Elhoffer Design offers stunning geek-themed apparel for all shapes and sizes. Some pieces offer a more subtle nod to fandoms where others are a bit more blatant. The entire line is designed and manufactured in Los Angeles. Founder Catherine Elhoffer aims to create higher-end apparel for geeks that flatters the body and is stylish and chic.
Catherine was gracious enough to answer questions about her company and creative life.
1. How did you get started? How did the idea for making this a business come about?
I started my business after I was fired from a full-time job designing licensed apparel for a bigger company and I was tired of designing for other people’s companies. I had worked with several large licensed geek fashion companies, and while I loved what I was doing, I hated the notes and bad feedback that I’d get from people who weren’t geeks or didn’t ‘get’ a lot of the issues that larger women have when finding and fitting into apparel. I had been sewing for over a decade and was a costume designer in college and for six years after in Los Angeles, so I know how to design and make things. So I started my business by hand making bounding dresses that I’d always wanted to make but couldn’t at my jobs, and then grew an audience of people who liked what I was posting about and offering for sale. I then started taking commissions for other characters or fandoms, and then found a few pieces that customers kept requesting; those pieces I took to a local factory and started getting made in small runs. And that’s basically what I still do today, two years later.
2. When did you make the decision to leave the world of “standard” employment? Did you ease in while still working a traditional job?
I’ve only ever had one full time job before this company, and it was for my former employer WeLoveFine. Before that I worked freelance for Her Universe, and before that I worked as a freelance costume designer. When I started my company I was all in, so I wasn’t working for anyone but me (and my customers).
3. What is an average workday like for you? How many hours a day do you work on average?
Busy. I work probably 8-10 hours a day on my business. When I get up I check customer emails, check social media, and check on open orders. In the later morning I check in with my production manager at my knithouse on how things are progressing on new samples and on production. That’s when I find out whether I need to make runs to downtown Los Angeles to get any additional trims (buttons, zippers, labels, etc) or if I can spend the day in my studio working on new designs or prepping a convention or shipping orders. By the afternoon I might move to my sewing room to work on new styles or ideas or I’ll make a run to the post office or work on organizing stock. If I have a sample I have to take pictures of it and run costing on the style to see what I’d have to sell it for. I also have to constantly update a sales sheet to track product and reorders. I check emails again in the evening, and I’m on social media basically till I go to sleep.
4. How often do you exhibit at shows or fairs? What was the first show you did and how. did it go? (What was the aftermath in terms of how you moved forward?)
So I’m not super into the convention scene because there are so many and it’s so expensive and time consuming, and as a super small business I just don’t have the manpower needed to really spend time prepping for conventions. The very first show I did was Amazing Arizona Comic Con? I think that was the name. It was so horrible. Attendance to the con was so low, and I only had handmade pieces to sell. I think the first con I did with stock to sell was Comikaze/Los Angeles Comic Con. And that went great. Turns out I can’t go to shows with poor attendance. And I need stock to sell. Live and Learn!
5. What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Investing in the right designs is crucial. On those designs I also spend a lot of time working and tweaking the fit. Having a good fit across sizes is crucial to anyone doing apparel. You can’t have a piece that fits great on small sizes but then looks like a potato sack on larger sizes, that’s just laziness. So I work on getting my patterns to look good on all sizes; not exactly for every single body type but for as many as I can with a single style. I think the best thing I’ve ever spent money on is my Babylock Overlock Machine. That machine started my handmade business, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am now.
6. What plans do you have for expansion?
I want to be in more boutiques and work on growing my wholesale business. If you know of comic book shop owners or geeky boutiques who might be interested in carrying my designs, I’m always down to chat wholesale in emails! 🙂
7. What outsiders have been most important to your business success? (e.g., customers, suppliers, mentors, etc.)
I mean, customers are everything. My customers have grown my business like a grass roots movement by telling their friends, sharing pics in their purchases online so I can share them, passing out business cards of mine… without them I’d have nothing. I can make my own stuff if I really need to, but I need my customers in order to exist.
8. What has been your most effective marketing tactic or technique?
I’ve found sharing my process is very effective in reaching people and helping them understand the process. It helps them to see that it’s not a snap of my fingers and I have a design or product up. It takes time and work. But it also helps them feel engaged and valued, as I often ask their advice on a style or design. Or even what colors to make things. So it’s much more fun for everyone.
9. What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
Probably from my old boss who said that women didn’t want to spend more than $50 on a dress. That there really wasn’t an audience for higher end geek apparel. How wrong they were….
10. What three pieces of advice would you offer creative entrepreneurs starting out today?
You have to know how to make something on your own first, so if it’s clothing then you need to know how to make those clothes before going elsewhere. It’s going to get you so much further and keep you from getting trampled by factories or production managers who will think you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Be prepared to do a lot of boring paperwork. Setting up a business isn’t easy and can be incredibly terrifying, but you need to be an LLC or Scorp or something that will both protect you and help you grow safely. Pay sales taxes. Be safe.
If you have to borrow money to get your pieces made, try to do it in a way that won’t put you too badly in debt. I pass on a lot of that risk with pre-orders, so my customers are helping pay for my production runs. So I don’t need to borrow money to make things happen. But be careful. I know too many businesses that rely on outside funds to keep going, and that’s not really sustainable in the long run.
11. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently? What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
I probably wouldn’t be so afraid to move into the apparel/fashion world. I didn’t start doing this till my late 20’s, because I really wanted to be a film costume designer (and cause I hated and still hate modern fashion design, because women aren’t treated as actual people but rather canvases for designers to do as they please… which is just weird to me). I would’ve started sewing with spandex much sooner. And that would’ve helped me learn so much more so much faster.
12. What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Probably seeing a deposit from Think Geek direct deposited into my bank account. That was pretty freaking amazing.
13. What is your favorite thing about living this creative life?
The freedom. I can make what I want, within reason, and can really just do what makes me happy. I don’t have to report to a horrible boss or cry at my desk anymore.
14. What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?
Knowing that no one else is really doing what I do, so I have to keep pushing forward. No one is going to do what I do. So I have to keep going, because people love it and I’ve helped so many ladies feel better about their bodies.
15. Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
I don’t know if I can pick one. I guess Whosits and Whatsits. Tiff, who runs it, is a good friend and I just love talking with her about business and new ideas.