When I realized that 2019 marked my 25th year as a fashion entrepreneur here in Toronto, I pulled out all my old photos and articles and took a trip down memory lane. Looking back, I can't believe all the things I've done and all the ups and downs my business has taken me through over the years!
As an entrepreneur, one thing you can definitely count on is constant change. Staying adaptable and doing what I love seems to have been - and continues to be - the key to making it all work. Not bad for a girl from Saskatoon who loved sewing her old clothes in high school and never even dared dream of a career in fashion!
If you're curious to read about my journey and get inspired in your own business, here it is!
1992: I graduated from Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal. I packed up and moved to Toronto, ready to launch a creative career, but with no idea how.
I didn't feel like I could get a "real job." I had no solid professional experience and no sense that I possessed any real skills that would apply in a corporate setting. I also dreaded the possibility that I would shrivel up and die in an office 9 to 5 kind of job.
Meanwhile, I worked part-time in restaurants, hung out with artists and other creatives, and tried to figure out a career path for myself.
Taking a silk-screen course hosted by the amazing Kingi Carpenter of Peach Berserk rekindled a high-school fantasy of owning a boutique and becoming a fashion designer for a living. Seeing her do it made me think that maybe entrepreneurship could be a viable path.
I started working part-time at Peach Berserk and making a line of shrinky-dink jewellery based on Kingi's designs to sell at her shop. And I soaked up everything there was to learn about business.
1994: Still waitressing part-time, I dabbled around in various courses, from jewellery-making to film production and others, looking for that thing I could really call my own.
I signed up for a machine-knitting course in the basement of Romni Wools, and that was it. Within 6 weeks, I'd launched my knitwear business, Fresh Baked Goods, and dubbed myself "Laura-Jean the Knitting Queen." I was on my way!
I started out selling my knits on consignment at Peach Berserk on Queen Street West, along with a handful of other local stores. Over the next two years, I expanded sales to local vendor events and eventually a big wholesale show in New York, The International Fashion Boutique Show.
1996: Along with Kingi, I co-hosted a TV show about entrepreneurship on TVO, called $tarting Up. On the show, we interviewed various business owners about how they run their operations, and it was an amazing experience!
I managed to get quite a bit of press in the early years by sending out regular press releases. I was featured on CityLine, Breakfast Television, CTV News, Toronto Sun, Flare Magazine, Toronto Star and more!
1998: I opened my first retail store, Fresh Baked Goods, on 274 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market. The store was rebranded to Fresh Collective around 2011 and continues to operate as a fashion boutique!
In the back of the store was a knitting studio, complete with noisy knitting machines and shelf after shelf of yarn balls. People could come in and buy sweaters off the rack or place custom orders, which my "Knitting Princesses" and I would knit it up especially for them!
These personalized "Laverne Sweaters" were a hit for years! Also, barely visible in the left corner is a very old black and white TV that we had on all day at the back of the store.
Jaclyn was my full-time Knitting Princess for several years. She remains a great friend to this day.
1999: My second retail store in Yorkville was called Peachy Fresh. It started out as a partnership with Kingi.
By then, Kingi and I had been doing a lot of things together: the One of a Kind Show, traveling trunk shows in Ottawa, and all sorts of other adventures! We had tons of fun, and our businesses aligned perfectly with each other - my sweaters went well with her kooky printed dresses and skirts.
After a little while, we found ourselves stretched thin trying to manage Peachy Fresh in addition to our other shops. It was then that the original "collective" concept was born.
The solution we came up with was to start renting commercial space out to other local designers (in a "rent-a-rack" fashion), and having them work one day per week in our shop. As more designers joined the collective, it became clear that our plan was working!
At one point in time, we had 7 different designers working shifts at Peachy Fresh, each day of the week. This allowed us to cover rent and enjoy the creative energy and workability of our new business model.
Some time in the early 2000s, Kingi and I went our separate ways and I took over the operations of Peachy Fresh.
2003: By this point in time, I had 2 reasonably successful fashion boutiques and the itch to open another. I found a space on Queen West to rent, and that was the official start of Fresh Collective!
Having zero experience with renovation work, I was completely under-prepared for the costs involved in setting up my new location.
Our opening party was PACKED!
In the beginning, our racks were pretty sparse, but we had a fun selection of clothes, bags and jewellery from various local designers.
Featured here are two designers that were with us at the start of our opening on Queen West. On the left is a designer named Laura, and on the right is the famous Janet T. Planet.
Designer Kari-Lyn Bianchi was with us in the early days of Fresh Collective on Queen West. She's still a jewellery designer to this day!
Our Queen West boutique picked up the "collective" concept that had made Peachy Fresh a success, ramping the original business model up several notches. A really awesome store with a ton of creative energy was the result.
The new collective was comprised of 14 designers, plus myself. Two designers worked together each day at the store, and an awesome family of creatives began to thrive!
I loved all the creative people involved in our new venture, and found myself fueled by the energy and sense of community. The phrase "teamwork makes the dream work" became my adopted motto, and has driven everything I've done since.
June 2003: I'd been seriously under-prepared for the renovation expenses and learning curve that came with operating 3 stores. I'd also partnered up with my now ex-husband in this early phase of building the business, with fantasies of it becoming a family-run operation that would let us build the dream together, side by side (we didn't end up making the greatest of teams, to say the least! Haha!).
To make matters worse, the SARS crisis was rampant in Toronto at the time, and a once-thriving tourist industry was coming to a crash. The World Health Organization was advising tourists avoid travel plans to Toronto, and they were listening. To put things plainly, the economy was shit. And then I came down with a case of appendicitis.
It took about 6 months to get back to myself again and to pull the business off the ledge of total bankruptcy, and the experience left me feeling like I'd never want to take big risks again. It kept me in a holding pattern in business for about 7 years!
2004: The 5-year lease for Peachy Fresh was up, and at the same time, Yorkville was undergoing some serious construction. I was thrilled to give up the lease and start focusing solely on my clothing line and 2 boutiques!
Business was hitting a much better stride and life felt good again.
2006: I had a baby! Dexter was born and now, in addition to my beloved dog companions hanging out with me in the store, I had a "store baby" on the days that I worked there. Most of my time was spent at home, busy with production and behind-the-scenes stuff, but one or two times per week, I worked at the boutique and often brought Little Dexy with me.
2007: My mom passed away, which was devastating. To make matters worse, as soon as I got back to Toronto from her funeral, I was audited. Mistakes in the way I'd been collecting tax files left me owing a few thousand dollars to the CRA. Not a huge deal, but it definitely lit a fire under my ass and forced me to get more serious about running my enterprise properly and responsibly.
I incorporated my business, started applying the principles from The E-myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber, built an operating manual and wrote up proper contracts for my employees and the designers we worked with. It was really starting to feel like I was gaining control of things now.
Here's me meeting Michael E. Gerber! We sat and talked about Fresh Collective, and I nearly had a heart attack being in the presence of my business idol!
2009: I partnered with Annie Chan at Rowanwood Daycare. This was a big move towards feeling like a "real entrepreneur," and I was super excited. It also marked the start of a couple of stressful years with a whole lot more responsibility on my plate, but I learned and grew and somehow made it all work.
Fresh Collective was keeping up its reputation as a favourite boutique in Toronto, and things were hitting a nice groove!
Around this time, Jane Haselgrove came on as a new employee. At first I wasn't sure what to make of this 4'11" 20-something cutie who'd joined as an entry-level production assistant, but one thing stuck out: in her job interview, she'd told me she had a real "passion for fashion," and would love to help make a business like mine work!
On her first day, I asked Jane to grade a T-shirt pattern, and I've often joked that this was the last thing I ever asked her to do. She simply set out from there, seeing what needed doing and doing it.
In her spare time, Jane read The E-myth Revisited and took on making things flow seamlessly, moving from job to job in the company, creating systems and order, taking responsibility and generally being amazing.
2011: Around this time, we rebranded the Kensington boutique to Fresh Collective and opened up another location on Roncesvalles Avenue.
The space at Roncesvalles, before we started setting up.
Ironing Fresh Baked Goods dresses to get ready for opening day!
Once again, it took about 6 weeks from the day we signed our new lease to the day we opened up for business.
I should mention that coaching others was something I started informally, way back as early as 2003. As I recruited designers for the rent-a-rack collective concept back in the beginning, I quickly saw the flaw in the model: designers would leave if they didn't sell enough!
As much as this model protected me from being on the hook for all the overhead expenses, I wanted people to succeed and stay in the business so we could grow together and attract more clients. I wanted to build strong relationships and connections.
Right away, I started mentoring and coaching. Over the years I hosted monthly meetings I called "Fresh Collective University," to help designers learn the business side of things: branding, marketing, pricing models, etc.
I also met with designers individually for what I called "Business Boost" meetings, where I would coach them, working on strategy to develop their business and succeed. I found I really loved this part of running Fresh Collective. At the back of my mind, the idea of becoming some sort of business coach just wouldn't go away.
I'd visit local craft shows, meet designers and distribute this brochure (image above) to let designers know the opportunities we offered.
2012: A roller-coaster of a year. Our sales performance that spring was so good that I thought, This is it! I've figured out how to do business and thrive!
But I hadn't.
I went overboard with new growth investments, including tons of new products, and renting out both a studio and office space. While it was great to have finally moved the business out of the house, by autumn, sales were below our goals and I was heading for disaster.
A fateful day in October 2012 had me looking at my bank account, with just 18 cents left, and realizing I was fucked.
Luckily, Jane and I had just completed the Landmark Forum two weeks prior, so we returned to work re-energized and feeling that anything was possible. Despite the pending sense of doom, we were ready to unfuck my business and set out to do it together.
I knew my weak leadership was the first thing that had gotten me into this mess, so I had to make some tough choices and follow through on them. We shut down the production of my own clothing line, subleased the extra spaces I'd rented, and started moving our new streamlined office back into the house.
2013: With the production part of the business now gone, we were able to focus on making the retail end of things work much better. Whew!
I also started getting out into the world more and working on my personal brand as an entrepreneur.
I joined the board of Fashion Group International and ended up volunteering with this amazing organization for 4 years.
I met so many of the fashion greats through FGI, and it was a truly incredible experience working alongside awesome, inspiring people.
One magic evening, I met both of my idols: Arlene Dickinson and Jeanne Beker!
Around this time, we also struck up against the limitations of our collective rent-a-rack concept, and having designers work in the store.
There was inconsistency in everything from customer service to product selection and quality, and I was spending a lot of my time and energy finding new designers and getting them on board. We started to phase out the old model and hired store managers and staff (who we call "Style Coaches") to run the stores instead.
All through these years, we re-structured every area of the business, tightening up our hiring procedures so we could get the best of the best working for us and staying on.
We dedicated more focus on which fashion labels to carry, ensuring that the quality was excellent, the styles were what our customers wanted, and the mix was exciting.
We worked on our business culture, hosting various events, partnering with local women for marketing opportunities through our Ambassadors Campaign, and later our Role Models Campaign.
You can find out more about FCRoleModels HERE!
We also worked with The Art of Fashion several times over the years, with various fashion competitions designed to help emerging designers launch and understand the business of fashion. One example of such project was the #MustHave16 Summer Dress Competition.
2016: One day, purely on a whim, I decided to set up a website as a coach and announce it on social media. I started running some workshops and getting clients.
More and more, Fresh Collective was operating under Jane's leadership. I was feeling confident that eventually I'd be able to remove myself entirely from that business and shift my own career into other areas.
At the same time, we were noticing a decline in our Queen West store's sales. For 13 years it had been our most successful location, but something had changed in the neighbourhood quite quickly. The demographic was different, and our sales were down, while our rent and expenses kept going up.
As much as I didn't want to, we decided we'd either have to move or close down the Queen West boutique. Scouting various areas in town led us to the Beaches, and in January 2017, we re-opened in this new location.
We kicked things off by featuring lots of local women from the Beaches area in our super popular Style Profiles. This was a great way to introduce ourselves to the neighbourhood, online and off!
2017: I treated this year as a foundation for developing my new coaching business, working to figure out an effective business model and how it might work for me. I wasn't sure how much time I could squeeze in to promote and build this new side gig, but I was excited to try!
Jane and I also felt Fresh Collective was going well enough that it was time to re-launch an in-house brand. We started slowly with Palette by Laura-Jean, and now our line comprises about 30% of the sales at Fresh Collective.
This video is a very recent one, showing off one of our newest dresses, the Andrea Wrap Dress. Jane designs the samples in a small studio in the basement of the Beaches location. Together, we decide what tweaks need to be made before the design goes into production, and then send it off to a small factory in Scarborough.
It takes about 6-8 weeks from the conceptual phase to getting a garment on the rack, and it feels really great to have come full circle and a clothing line up and running again!
Looking back on everything, I realize how hard I worked all these years. I was always innovating and reinvesting.The one thing that's always been a constant is change. Adapting to the economy, as well as changes in the neighbourhood and demographics, the industry and my own life have all played huge roles in making it this far.
Community and team-building have also been crucial to my success. Jane has been - and continues to be - incredible! And she's just one of many people who've helped grow the business (there are honestly too many to name!). Tons of designers, employees and community members have contributed energy, work and ideas. So many amazing customers have shopped, spread the word and supported the business over the years! I couldn't have made this journey without them all.
When I think back to myself in Saskatoon in high school, sewing my own clothes and making jewellery, plastering my bedroom wall with pictures from fashion magazines and never dreaming I could actually have a career in fashion, I gotta say, things turned out pretty cool!