If you have only dreamed of turning a beloved but unusual hobby into a business, take heart. Lauren Stowell was once in your shoes.
“My hobby is historical costuming. I like to sew and dress up,” says Stowell, who with like-minded folk belongs to local groups such as the Great Basin Costume Society and High Desert Steam, which holds its annual Steampunk Ball at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City.
In 2009, Stowell started American Duchess, a blog about her interest, and found the worldwide historical costuming community was bigger than she realized. And everyone in it had the same problem.
“We couldn’t find footwear,” she says. “We put all this effort into costuming and would wear shoes from Payless.”
So Stowell turned to the 500 or so fellow enthusiasts who read her blog at the time and asked them if she should venture into the shoe-making business. The response was overwhelming, so she started with her special interest, the 18th century, and designed a silk, dyeable, buckled pump reproduction she called the Georgiana. And the rest is, as they say, history.
American Duchess Co. now sells a line of 11 women’s shoes, patterned on footwear popular from the late 16th century (the Elizabethan-looking Stratford) to the Regency period in the 18th century, Victorian and Edwardian styles and up to the flapper era of the 1920s. This year, Stowell plans to add a new style every month, choosing designs based on feedback she gets from the now thousands of readers of her blog and her more than 11,000 Facebook friends.
“I find some shoes I think are needed, keep my ear to ground about what’s lacking and do polls,” says Stowell. “It’s as simple as that. I ask the people what they want and give it to them.”
The simple approach has landed the company a wide range of customers, from avid individual costumers such as Stowell to organized re-enactors who stage Civil War-era events to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the producer of “Black Sails,” an upcoming series on the Starz TV network.
And it works: American Duchess has grown 300 percent since its launch in April 2011.
That’s when Stowell, who runs the Reno-based business with her husband Chris, the company’s Web site designer, started taking pre-orders for the Georgiana. She found a factory in China where she could produce an order for as few as 200 shoes, but she needed to pre-sell at least 70 pairs of shoes priced at $80 a pair to pay for the manufacturing. She announced the Georgiana online at midnight and the next morning she had pre-orders, paid for through a PayPal link at her blog, for 230 pairs of shoes.
“It was flabbergasting,” says Stowell.
Her joy was soon dampened by PayPal, which flagged the account for review because too much money flowed in too quickly.
“PayPal froze the account and said we need to see you deliver product first,” says Stowell.
But Stowell needed the money to fund the manufacturing. In the end, PayPal forked over just enough cash for American Duchess to pay the factory and released the rest when the orders were fulfilled. The company quickly added an Authorize.net link to its online shopping cart to provide credit card authorization.
The biggest challenge, says Stowell, has been manufacturing. The company is on its third contractor in China, and satisfied, after hiring a third-party to monitor its production there. As a result, the company’s production failure rate has gone from as high as 50 percent in the very beginning to 5 percent now.
“They fix problems and don’t just put a bandage on it,” says Stowell. “Whenever anyone asks me about how to get into manufacturing I always say learn about quality control.”
Learning about shoes has been a lot more fun. She reads whatever she can find, buys time-period shoes on eBay if she can find them or researches online at sites such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where all kinds of historical shoes can be viewed in 360 degrees.
“I become a bit obsessive,” says Stowell. “I’m a geek.”
And she still writes frequently on her original blog, where recently she posted photos of the costumes she made for herself in 2013, and posts polls to determine what shoe style to introduce next.
“We’re a very, very social company, very community-based,” says Stowell. “I listen to what people ask me for and it seems to work.”