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organic lingerie designer Brook DeLorme on launching a business


You have no idea how incredibly excited and honored I am to have lined up some exceptional designers and tastemakers in the fashion world for my Fashion CEO: Made In America series launching, um... right now! You all know I'm one of those bloggers who hates to make the world revolve around me, quite an oxymoron, but such is life. My life. And while I think you little dreamers will find tons of value in my completely transparent diary of launching a fashion business, there is nothing more joyful to me than making connections with kindred spirits who have reached the level of success my humble soul can only aspire to achieve with my own brand. So let's kick this bad boy off with someone I utterly adore. Brook DeLorme, noted designer of organic fashion line produced in Portland, Maine Brook There, as well as small batch, cut-and-sewn in America men’s shirting brand Seawall, is on my list of top three girl crushes. Why? Well yes, she is a sustainable, local, and ethical fashion designer in one of the most progressive cities, but I knew nothing about her luxe lingerie pieces actually. I only knew her as a blogger who wrote the most transient inspirational words I've seen in the blogosphere since Empty Emptor. I never commented or made my presence and infatuation known, since infact, I was always in awe and didn't feel worthy of her virtual friendship. When I learned she is an insanely brilliant businesswoman of a nationally selling lingerie line, well damn, who better to kick off this series. Can I get an Amen. Let's do this!

Tell us a little bit about yourself!


I'm 35 year old woman, married to my love and business partner, and we both are parents to one cat (age 19, though she’s 120+ in cat years). I left both high school and Maine College of Art unfinished. You could say I'm defined as a creative, anti-authority, focused, slightly paranoid, autodidact, extremely introverted, INTJ designer among other things. You'll find me motivated by the creative process, learning, and satisfying endless curiosity all the while being interested in a variety of things like design, languages, pop social psychology, Middle East recent history, economics, and business startups.

The country seems a little dire from the perspective of young people these days. I’ve spent a decade creating my own jobs but the next girl will always think it’s impossible. How did you take a light bulb idea and make it happen in layman’s terms? 


Hehe.  I don’t particularly have light bulb ideas. Usually ideas show up as interests, and then take a whole bunch of refinement to make sense.  I’m not the type to whom ideas just show up fully formed. Sometimes paragraphs do, which I might write down on my blog, but all my projects and
business ideas usually take weeks or years of sifting to become clear. All that said: Daniel (my husband/ partner) and I both really like to do a lot of planning. The older we get, the better we’re getting at the process, no doubt because we’ve made so many mistakes.  That sounds cliché ☺

When I started Brook There, the idea was fairly undefined. The basic structure has stayed intact which encompasses organic fabrics, local production, and selling online, but the mechanics of the business have shifted hugely over the years. I’m a very experiential-learner, and this led to “trying out” many different ways of doing everything -- design, production, press, sales, etc – before really settling back into the original ideas about all of the above.  What have I learned from that?  I should have been a little more patient in developing the original idea.  

What has been your biggest challenge so far and the lessons you learned from them?


Patience, and finding the right people to work with. And inventory.

Patience: I tend to think that something should work right away, or it won’t work at all. This simply isn’t true (ok, perhaps it’s true with romantic relationships) – but more often, the tactics of a business take tweaking to get correct, and this can make it appear like a choice isn’t functioning- when in fact, it just needs another small adjustment to be perfect.

Finding the right people: being an introvert, and less than socially comfortable- finding the right people has always been a struggle for me. I lean heavily on Daniel in this regard- he’s much more comfortable in this area and finds it easy to spend the time socializing that’s often necessary.

Inventory: There are moments in our business life where I’ll have some realization of a business truism, and feel like I really would have benefited from an MBA. However, when I was in college I wasn’t interested in that part of school at all, and didn’t consider it.  And while it’s never too late to do something like that, I have quite a few other independent learning projects at the moment.  

The sum of this realization was, if we want to sell well online, we need to hold quite a bit more in inventory value at any point in time than we want to sell.  This is a more serious requirement when products are sized, as any retail-store owner will tell you.  Once the size range available gets broken, sales of the product drop off quickly. I’d had the refrain of “just in time manufacturing” stuck in my head as a buzz-phrase of the 90s and 00s, without really realizing what it meant.  It means holding as little inventory at any point in time as possible, without losing sales, but I’d never really thought about what amount of inventory was correct.  It sounds crazy stupid when I say it now. Now, we’re working up to hold about 1.5x our yearly sales goals in inventory, and we do constant production, usually releasing new product every week or two.


Launching in 2007 the eco-friendly sustainable trend wasn’t yet being tapped into. It was just a notion of the hippie 60s. What made you choose such a strong ethos for your brand right off the bat?


Maine has a history of back-to-the-landers, which is often conceptually linked to the organic/ sustainable movement.  I grew up around an iteration of that idea, and though my family wasn’t actually the off-the-grid sort, we always shopped at the health food store and looked for organic products, even before that certification really existed. My parents now both run organic vegetable farms. So, since I was the type who bought organic food and products anyway, it made sense to source organic fabrics.  Having a constriction on sources can be an asset when starting to design a brand, because too many choices can overwhelm creativity.

Why local?


We feel really lucky to be able to do this locally.  There are many regions of the country where this isn’t possible anymore, due to the extensive off-shoring of the 90s/00s. It is an economic ethical choice to work locally, but I still believe it’s easier too.  We see and talk with our sewing contractors every week or so during production.  


What is it about Portland?


Well, I was born here and have extensive family roots in the area.  I only lived someplace else for one year (Savannah, in my teens) and I was super homesick being away. Even though I don’t like the cold per se, I love living in a place with seasons and snow. Portland has grown up considerably in the past ten years.  When we were in college in the 2000-02 years it was not the hip scene it is now.  It hadn’t yet achieved its foodie-status, there were maybe two cool bars, and only one street with boutiques. Now, Portland has more bar/restaurants per capita than practically any place, an incredible food scene, a strong art scene, and a growing shopping district. Sometimes, being the anti-social type, I feign annoyance at the number of people from Brooklyn who have relocated to Portland in the past five years, but I know it’s good for the Maine economy, so I’m happy about it.  Daniel and I will probably end up moving down east, (which means north east on the coast of Maine) as we get older and the city grows.

Help us shatter the myth that producing a fashion line in America is not a death threat to actually making money and charging a reasonable price. How did you grow from a one-woman show to still having all items made in Maine while seeing profits?


Well.  Many people do not consider a pair of $32 underwear “reasonably priced.”  The myth is that the higher price comes from the organic fabric- but it doesn’t. Underwear is small but complicated, so fabric costs influence the retail price far less than labor costs. If we were producing these pieces in say, Peru-  still using fair trade or ethical manufacturing-  they’d probably be $16 retail, though the labor costs would be a much smaller portion of the price. With offshore production comes additional costs (shipping, customs) that get worked into the piece price. If we were producing in Bangladesh, using less-ethical manufacturing but the same fabrics, we’d probably be able to get the price down to $9 apiece retail. The reality is that most of America is too-price conscious- for valid reasons- to want to purchase American-made.  However, brands like ours have to focus on the small part of the market that really is interested in where their purchases come from and the greater economic reasons to support American manufacturing.


Organic cotton from America? Who knew! Supply and demand has been the tug on designers’ heart strings when trying to source domestic cotton. How do you feel about getting cotton here at home?


We are able to buy organic cotton milled in America, but aren’t always able to get fabric that has been grown here too.  When I started the business, there were more and better sources for organic cotton fabrics grown in the states than there seem to be now, unfortunately. We’re still too small to control our fabric sources from field to mill.  We’d have to be about 10x our current size to do that.  It’s a goal.


Take us through your day! What does 24 hours in your shoes look like?


Daniel and I have been working on having a more balanced lifestyle recently, so this is the new and improved version. 

7:30am
Wake up. Coffee & cream. Feed Max the cat. She only eats the best tuna money can buy.  We love that cat so much.

8am
Home-based low-impact isometric exercises.  (i.e., yoga.) breakfast (yogurt + homemade granola.)

9am  
Organizing, emails, plan for the day.  Writing.

10am 
At work.  Most days, Daniel and I don’t need to commute anywhere. My projects are split between computer/ web work and pattern-making/ production/ sample-making. We’ve been doing a huge push this year to develop systems so I am no-longer a step in the clothing production process, but it’s slow-going and requires a lot of extra effort on my part.  This month, I’m making new production patterns for most of the Brook There styles, and cutting for spring production. Next month, I’ll be working on design and samples for fall 15.

2pm
Lunch.  Usually rice and eggs and cheese.I’ve been a vegetarian since I was twelve, and for two years I ate raw vegan. I’ve learned I’m best on a high-fat and high-protein vegetarian diet – lots of dairy, oils, and eggs, no soy ever. Lots of rice and vegetables. I don’t really like fruit, but I’ve been trying to eat more of it. I love chocolate, but coffee is my absolute favorite consumable in existence.

7:30pm  
We usually wrap up the work day around 7 or 8, and Daniel cooks dinner. (I clean up.) Often during the last couple hours of the day I’ll be working through ideas for blog posts or video posts, and will start to jot those down or work on a video. We spend the evening talking about our businesses as well as new projects.  It’s a newish thing after a fairly intense summer, but we take weekends off completely.  Mostly, I sleep, read, and write, and we catch up on socializing.   

You chat a bit about social issues and consumerism. In the last few years, what are some of the hot topics that have really boiled your blood and wish would change?


Well, I really, really find GMO farming and business practices problematic.  Let’s just remove the whole is-the-technology-good-or-evil from the conversation, because, honestly, no one can prove that at this stage anyway. Just focus on the crop pollution issue and it becomes a personal freedom problem.  If a farmer really wants to grow organic, heirloom, or traditional seeds, they are faced with the responsibility of making sure their fields are nowhere near GMO-farmed fields.  It’s totally unfair.  I get mad just thinking about it. If I’d been another type of person- one who enjoyed talking to people and didn’t need to work with my hands to survive my mind, I would have become a lawyer and this might have been a cause dear-to-my-heart. But - and I try to remind myself this everyday- it’s important to focus on things that we love and are inspired by, not things we are infuriated by.


What was it like getting the very first boutique to carry your line?


It was awesome. It was actually a long time ago now- the brand Brook There was founded in 2007, but I started selling clothing I made in boutiques in Portland and Boston when I was 22 and in college.  It felt so good.

Honestly, browsing through your shop and knowing I can get organic locally made sexy lingerie for under 100 bucks makes me think what the hell do we need Victoria's Secret for? How do you compete or get eyes on what you do versus unethical chain conglomerates?


I think we just exist in different worlds.  People shop at VS because it’s convenient (present in basically every mall), extraordinarily cheap (5 thongs for $20?), and has a big selection.  We’re not aiming at the same things.  I want to grow Brook There, but there are things I’m not willing to compromise on.  So- we are building our brand-awareness through like-minded people- the world of blogs and independent writers (like you!) who care about product origins.

When you’re not rocking the world with your talented self, how do you kick back and relax?


So, I’m fascinated by languages and I’ve been studying Arabic for a little while now.  It puts my brain in an entirely different place and I love the process.  It has nothing to do with my work, so it’s pretty relaxing, and it’s a window into a different culture.  

Daniel and I love to drive down east to coastal rural Maine, to get away from the ‘big city’ (of Portland ;) We read a lot and he cooks frequently.  As I write this, all I can think is, wow, we have a really simple, kind of boring-sounding lifestyle.

How do you keep the superficiality of fashion on a low dial?


I used to worry about this more.  Being outside of a fashion center, I really don’t even experience it at all.  We are so deep onto the fashion-as-business side of things anyway…. Fast-fashion or high fashion barely registers. That said, I love high fashion as an art form.  

You are wickedly smart, funny, and insightful on your blog. Who are some of your fave bloggers and sources of inspiration?


That is so sweet! Thank you.
I love technology writers.  Paul Graham has amazing essays.
I think Penelope Trunk is really funny
When I want to relax, I read Language Log- it’s completely separate in topic matter from my work.
And I’ve loved reading your blog!  <-- Ed Note: Ah thanks!! Totally didn't pay you to say that!
Fashion: Coco Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan
Authors: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Stephen Pinker, Ayn Rand, Eckhart Tolle

What advice could you give to someone who is starting their own blog/product/start-up?


My advice is usually wrong and has changed dramatically over the years!  5 years ago I would have said something different than I’d say now. So maybe, “trust yourself.”

If you had a life mantra it would be:


This changes.  Frequently.  Right now, it’s “Stop being so emotional.” I wrote a long blog post about this here, but basically, it’s about prioritizing rationality over subjective and temporary feelings.

My favorite local haunt is:

Home. If not there, Fore Street Restaurant.

In five years I hope to:

  • have international distribution for our two brands (Brook There and Seawall)
  • be fluent in my two favorite second languages, Arabic and German
  • have some time to travel more
  • have written a book (in progress) – and to have been able to publish another one that I’ve been editing.  That second one is written by my Arabic teacher, about his life; I’m acting as editor.

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