Alyssa Bird, founder of Regenerous Designs shares the behind of scenes of becoming a sustainable fashion entrepreneur.
I had the pleasure to meet Alyssa through Factory45. Some of us were at the idea stage when we started, some already had flourishing businesses and Alyssa was one of them. I have always thought of accessories as a great way to enhance your wardrobe and look stylish, and she makes some of the nicest and most versatile accessories I have ever come across. She kindly agreed to spend some time chatting about how she got started and about some of the challenges of growing Regenerous Designs.
Thanks for chatting with us Alyssa! Let’s start with your background: how did you decide to become a designer?
Everyone that knew me in high school thought I would go to straight to design school after graduation because I used to make my own formal dresses, dance costumes, and many other things. However, I was a really shy kid and didn’t have the confidence to follow that path right away. I went to community college and got an associates degree while trying other options, but everything kept calling me back to design. By the time I decided to fully pursue it, I was an older student and more driven. I knew that's what I was meant to do and I was on a mission. In 2010, I graduated with a degree in Fashion Design from FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) and went on to a couple jobs in the industry before starting my own business.
How did you get the idea for your business?
When I was working at one of my previous jobs, I was the person that went to the contractors to get our samples made. That's where I got to see all the fabric wasted during the clothing development/production process. It’s ridiculous!! At certain places, the fabric remnants would be piled up at the side of the building until they had enough to fill up a dumpster for the city to take away. Seeing that gave me the idea to do something useful instead of it just becoming waste. To me, they were perfectly good small pieces of fabric. That company didn’t have a good use for it and didn’t really care, but I did!
At what point did you decide to move to the next level and actually start working on your own idea?
When I was let go from my second job I was in a limbo: I wondered “Should I go work at a company that supports practices that I really don’t agree with but gives me a stable job in the industry, or should I try to do something else”? I was looking to volunteer overseas but wanted to use the skills I had. Nothing ever came about that worked out for me at that time. I then got connected to the lady who inspired me to do what I am doing now. She was trying to help me find something overseas, but when I told her about my idea she encouraged me to pursue it instead of traveling. I was a little nervous because I felt like I wanted to have more business experience before jumping in. It was like throwing me in the water and learning how to swim along the way.
Well, I think your idea is genius…What do you think now after being a few years in business?
It has been fun. From the creative standpoint, I would have never expected the challenge that comes from the fact that I never know what kind of fabric I will get. The first time I went to collect the fabric I wasn’t even sure how to frame my request, so I just went and told them my idea. They were so nice and willing to work with me because I had a previous work relationship with them. So I just put the seats down of my hatchback and loaded it up with whatever could fit. Then I drove back to Arizona, moved in with my mom and started the business. I had no idea what was I going to make. I just knew that once I had the fabric I could figure it out from there.
It sounds kind of weird, but I felt that the fabric pieces guided me towards what they wanted to be made into. Certain fabrics can only do certain things. After trial and error – I have a whole bag of failed attempts – I came about to what I am doing now. It's fun working with these different pieces because they're in weird shapes. If I had bought fabric yardage I would never have cut them into those shapes. The challenge was to figure out how to work with what I was given. Because of that, the scarves come out as individual unique pieces – it’s like a puzzle trying to fit them together. The headbands are a lot easier because they're basically rectangles. I smooth the edges and use the cutoff parts for the smaller headbands, The Button Bands. Also, since I'm using scraps to start with and my whole idea was about minimizing waste, I try to use every piece I can, to minimize my own waste.
Your idea is a perfect win-win solution to an industry problem of too much waste.
I am actually doing a favor to the companies who supply me the fabric because otherwise, they would need to pay someone to take all their trash away. I try to make it very clear to my customers that I am not dump-diving or anything like that. I am just making the tiniest little dent in this issue, but I am hoping that this kind of practice will grow to become something bigger.
Do you know of any other companies that are doing the same thing?
I found a couple of other companies on Instagram, some of them are overseas. In Europe, they seem to have a better grasp than we do in the US. I came across a company that is aiming for zero waste: Tonle Designs. They use deadstock to start with but they try to use everything. They wove the fabric scraps into new fabric. Other than that, I don’t really know of any other companies that are using straight cutoffs like I am.
What is the difference between using deadstock and the fabric remnants?
What I use are the fabric pieces that remain after a pattern is cut out during clothing production. Deadstock is from the fabric suppliers. It's the leftover yardage they couldn't sell or if a company ordered too much yardage and didn’t end up using it all. That leftover fabric would be considered deadstock because it's just sitting around with no use anymore. When I was working at my previous jobs, sometimes I'd have to go find deadstock fabric to make our samples. The business I went to had piles and piles of fabric rolls. It's possible to find good stuff there, but you have to dig and it’s smaller amounts, that's why they only used them for samples.
And with those cutoffs, you are able to create truly unique products. I find your design for the headband amazing because the finished products are so comfortable and versatile.
I knew just using recycled material wasn’t going to be enough of a difference for me to stand out in the crowd, and sadly many people don’t care about the sustainability part of the business anyway. So, when I was thinking up ideas, I knew I needed to have a design that stood out on its own first. Then the eco-conscious side would just be a bonus. I think some of the design inspiration came from when I was a child and I used to braid friendship bracelets, now I do these braids on a larger scale.
The design is definitely unique and I get several compliments when wearing them. There are all sorts of headbands on the market, but yours stand out as being nice along with great quality.
Thank you!! That means a lot. It probably comes from me being a perfectionist and from the jobs I had in LA before starting my business. At my previous job, they were very particular about the quality. To the point that my boss would make me take things back to the contractor if, for example, a top stitch wasn’t completely straight. It seemed a little too harsh at the time, but I eventually understood. These higher end brands were being sold at department stores with very high-quality standards. So our standards had to be extremely high too. Going into production the manufacturing company would copy everything, so if something was off, they would just do it the same way. I learned from those experiences and wanted my brand to be at that level of quality too.
When my mom was growing up she made her own clothes and when I was around 12 she started teaching me how to sew. I learned through her that garments were valuable pieces. How did learning about the environmental consequences of fast fashion impact you?
Going to design school “ruined” shopping for me, in a good way. After that, I was a lot pickier when I went shopping because I knew how much work was involved in making one garment and how much they actually cost to make. I didn’t shop the same way I used to. As a teenager, I'd spend my money at cheap stores because that’s all I could afford. I probably bought a lot of things I didn't need or didn’t even wear more than a couple times. So learning about fast fashion was definitely a wake-up call for me to only want to spend my money on quality pieces that are going to last.
"...there have definitely been times when I needed other people’s help to keep me going. I couldn't have done it without the support of my amazing friends and family."
- Alyssa Bird of Regenerous Designs
Do you have a store, or do you have your inventory at home?
I share an office/warehouse workspace with my fiancé. This is where I make and store all my products. Before we were able to expand, all the boxes upon boxes of fabric were taking over the house. It's such a relief now to have space outside of our home, especially since I have an intern and an assistant working with me. It just feels more professional. This process has taken 3-4 years, and the majority of that was long-distance between Arizona and Arkansas, but we're finally getting there now that we're settled in Arkansas.
What are some of the challenges that you encounter?
Growing my audience is a challenge sometimes, and it is definitely something I need to work on. Even large social media audiences don’t necessarily translate into more sales. Sometimes it seems like you need to have a following in the tens of thousands for it to help you grow your business.
Are you able to sustain yourself with your business or do you have a side job?
Since I started Regenerous Designs I haven’t had an official side job. I promised myself it was ALL or nothing. I wasn't going to tempt myself with another job and lose focus. I do however teach sewing lessons on occasion and have done other odd jobs to get by with some side income. Pretty much everything that I make goes right back into the business. It's been really rough at times, but every time I thought about getting another job, I knew it just wouldn't work for me. I was the person doing EVERYTHING for the business from the branding to making each product to managing the marketing, finding crafts shows to participate in, arranging photo shoots, editing photos, keeping up with customer relations and so on... My little brain could only handle so much. Plus I was learning how to do most of this along the way, so things would take longer than they should've. I would like to say that it has sustained me the whole time and that everything is great, but there have definitely been times when I needed other people’s help to keep me going. I couldn't have done it without the support of my amazing friends and family.
What product were you selling for your first Kickstarter campaign?
I was selling The Button Bow bow ties, which I still have on my website. They are such a unique item that I learned I had to put all my efforts into promoting them and showing people how to use them if I wanted them to sell. The headbands are an easier sell because people already get how a headband works, these are just a step up from regular headbands. Right now I'm just saving the bows on the back burner in case I have more time down the road to dedicate to them.
What are your growth plans?
I would like to do another Kickstarter campaign in the near future. I did one about two years ago that was a success, but it would've been better to have all the knowledge I gained from the Factory 45 program. I like Kickstarter because it’s such a good way to launch a new product, get the word out and get a good amount of money for production, all at once. That way you don’t need to have a lot of inventory sitting to around to deliver immediately to the customer. I have a few ideas but haven't narrowed down the one that would be the best fit going forward.