Rebecca Schoneveld first learned how to sew at age four. The deft seamstress grew up making her own clothing, and after graduating from design school, she scored coveted gigs at companies like J.Crew and several private contemporary labels. Yet despite her early success, she was deeply unhappy. She felt stifled and paralyzed with corporate malaise.
“Most of us go into fashion because we love creating beautiful things,” she said. “The corporate garment industry has become so much about copying. There’s an utter lack of creativity. It’s mundane, and there’s a lack of integrity to it. Every time you want to try something new, there’s resistance. Everything is about making things cheap and as quick as possible. It’s very disheartening.”
A downtrodden Schoneveld eventually left the hallowed halls of corporate fashion and found a home in the quirky world of Etsy, the e-commerce site that has helped small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs find their footing since 2005. It racked up $2.84 billion in gross sales in 2016 alone. Today there are 1.8 million actives sellers selling more than 45 million items in nearly every country in the world.
Schoneveld’s Etsy shop has been marked as a favorite by users more than 7,000 times.
Finding the missing piece
Etsy was founded in 2005 as a peer-to-peer marketplace designed to help users sell handmade goods by creating their own digital storefronts on the site. While the Brooklyn-based company has developed a reputation as the destination for whimsical arts and crafts, it has also evolved into a place for aspiring designers to cut their teeth outside of the traditional fashion house rigamarole.
“I’ve seen many sellers come to Etsy who have years of experience from the fashion industry, and I’ve also seen makers who have no formal experience but want to leave their traditional nine-to-fives to follow their true passion of fashion design,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy‘s trend expert.
At its core, Etsy allows designers to experiment within a relatively risk-free environment they can operate from home. While Schoneveld experienced commercial success in 2006 with her first independent venture — a collection of maternity wear with wholesale partnerships at Nordstorm and Saks Fifth Avenue — the economy turned and showed her just how fickle the industry could be.
“I was on my way into a meeting with a prospective partner and financial backer, fresh off a redeye from L.A. I discovered he had just found out he lost half a million dollars from the Lehman Brothers crash,” she said.
Shortly after, the department stores stopped calling and business dried up. Schoneveld went back to the corporate fashion world to gather her bearings, and when she reemerged, she found Etsy to be a welcoming way to ease back into entrepreneurship.
“I learned so many hard lessons: It takes a lot of money to start a wholesale business. You have to have cash to make the inventory; there’s heavy financial risk involved before ever turning a profit,” she said.
Molly Shaheen, an Etsy designer with a line of leather fanny packs, also jump started her business with the help of Etsy, after leaving positions in production and buying at Theory and Ralph Lauren. Unlike Schoneveld, Shaheen didn’t have a traditional design background. She studied business as an undergraduate before joining the business side of fashion. However, after ten years in the industry, she was beginning to feel similarly creatively stifled.
She mulled over going back to school for design, but after spending a decade in the industry, her friends and now husband encouraged her to try it out for herself. Before long, she produced her first couple of designs and set up a personal website powered by Shopify, along with an Etsy site. Her products have since been featured on several episodes of “Broad City.”
Ilana Glazer (right) wearing a Molly Shaheen fanny pack on “Broad City.”
“The Etsy community is so vast, there are so many people there that I could never reach on my own,” Shaheen said. “People on Etsy are looking for unique things. As an Etsy shopper, I’m not going there for traditional items.”
However, many shoppers are indeed seeking out Etsy for more traditional items, including wedding dresses and bridal apparel (which is Schoneveld’s current speciality), and understated gold jewelry — as found at Kasia Wisniewski’s store, Collected Edition. Wisniewski also comes from a fashion background: She starting at Vera Wang and went on to J. Mendel, focusing on ready-to-wear and custom orders at both brands.
“In design school, it feels very much like a bubble, because everything’s conceptual and you’re stretching your creative muscles,” she said. “Working for a real company with outside influence lets you understand market trends, customer needs and how to work with a sales team to flesh out categories. It gives you that business training you don’t necessarily get.”
The Etsy Effect
For fashion entrepreneurs, Etsy provides access to a community of 30 million buyers browsing on an interface optimized for product discovery, an area in which fellow e-commerce juggernauts including Amazon and eBay are lacking. For Wisniewski, the ease of setting up a store and connecting with prospective consumers allowed her to focus on her design work, without getting bogged down in areas like advertising.
Etsy has placed a concerted effort on helping its sellers with marketing, with the help of its promoted listings tool and recent partnership with Google Shopping. As part of the program, Etsy will match the advertising spend of sellers who opt in for the first 30 days, and those sellers’ stores will show up in select Google searches.
“I would spend so much money on Facebook and Google ads and have minimal returns,” Shaheen said. “Terrible returns. Terrible. I would spend hours and hours trying to optimize and use the right keywords. But on Etsy, there’s a high return for the money I spend.”
Another draw for aspiring designers: Etsy helps designers glean insights from the community by providing an open line of communication between buyers and sellers. Designers can then use this feedback, largely shared in the comments section of the Etsy stores, to identify ways to strengthen and diversify their items. Johnson, Etsy ‘s trend expert, said Etsy also works to connect sellers with each other through Etsy Teams, which allows designers with similar interests or specialities to liaise and share best practices.
“I saw Etsy as a really wonderful place to do product testing,” Wisniewski said. “I was jumping into this not knowing what it was that people would be interested in, or what sort of price points people would accept or reject.”
A design on Wisniewski’s Etsy store, Collected Edition
Ultimately, Etsy helps emerging designers develop a customer base they can build on and maintain as they move into other ventures. Today, Schoneveld owns a brick-and-mortar shop, where she sells her bridal looks, while still operating her Etsy site. She said that, as her designs grew more advanced — and thus more expensive — she found that shoppers wanted a physical place to try on wedding dresses and provide insight on their custom apparel.
Regardless, Etsy is still a major focus for Schoneveld, and she is launching a forthcoming collection specifically for the Etsy community. “I’m still excited to have an Etsy platform. As it grows, we grow.”