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How An Ethical Clothing Brand Subsists in the Face of Fast Fashion
"If I’m building a brand I want it to have moral ground. So as much work as it is to do, I’m willing to do it because I know the brand I’m bringing forward is what I want it to be."
Welcome to The Leap, where women and nonbinary entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2% of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
Today, we chat with Vanessa Acosta, the founder of Wasi Clothing, a Los Angeles-based, Bolivian-American-owned ethical clothing brand. All of Wasi’s products are made-to-order, a departure from the fashion industry's increasingly fast-fashion model. Here, Acosta gets real about the reality of working in fashion as a woman of color, what it means to take the leap and then circle back, and what she hopes the future looks like for her one-woman-run slow-fashion brand.
Did you go to fashion school?
Yes, I went to FIDM in LA. I didn’t know this until later, but my grandfather was actually a fashion designer in Bolivia and used to design suits for the president, so it kind of just runs in my blood. I got out of college at 19 and immediately started working in the industry.
What were you doing before starting your company? Tell us about your career path before becoming an entrepreneur.
I was working at a company for about three years. My boss, the owner of the company, was great—like family to me. But the head designer of the design team was always criticizing me for taking too long to do things, when I was actually doing the job of, like, 30 people. I had a lot on my plate: I was working with printers, working with the sewers—I was the only Spanish-speaker on the team, so I was able to communicate with everybody in the warehouse—assisting on photoshoots, doing the lookbooks. I was doing so much and at the same time I was being treated horribly by the head designer.
At one point, I found out the other assistant designer, who had the same position as me—and started after me, but was white—was getting paid way more than me. I asked for two raises and she was still getting paid more than me. It pissed me off so much; I realized how Latinx people are treated in the fashion industry. In general, it can be such a mean-girl industry. Looking back, I, a Latina, was treated so drastically different compared to my white counterparts. I swallowed my pride and just let myself be treated this way. But I was so young; I didn’t know any better.
Still, because I was doing so many different things and the jobs of so many people, I was able to learn a lot, technically and production-wise. I learned every corner of how to produce everything, and that’s part of what helped me be comfortable and confident enough to eventually start my own thing.
Where did you first get the idea for Wasi Clothing? And what does the name signify?
It started while I was working for this previous company: The job felt so toxic and I was angry all the time so I wanted to create something for myself. I had gone to Bolivia and bought a bunch of textiles. I started sewing a lot more. I got a camera at the same time and started taking photos and posting them. People started to like my photography and eventually magazines started reaching out to me. That’s when I realized I had something.
My brand was previously called Paragon Desert, but I did a rebrand and changed it to Wasi last year. Wasi means home and family; it’s one of the words that I had asked my grandfather to translate for me from Quechua the last time I saw him before he passed away. My grandparents were the last ones to speak Quechua in my family; I thought it was important to keep some words in Quechua.
Wasi feels like home to me, and that’s what it literally means. I wanted everybody who shops Wasi to feel at home, to feel like a community and we’re all family. When I finally found the name, it just made sense.
What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
Looking back, I definitely would have done this differently. I didn’t have as much money saved as I thought I did. I was so crushed down in my previous company that I didn’t really place a lot of value in myself. I was charging low prices for my shoots and my clothing.
Financially, it was a hard transition because I was overworking myself and not getting paid nearly as much as I should have for the amount of work I was doing. After like a year, it came to a point where I had to raise my prices, stand my ground, and then I decided to also give myself time to rest. It was hard, but also a learning process.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net or a back-up plan?
I had a certain amount saved, but since I gave three weeks notice I also prepared and booked up the following month with photoshoots. [I was booked] every single day, and I was excited. I was good financially the first month, but I wasn’t charging a lot so the money didn’t go a long way.
I should have saved up more. I had a couple thousand dollars, but in Los Angeles, you never know when your rent is gonna go up or you’re going to have more bills.
You’re both a photographer and a clothing designer, and clearly have worn many different hats. You recently decided to make some changes to how you’re balancing these things. Can you talk about this?
I made things work for about two and a half years, doing freelance photography and other things on the side. Whenever I would get into a financial scare zone where I was like, ‘How am I going to make rent?’ I did promos or started doing other work, like graphic design and social media. I became a kind of one-stop-shop.
I realized that I needed to stop doing so much and just focus on one thing. I had to decide what to grow. Photography, or my clothing business? I picked Wasi and I’m happy with that choice—clothing design has always been my first love.
Recently, you went back to a full-time job after being a full-time entrepreneur for over two years. How has this transition been and what comes next?
I decided to go back to a full-time job so that I could focus on just Wasi. It’s an e-comm job; I build websites and do graphics. I can work remotely and meanwhile all of the money that I make I put directly into Wasi. Before, all of the money that I made was going directly back into the business, I wasn’t making any profit. Now, I’m making a profit and have a good extra cushion from my full-time job, so I can produce a lot more than I used to.
Back then, an order would come in and I would sew it and with that money I’d buy extra fabric for the next order. I had just enough money for my rent and maybe an extra couple hundred dollars. Now, I’m so much more financially stable. I hope to go back to Wasi full-time in the next year when I have more money saved up.
You’ve been bootstrapping Wasi since its inception, and you’re financing it through this new job that you’ve taken on. Looking ahead, what’s your plan to profitability—are you thinking of raising capital?
One of the things I’ve been working on this year is raising capital. I’m putting together some places to apply that specifically help POC businesses, like investors who solely support people of color. I’m in the beginning process of looking into that right now; I really do want investors but I’ve also seen success in crowdfunding, so I’m not sure if I want to do that quite yet. I have work to do before talking to investors, I want to get it right. But it’s gonna happen.
What’s it been like being a Latina entrepreneur? Have you faced any obstacles?
It’s definitely way more work. Being shot down time and time again as a woman of color and seeing white counterparts being so successful can be frustrating, especially since many white-owned LA-based brands I’m in the same circles as often want to seem inclusive but do the bare minimum when it comes to giving us space.
We’re constantly overworking ourselves trying to have people hear us. But people are starting to—I’ve noticed that in the responses I get on Wasi and through our sales. It’s great when I’m doing a sale on a very busy holiday weekend and people choose to support me.
It’s happening, slowly, but being a woman of color-owned business means you’re battling so much. Not only are you competing with your white counterparts who more easily get investors, or friends and family crowdfunding, but you’re also dealing with appropriation, so you’re having to look in every different direction and compete with all of these other amazing popular brands.
Still, Wasi is slow fashion, ethical, and a sustainable business that’s not shy about political issues, and I don’t think I could sleep at night if I didn’t do it that way. If I’m building a brand I want it to have moral ground. So as much work as it is to do, I’m willing to do it because I know the brand I’m bringing forward is what I want it to be.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
Right now it’s becoming clear that it can’t continue to be a one-woman-run business. I sew, cut, and source all of our pieces myself. I do it all, so the customer service end of things and social media is hard to manage. By the beginning of next year I’m probably going to have a new part-time employee to help me out with all of that stuff because it’s very hard to do this all on my own now.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
Just the amount of orders I have right now is my current biggest victory. I remember when I first started and I was getting like an order a month, which is pretty normal for a small business that’s just starting, but now I’m getting orders every day. Before I wasn’t able to do a sale because I was scared that if I did sales and discounts I’d be losing money, but now I’m able to do discounts and provide lower prices because of the amount of orders that come in. That’s the biggest victory; that Wasi is standing on its own and it’s successful and people are actually believing in it.
Given the struggles you’ve shared as a Latina founder, how do you stay grounded?
I do a lot of things, first off, my dogs are my saviors. Just coming home and seeing them and cuddling with them helps take the stress away. I also started doing yoga which is really great, I don’t know why it took me this long to discover yoga but that’s really helped.
Traveling and going away for a little bit has always been a go-to self care thing for me. If I’m feeling stressed or depressed, if there’s something that doesn’t feel right, being on the road has always helped me. Even just taking a road trip for the day helps immensely. I think being in the crazy city kind of drains you sometimes.
Also bath bombs. I do multiple things. Whatever works, it always changes but that’s some of what I've been doing lately.
What are some resources that have helped you on your entrepreneurial journey?
Before I quit my job I was listening to Ted Talks every day and some of the ones that really stuck to me were the ones about creativity and finding happiness—because I was not happy. They helped me discover where I needed to put my mindset in order to take the next step in building my business.
West Coast Craft’s diversity scholarship program has been great; they give six POC-owned businesses a booth for free. I don’t know any other craft fairs that do that for people of color. These fairs are mostly big companies that are white-owned and it was so refreshing and helpful that West Coast Craft offers booths for free so that POC-businesses don’t have to worry about putting down $800 to $1,000.
And collaborating with other small businesses has helped a lot. It’s allowed me to see what works for other people and what they’re doing differently. I’ll get together with a lot of other women-owned businesses and we’ll just talk and help each other out, it’s great. Community has really helped me.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
One thing that really popped out to me at a panel recently was a Latina founder said that it’s okay if you still have a full-time job while you’re building or running a business. Not a lot of people talk about that.
I think a lot of people like to think that we’re all just running our businesses full-time and that we’re so successful we don’t need an additional job, but that’s not always the case. That really helped me because I was feeling like shit that I started working again full-time. I felt bad and was wondering if that meant I had failed as a founder, or that my business was failing. But this founder’s business is really successful and she said that not a lot of people knew that for the first five years of the business she was still working full time. She would come home and work on orders and ship them out in the morning before work.
So that’s the one thing that I would tell people, because I think people feel ashamed if they’re still working another job while running their business. I don’t think enough people talk about the fact that it’s okay—especially if having that job means you’re able to sustain the business you love and are trying to grow.
But you need to accept rest. You deserve it—and it makes you better.