Get inside the minds behind Unsung Designers.
Behind the Scenes With…
by bridget eldridge
Before the Unsung Designers website debuted last July, indie fashion finds usually involved a trip to New York for craft fairs and young designers markets. But thanks to co-founders Alishia Frey and Grace Wang, who met while working for a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. and quit their jobs in 2005 to launch the website, hauties all over the world are reaping the benefits at the click of a mouse.
In addition to their growing online following, Unsung is also drawing crowds to their Washington D.C. showroom, which is now open every Saturday from 12-6 pm. In April, Grace and Alishia hosted their first trunk show with local designers Barefoot Czarina and Oovoo.
Unsung Designers has had such tremendous success in only a year, how did you come up with the idea?
Alishia: We would take trips to New York and shop at places like The Market and people on the Metro would stop us and ask, “Where did you get that?”
Grace: We had been customers of many of our designers for years and years, and had developed personal relationships with them. So when we began our research, we asked them, “What do you need? Where have you been burned?” Some said they were too shy; others hated talking about themselves; and some just hated selling.
Unsungdesigners.com is like an online version of New York’s designer fairs-which we love-and that’s really exciting for your customers and designers.
Grace: Our customers are essentially getting couture, beautiful handmade garments that are affordable.
Alishia: Trunk shows are a lot of fun; they’re like the opening of a fine artist’s exhibit at an art gallery where designers and customers can meet. But it can be really de-motivating for designers to sit at a fair all day when they would rather be at home sewing. So we handle all the tedious retail stuff.
We’re so excited that your showroom in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. is now open EVERY Saturday. Did you always plan on opening a showroom in D.C.?
Grace: We always thought that we’d open a store years down the road. We found a space to be an office and hold inventory, but it’s also become a store. One girl told us that she came by on a weekday with her mother and nothing was going on…we’re located in an alley…she was calling us the “Mythical Store in the Alley.”
Alishia: When we started we thought it was going to be purely online, but people were banging on the steel door even though they couldn’t see inside. It’s fun.
Alishia has experience managing an art gallery. How have you brought that sensibility into Unsung?
Grace: The objective is to promote indie and young designers. We are heavily invested in our designers as artists and have a close sharing relationship with all of them.
Alishia: Some Web sites and boutiques will carry the designers one season and drop them the next if their stuff doesn’t do well. But we don’t think of our designers as some kind of commodity. They are artists and we want to help them grow-build their brand identity and build their following.
Tell us about fashion in D.C.
Alishia: D.C. is very a transient city. There are a lot of Euros-a lot of really cool French women-that are here because of the state department and the World Bank. We also get a lot of people that lived in New York and have cycled back to D.C.
Grace: D.C. is a very transient, political, white-collar city, but it also has a great indie music scene. Early punk grew out of here in the 70s and early 80s. Growing up I would go to shows at the 9:30 Club. There’s a big underground culture here that’s not seen that much because it’s such a driving city. Our customers are everyone from the pierced and tattooed to the corporate lawyers.
Alishia: They’re mothers, grandmothers, rockers and preppies, but they’re all about individuality.
So how do you choose your designers?
Alishia: When we see a designer we want to know three things: Are the garments well made? What’s the designer’s point of view; is there a story throughout their designs? And we also want a mix of different styles, so we don’t want anything that’s too similar to something we already carry.
Buying gifts for guys can be really tough, so we’re really excited that we will soon be able to turn to Unsung since you’re launching a menswear section on the Web site soon. How did that come about?
Grace: There are always guys sitting on the pink Victorian couch in our showroom. When dcist wrote about our first trunk show in April, we got all these e-mails from guys telling us to carry mens stuff. One even said, “I have to shop at JC Penney! I’m not going to go until you start carrying mens clothes!”
Alishia: A lot of our designers make guys stuff. So one Saturday we set up a table in the corner with t-shirts and told all the boyfriends that came in to check out the guys section in the corner.
Grace: They’re so easy to sell to! They all know their size: “I’m a Large, I’ll take it!”
For those of us that don’t know a lot about indie culture and fashion, why shop indie? What’s the draw?
Alishia: In D.C., rising rent is driving small businesses and individuality out; mom and pop stores are becoming obsolete. Every big city is turning into “Generica America,” it’s like a mall on the street. It upsets me personally. The clothes are all the same, made in sweatshops and are overpriced. People don’t know there are other options. We’re going back to the basics-like organic food. A hundred years ago, everyone ate organic food. But you can buy quality, support artists and be unique.
Grace: You can be trendy or tattooed and you can still find something at Unsung. These designers are craftsmen and know the newest and latest trends-upcoming colors, patterns and textures. They’re not a corporation that did a research study. They know fashion at a personal level.
Just when we thought the interview was over, Grace asked us if we liked “Project Runway” (love!) and if we had we been to EMc2, Emmett McCarthy’s NoLita boutique, which was right around the corner. And that’s when we remembered that Unsung listed another season two alum among their designers: Kara Janx. While she may have already emerged onto the fashion scene, is she still working with Unsung?
Grace: Right now, she’s backordered something like 200 dresses, but hopefully in the future. It was interesting, last year we got an email from her saying that she was going to go away for awhile and then she turned up on “Project Runway.”