to make beautiful clothing. Not just on stage and film but everywhere. That all areas of economic status deserved nice things they could afford. I continued with my private customers and needed an additional way to pay my mounting medical bills. I wracked my brains thinking of facets of mankind that weren’t having their clothing needs met. And then there was Ebay and I heard the angels singing, it sounded more like Elvis’s Glory Glory, but I heard them.

Stuff was selling so fast I couldn’t make it quick enough. My paycheck doubled from what it had been as a costume designer. And, NO ACTORS TO DEAL WITH, yay! I started with fully lined corsets then the feedback from customers dictated interest in “special corsets” and matching panties (ooh, I get it now, Ok) So I began with that. Then I made plus size ones and really made some money. They had sequins and each was crazier than the one before it. I restructured once again. Where could I find a niche that wasn’t being met? Every couple weeks I would rotate through businesses with samples and a small catalog of what I could make. They would either buy things right off me or put in orders. So my two businesses continued. By day I made children’s custom clothing and by night I made anything you would pay me for. I could afford my ever rising medical costs. I was tired but happy I had a skill that was working out.

In 2003 the Lupus unfortunately attacked my pancreas. It was sudden and devastating. Unable to care for myself for some time I went on social security disability and watched the life I built dissolve. All the savings I had put away were now gone.

Finally after about two years a new drug came on the market and I emerged from bed. I began to rebuild. My list of wealthy clients had either aged out of children’s wear or couldn’t be located. I wanted private health insurance like Elvis wanted a bacon, banana sandwich. The immunosuppressants that were keeping me alive are thousands of dollars a month and not covered by medicare.

The solution came in a strange way. I could register with a business alliance for insurance as long as I was a business owner registered with the country clerk. Ok, that’s not hard. Need insurance now, pick business later. Done. And so “holy crap I’m poor and starving designs” was born. I picked a shorter title (Menacing Pickle) because that one was hard to fit on a label.

I love research so I decided after a great deal of it that children’s clothing was a familiar path for me, something people seem to consistently spend money on and wouldn’t require as many start up supplies as other lines would. I began making children’s clothing again. I drafted patterns based on standard measurement studies, then tested them on children I kidnapped from Wal-mart.

I began advertising by making coupons offering 50% off my regular price to “private customers.” Then I gave away jackets to everyone I could find having a baby and attached a pile of these coupons. Their “select” friends would get these coupons and feeling a sense of urgency purchase from me. I also left obnoxious pickle shaped coupons places where people would see them and be intrigued. The “secret sale codes” got a small viral word of mouth working for me. Jackets were selling. I had carefully priced my jackets at retail (allotting for a generous store cut ) so this left me room to discount before they made it to stores. Otherwise, where would I have discounted from? I find too many small businesses lessen their potential by selling too cheaply.

Even in the beginning when I was selling one jacket a month there were some things that were important to me. That I run this similarly to the way I ran a costume shop. I would keep great books and the highest level of professionalism. Any labeling laws that applied I utilized and voluntarily participated in many others. I only bought components like zippers if I was guaranteed they were safe against lead and other contaminants. I refrained from using cute add-ons that might be unsafe for children even if I saw others doing it or was asked to by customers. When someone bought an item from me I wanted them to feel it wasn’t a hobby, it was an investment in their child. If they came to me with a defect like their dog ripped a sleeve off I replaced it for free. This is the customer service I would want. Not a snatch and grab mentality. My prices are not discount retail, so the quality and customer service should reflect the difference.

Considering I now had a home full of labels and legal documents I began contacting stores. I took a huge risk and broke Kathleen’s cardinal rule giving away items to these stores. On the whole I agree with her philosophy, but being a self manufactured line offers me a little leeway. Only stores that showed interest but were on the fence got jackets on a “trial basis” for 30 days. With a contract. If at the end of that 30 days they were not sold I paid for return shipping as long as they were in sellable condition. Lucky me, they sold. Phew. They were hooked. They were experiencing money directly to their bottom line. The next contract wasn’t so giving. I have order minimums and payment requirements and reserve the right to audit the way they sell them. You pay me more I give you exclusivity, you cut my labels off I flaming bag of poo your store. There is give and take.

The idea that I was working with a limited ability to accept stores seemed to work as an advantage at times. The stores wanted money on a proven item so they wanted to be a part of it before someone else took their slot. My jackets take up such little rack space and people were asking for them!

My little secret was that I researched each store to death. I made it appear as if all my jackets would sell like hotcakes in any old place. But I know they won’t. I carefully researched local hobbies, school colors and other things that would help me build a psychologically appealing item. Since I make everything I had the advantage of changing what I was producing at will.

Sadly, the economy closed down some of my stores so I am now beginning my search again. I have also come to realize how many stores conduct horrible business practices that led to their demise. They lowered the prices of their items to the point they devalued all the items they carried. By lowering prices so much I think it made the customers feel they were being ripped off the rest of the time. They had no where else to go but close. I picked up one store during this financial depression and I insisted she try selling them at full price and not the deep discount she wanted to. As long as they pay wholesale I don’t care what they sell them for. I just make advisements and assure them I won’t undercut them on my website. While I saw other stores that were deep discounting selling the same number of items that full price stores were I knew I was right. She was even getting custom orders on top of her sales.

And once again all was well in the kingdom. Poor, but well. It was well in theory, when the economy had money they spent it on my items. When they start to get more money I will still be here waiting to sell them things. I still have a business so I can build my stores back up with the new year. I have so much room for change that I look forward to adjustments that will help my business practices. I am trying to be open to new practices and not hold fast to old ones out of habit. My website is very raw and could use a professional rebuild. I pay retail for some of my fabric, which is an embarrassment. So there is only up from here. I am terrified at being laughed at by other professionals rather than getting helpful criticism. My books are solid, I run an honest, tax paying business and I don’t owe anyone money. I can be chronically ill and do this without feeling like a leach on society. There is room for me here. There is room for all of us in this industry and we can help each other through resources like Fashion-Incubator. I hope I have passed on a level of professionalism to some others. When I meet with “home crafters” who sell items that aren’t properly labeled I give them a few of mine and show them how easy and cheaply they can adhere with these laws. That it is only themselves holding them back from professionalism. Not the location where your item is made or how many people hang it in their closet. And then there was Congress… and I wished I had invested in tums.

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  1. Valerie Burner says:

    Sarah, you are amazing! Not only that- you are hilarious! I love your story, and definitely look forward to hearing lots more from you. What an inspiration that was!

  2. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    That is an awesome story, Sarah! I’m happy you can do something even though you’re ill. When I had some flu-like thing for over a week, I had to stay in bed. It drove me crazy!

    I have done lots of costumes, mostly historical ones, but not for theater. I’ve taken a theater costume class and might have a chance to do some for a theater my brother- and sister-in-law are involved with, if all goes well. I love costumes!

  3. Thanks to both of you. I would like to thank my parents for all their support and fried foods for the maturity of my cellulite. Oh wait, wrong acceptance speech. I do want to thank you for liking my story and being here at fashion incubator to read it.

    Lisa, I hope you love the experience of being a costume designer for theater. If I can offer advice to help your experience along the way don’t be afraid to ask.

  4. Kate in England says:

    This is really fascinating, thank you for sharing. I’m currently (at 36) in my final year of a degree in bespoke tailoring and hoping to work as a costume maker (I have some experience already, but the options are few and far between here in the UK). I would love one day to branch out into some kind of individual-customer type business, so everything you wrote was so very interesting to me. And congratulations to you on both coping so well with your illness and continually reinventing yourself – I really admire your determination!

  5. Leslie Hanes says:

    Great story, and good to hear from you…you are an amazing woman. It’s easy to proper when things are booming…but it’s those who create their own reality that do well when things look bleak. I think you’ll do just fine.


  6. Tarnya Cook says:

    Your an amazing story writer Sarah, you have a real way with words.
    And an inspiration that anything is achievable despite the odds!!

  7. Tarnya- just as an fyi, I really can’t take credit for having a “way with words.” It was Kathleen who did the real work in editing and giving me a voice and punctuation. Without her help I truly am just a pouch of scrabble letters.

  8. It’s the pickling spices. They help with preserving me and I use Oil of Olay. Oh wait, you said persevering. Thank you :-) I would love to inspire others in my boat to do the same.

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