How I got my start: Vicki Piippo & Calico’s Closet

The second brave soul to bare it all is Vicki Piippo who owns Calico Closet. Thanks Vicki, I think many will be inspired by your story. I need more entries! Only five more pending so join in too. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t creating something and then trying to sell it. I didn’t ever sit down and decide to start a children’s line. It evolved from way back.

In first grade, I started a craft club with my 2 friends. We all put in a quarter, made something crafty and re-sold it to our parents. I hand sewed my doll’s clothing and blankets. In high school I sewed all my clothing. I started with patterns, but never liked to read instructions and found it much more fun to recreate the patterns to make the styles I wanted to wear. In 9th grade Home-Ec my teacher screamed across the class room “you will never, ever learn to sew” because I didn’t want to use the seam ripper the way she wanted me too and because I wanted to make the shirt a dress. I was highly motivated to prove her wrong. Next year, my innovative teacher took us to the Goodwill to buy a garment to bring back and reinvent it. That was 1974 and I don’t think many people were doing that type of thing. I was always interested in fashion and creating clothing. But it never seemed a possibility to actually choose a career in apparel.

I got married, had 3 boys and stayed at home but always kept sewing of some sort going for money. I loved it when anyone would need a dress or outfit and want me to “just make something” and I could create something wonderful that fit them. Lots of bridesmaid dresses, prom dresses and formals. I made almost all my own children’s clothing, my husband’s shirts and my clothing. I would dream about the next wardrobe I was going to make for the boys. Everyone knows you could not buy cute boys things and I wanted them to look cute. They did.

In the mid 80’s we lived in Dallas. People love to dress their children in super cute, trendy clothing. Everyone kept telling me to sell my clothing and so Calico Closet was born. The first church bazaar I sold at, I sold everything made but two things. I did another bazaar, same thing. Then folks started coming to my house to buy things. I sewed racks of clothing for kids and also adults. Loose fitting jumpers with appliques for the ladies. I bought my fabrics wholesale from the warehouse district in Dallas. I would cut/sew and sell almost everything as fast as I made it. Then someone asked me to come to their house and they would invite their friends. In 3 hours I could sell as much as I did doing an all day show. I took orders too. So I added home shows.

Business grew faster than I could keep up. I had 2 preschoolers and a first grader. One day I just said no more. I sewed for my kids but no more for business for many, many years. We moved back to Washington state. I tried to sell the line here but locally people put their kids in tees and jeans. But that desire to sew and sell what I made would not go away. Someone said that American Girl clothing was a good seller. So I started sewing and selling doll clothing. All dolls, all sizes. Then ebay came along and I listed some dresses on there. No pictures, just the listing. They sold. I immersed myself in the doll business. I bought the shoes and accessories wholesale and sold them too. It was really fun to create these little mini dresses/outfits.

At the same time I discovered something else that I could sell. Garters. The kind brides wear and high school girls give the boys at prom and homecoming. I was looking at one that my son got from his date, it was cheap, shoddy and the girl spent $18 on it. Another business venture was born. My first “season” I sold 5 garters and 2 years later I sold 250. I created a whole business where the girls could pick colors, charms, ribbons, etc. They ordered from me over the phone, mail, e-mail and in person. It was crazy, fun and lucrative. But it was very seasonal and having 100’s of girls coming and going from my house was crazy. So I sold the business and used the money to pay for my website. Because while all this was going on, the doll clothes, shoes and garters…..I noticed that children’s clothing was selling on ebay. I could sell children’s clothing again! I started listing and set up a website. With the internet, no longer did I have to depend on my local customers. Many of my designs incorporated vintage linens. I love using vintage. I love funky, fun and bright colors.

I sold on ebay and my website. I mustered up enough courage one day to go into a local boutique that had just opened. She placed an order but more importantly gave me the courage to think about wholesale. Alyssa encouraged me for several years to try a trade show. She kept saying “you will never know until you try”.

I often had stores contact me and started adding a few stores. I kept selling on my website, ebay and loyal customers. I did a few holiday gift shows. My biggest reward? When someone tells me how much they love my designs. When they buy every single piece in a line and e-mail to tell me that their child will only wear my designs.

In August 2007 I decided to take the plunge and do the Atlanta AmericasMart children’s market in a temp. It was exciting, nerve wrenching and a huge learning experience. When I walked into the mart, I felt like I was a little girl again and living a dream. Here I was in the huge place, full of fashion, models and all the things in high school that I thought were so very cool. The show was hard, hard work and I loved every minute of it.

I got orders from five stores. I was interviewed for Earnshaw’s which led to many orders later on. Still, four of those stores later canceled their orders. Everyone said it was the slowest show so far. I tried to get a sales rep and that did not happen. I kept plugging along. I had an opportunity to go into a permanent showroom and took it. I flew out to Atlanta three times to show my line and added new stores each time and got reorders from the other stores. I had my son fly out once and he took orders. People like my designs, they buy them and they sell through in most of the stores. But that being said, it took me a long time to figure out how to price my things for wholesale. I learned you could be in a 100 stores and still not make a penny if you aren’t pricing your things right. Figuring that out was huge in change in how I created my Fall 08 line.

I’ve been through many sales reps and looking back this would be something I would definitely do different. I felt that a good sales rep could sell my line better and leave me to do what I enjoy. I believed that I would get into more stores with a rep. I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to sell and the cost to fly to the shows was mounting. My first rep told me she took orders and at the Dallas Market, but I found out later she didn’t even go. Bethany of Georgie World had this rep too. Second sales rep was a disaster. Third Dallas sales rep, paid her $600 and sent my Fall 08 and Spring 09 samples. She had a showroom and was a road rep. She wrote one order with a customer I sent to her. I asked her why the line wasn’t selling, what I could do, etc. She assured me that the line was great, but show was slow. But the thing is, I sent my 22 year old son to Atlanta in October 07 and he wrote orders. No sales experience, he flew out of a farm town from his Fraternity. They were all “good” customers too. So it tells me something is wrong if an experienced rep isn’t writing. From the beginning I asked about getting orders for immediates as 75% of the orders I write are for right now. She never got that concept. She still has all my samples, Fall and Spring, refusing to return them until she is paid for “all” the orders she wrote. That order isn’t supposed to ship until March delivery. I also had showroom manager steal my inventory in Atlanta. But from each of these things I have learned, grown and learned some more. I will have more confidence in my ability to sell, although I really still believe that a GOOD rep can and will do a better job.

So looking back I’m not sure exactly when I would say I knew I was in business as I have always done something here and there. But, I think I took it the most serious when I read Kathleen’s book (wish I would have read way sooner) and realized that I could not consider myself a professional just yet and had lots of room for improvement and then again when I read a book on COGS, that forced me to stop pricing my stuff willy-nilly and hoping I made money. I think that you really can’t say you are in business until you, the owner, takes it seriously by acting like a business person. For creative people, this can feel like you are asking us to learn a foreign language but is imperative to separating a part time hobby from a true business.

Connecting with other people in “the business” has been the biggest help. I have met so many people over the years that I can run ideas by, vent, share tips etc. The FI board has been invaluable. One of the things about being in business for yourself of any kind is that there are lots of books but really there isn’t a set guideline and a lot of the time we are winging it. Having a support system is a huge advantage. I pray, I pray that I will be doing the best thing I can with my talents and make good decisions. My husband, kids and family all have encouraged me, support me and cheer me on.

If I could do this all over again, I don’t know what I would do. Part of me wishes I would have gotten a safe “real” job and brought money in, went to work everyday and had a simple life. There are so many mistakes that I made along the way I would have to write 10 pages of them. But I did learn from each one. Hindsight is 20/20 so I would have spent less on glitzy ads, not paid big bucks to sales reps that stole my stuff, not bought fabric in abundance without orders (before I read THE book) and other things that ran up debt. Lean, go lean. Because if I didn’t owe money right now, I would feel I had more choices. My advice would be to find a fairy godmother to fund the whole thing, just kidding. Ten years ago my husband and I had a 15 year mortgage, no car payments, no credit card debt. Nothing. For 20 years we paid as we went, saved to buy cars, etc. We now have a different house with a 20 year mortgage and medical bills, college bills, LIFE! Then, I used cc to pay for everything and that was incredibly stupid.

To be honest, the last few months I have felt like a terrible failure and fake. I truly believed that if you worked hard, very hard and put your heart and soul into something it would happen eventually. People who are close to me tell me all the time how proud of me that they are….. why? I can’t imagine because if they knew how terrible my business was going they would not say that. They tell me that it takes courage to go out of the box and run your own business. Ha! No, I feel terribly stupid. December I started to realized that I didn’t know where to go, what direction and had no answers. It finally hit me one day that perhaps I am in a sinking ship and that I need to get out.

In the midst of all this my brother was diagnosed with acute leukemia in August. He is very ill and that weighs on my all the time. He lives in Montana and I’m making trips over there to visit. My husband has had recurring health problems from a heart attack a few years ago. I am usually am an optimistic person, taking things as they come; but this past year has felt like too much. I usually can figure things out, make decisions and take charge, but I find myself really stuck in December.

But with the New Year, I’m turning that leaf over. I have no idea where I am going but I do know that writing all this down has been good. Right now, my hardest challenge is figuring it all out. I have ongoing debt and so I don’t have the freedom to spend much time figuring it out. I am filling retail orders for now and hoping I can ship to wholesale stores; but maybe something else is in store for me. I’m looking at getting a “real” job, teaching sewing and waiting on the CPSIA rulings. I know what I love to do, but the big question is can I afford to keep doing what I love?

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  1. Valerie Burner says:

    Great story, Vicky! I do hope the new year will be a better one. As a fashion student in Atlanta, a friend and I went to The Mart hoping to get good deals on Christmas gifts. It was “closed”, but a few showrooms were open. One manager told us that once you give them your samples, you do not get them back. Another one had all their samples for sale. I wonder if that’s what happens to samples…

  2. Vicki…

    thanks for sharing your story! Ironically my path was Bratz doll clothing on ebay and then children’s custom boutique clothing. So glad you came over to Fashion-Incubator!

    Wishing only good things in 2009! Don’t give up–forge ahead!

    With friendship,

  3. Leslie Hanes says:

    Hi Vicky,
    I wish to much luck and success…sometimes they go together, despite whatever abilities we possess. I think we are all little girls dressing our barbies, even when we have been in the business for years. I consider myself self-taught, but your story reminded me of my real beginnings… In grade 8 I had an alcoholic sewing teacher. She made us make drindle (gathered) skirts. By the time I got to select my fabric, all that was left was brightly striped muliticolor denim. I was no Twiggy, so it was pretty scary to see. I skipped school the day of the fashion show. I guess that taught we that I could probably do better on my own!


  4. sarah says:

    That was wonderful to read. I have so much respect for you and have felt so many of the same things along a similar journey. Thank you for contributing that. I wrote my “how I got my start” the day Kathleen made the post but have resisted sending it because I am embarrassed by some of my willy nilly business practices. Your post gave me strength to send the email.

  5. colleen says:

    Hi Vicki,

    Thank you for your story. You have accomplished a lot! I like your web-site; the clothes are adorable. Are you still making all of them yourself?!

    Do you remember the title of the book you read on COGS (Cost of Goods Sold)? Was it helpful?

    Best of luck.

  6. Marialexandra says:

    Hi Vicki,
    I read your story and it was like reading my own. They might not be exactly the same in everything, but I think most of us in this business can see ourselves in a lot of what you wrote. Thank you for writing it. Don’t feel like a failure, failure is looking back at your life and just saying “what if” and “I would have…” and never even trying. Do you have a business plan and have you tried showing it to someone who might be interested in investing in your company? Its never too late to find that “fairy Godmother” you joke about, they aren’t easy to come by, but they do exist.
    I wish you the best of luck and prosperity and health to your loved ones.

  7. vicki says:

    Colleen, I picked it up used at Hastings, Costing for Profit by Frances Harder. There is another Fashion for profit, but this one was right there in front of me. For me it is simple, simple, simple and easy to put my numbers in. The FI forum has talked about too, but this worked for me.

    I was sending quite a bit of my stuff of to be sewn, but now am back to doing it all; not hard because there isn’t much to do until I get my stuff tested before I can ship.

    Yes, I have a business plan. I am currently reworking it due to the CPSIA law and figuring out a new plan.

  8. Tracy Christian says:

    Wow, this forum is unbelievably helpful. I’m starting a plus size clothing line and I’m trying to do everything EXACTLY as Kathleen has described. I’m relying on everyone else’s wisdom.

    When begining your businesses, did anyone else contact an attorney? I’m intimidated by all the legal mumbo jumbo California requires.

  9. vicki says:

    I use an attorney to read all the contracts and also advice my on the CPSIA law. Which would be another piece of advice, if you attorney gives you advice, take it! I”m not in California.

  10. Vanessa Simmons says:

    Great story you shared with us. And yes, you could always afford to do what you love. Nothing could stop that passion. Nothing.

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