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Female fashion business owners talk D.C. retail, industry

Wednesday - 3/12/2014, 11:55am  ET

WASHINGTON -- On March 13, Think Local First will host an ‘unplugged' discussion from 8 to 10 a.m. at Ulysses Room in Northwest. The event will profile three women who have helped grow D.C.'s fashion scene. They will talk about what they've learned over the years with their small businesses and how the retail landscape of Washington continues to change.

WTOP spoke with two of the women, Virginia Arrisueño of DeNada Designs and Lori Parkerson of Redeem, to get their take on fashion and business in the District.

What are you currently seeing in D.C.'s fashion and retail environment?

Lori: We've been plugging away for eight years, and definitely I feel like the retail environment is evolving. It's definitely shifting, but I just feel like there's not a lot of small, independent … There are a lot of chains that have been coming [to D.C.], so that's encouraging because we're getting things like Billy Reid and All Saints and these cool, smaller designers that have kind of become their own storefronts, which is really cool, but they're part of a bigger chain.

So while we're evolving in that sense, I feel like a lot of independents are going away, unfortunately.

How can we encourage the growth of these smaller, local boutique stores and businesses

Lori: There are two things that come to mind. You know, to do something like this … you really have to be passionate about what you're doing because there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And D.C. just hasn't been known to draw people who are super interested in fashion because there isn't that big of a scene here; that's not what we're about … Unfortunately a lot of creative people who have passions like Virginia and I do, tend to leave the city to go to New York because it's close, or maybe L.A., so I feel like there needs to be something here to incentivize those people to contribute to the city.

The second thing would be the rents … It's hard to be a retail store, to be a small business owner, with the way the rents have been driven up.

What are some incentives that would get creative people to come to, and stay in, D.C.?

Lori: How do we grow the fashion industry here to get people interested in fashion to come here -- the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce has done incubators where maybe they give way-reduced studio rents for designers to do design or production.

It would be great to have some production facilities here. The U.S., in general, is just getting back on that wagon where everyone's getting excited and focusing more on U.S.-made. D.C.-made would be great … maybe try to grow technical schools around fashion production.

For actual retailers, it's really about the rents. For me on 14th Street, it's been great, but in the end, a lot of people have been priced out because you're getting the high rents but at the same time, not getting the daytime foot traffic because there isn't the diversity that's driving daytime, weekday business on 14th Street, that say Georgetown gets.

It would be great to have city planners who have a wider vision for the development that's going on in the city so that it's not just these wonderful restaurants that are coming out, but helping to grow the neighborhoods in ways that are more balanced.

Virginia, as a designer, what has made you stick around D.C. and not leave for New York or L.A.?

Virginia: I have noticed a lot [of people] have picked up and moved to L.A. and New York because they feel like there are more opportunities … The No. 1 reason why I stayed is obviously I love D.C., but family is a huge part in my life. I have a 2- year-old, I have my husband who is very much involved in the arts, and so, I can't just say, ‘Let's go pick up and go to New York or L.A. … That being said, I do still love D.C. and I have seen the city evolve.

When I started out my business, the fashion scene was there, but it wasn't as evolved as it is now. Before, I remember the shopping district used to primarily be Georgetown and Dupont, and there's nothing wrong with that. But now it's spreading … it's growing, and that's what's kind of exciting. I love the fact also, being a smaller designer, it's easier for me to make a name for my business.

What is some advice you have for others looking to start a fashion business in D.C.?

Lori: It's great to be a small business owner in D.C. because people reach out … and I always say, be super passionate about what you're doing because that's what's going to drive your energy to keep it up during the ups and downs. Have a solid business plan -- you have to know what you're doing, have a financial plan and have working capital.

Virginia: As a designer, if you are experimenting or creating a new collection, you do have [some flexibility]. You can work another job to support yourself while developing your collection. It's one of the benefits from not opening a full-on store.

Once my business was walking on its own, then I was able to go and say, ‘I'm going to do this full-time.'

You really have to love what you do because starting a business takes a lot of sacrifice. There are tons of ups and tons of down moments. And unless you love what you do, it's going to feel overwhelming. And the next thing is: every designer has to be a business person, as well. Educate yourself.

Hear more about what Lori and Virginia have to say at Thursday's Locals Unplugged event. Information on registration is available on the Think Local First website.

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