Independent designers find opportunities, challenges as industry evolves

Charisa Slenker sold her first piece of jewelry when she was 15.

“I saw a little beading kit at Michaels, and I decided I’d want to do that,” Slenker said. “So I bought that and I started making earrings and I would take them to school with me and sell them to my friends and teachers.”

Today, she is a Columbia-based independent jewelry designer and the owner of an Etsy shop called “Charisa.”

She opened an account with Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, in 2009 when she was studying fashion at Columbia’s Stephens College. A few years later, she turned that account into an active online jewelry shop called Charisa to sell her handmade pieces.

“I really wanted to have one-of-a-kind pieces, and so I just started doing wire working and creating initials or words that mean something,” Slenker said. “I kind of fell into my niche.”

Missouri Business Alert produced this story in partnership with Columbia’s KBIA radio, and a version of the story aired during KBIA’s weekly Business Beat segment.

Even though Slenker still has full-time job that pays the bills, she has been putting more and more time into her brand. She does everything for Charisa, including sketching, designing and making jewelry, as well as creating her own logo, branding and packaging.

She utilizes social media to promote her shop and makes sure to share her listings not only on Etsy, but also on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr.

“Every day you have to do something, and you have to be creative with your marketing, too,” Slenker said. “It’s definitely about guerilla marketing and social networking, just being out there as many places as you can be out there.”

Slenker is one of many young, independent designers who are trying to make it on their own in the fashion industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the apparel manufacturing industry has declined by more than 80 percent over the past two decades. Many people point to the increase in mass retailers like Target, Zara and H&M, which offer cheap clothes and accessories made by foreign labor.

Monica McMurry, the dean of the Stephens College School of Design, says it’s hard for young designers to compete with these massive retailers.

“Independent designers or young, emerging designers can’t really afford those mass economies of scale that come with H&M and other fast fashion kind of outlets,” McMurry said.

Establishing online shops, like Slenker’s Etsy shop, can be a cheaper option for designers who are just starting out.

Courtney Cothren, who teaches fashion marketing at Stephens, says creating an online shop is a cheaper option for young, independent designers.

“If you can figure out a way to effectively sell online, you can reach to large audience, and you don’t have any overhead,” Cothren said. “However, (online retail is) so saturated that it’s really difficult to stand out.”

It’s not all bad news for independent designers. Cothren said that a growing number of consumers are becoming more socially conscious in their shopping and looking for unique items.

“I think that right now in fashion there is big push towards not buying cheap clothing, because people are finally starting to realize how wasteful it is,” Cothren said. She said that people are starting to realize “maybe when you purchase poor quality clothing, or clothing that is really cheap that’s made in different countries, maybe they are not paying your workers fairly or people making your clothes are not working in a great environment.”

It’s not always easy for consumers to find local boutiques and designers who produce the kind of high-quality goods they want.

Last spring, Ann Marie Brown and Gretchen Gannon of St. Louis founded BoutiqueNav, a website that helps promote local boutiques and designers. In March, BoutiqueNav launched a mobile app that helps people find boutiques in their area.

Brown thinks local shops serve their communities in ways big chains can’t. It’s better economically when local boutiques and designers stay in business, Brown said, because they provide jobs and often give back to local philanthropies.

Brown said BoutiqueNav is in the process of expanding its app to Columbia and Springfield, among other cities.

Slenker, meanwhile, is hoping to dedicate herself full-time to Charisa by January of next year. Eventually, she wants to sell clothes and home decor in addition to jewelry, turning Charisa into a lifestyle brand.

Slenker hopes that more people will buy from local designers. “It’s kind of investment in the community when someone buys locally,” Slenker said, “so if people are loyal to this kind of business that’s hopeful.”

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